Photo by mikecpeck/FlickrCC
To get truly fresh coffee, as with any perishable food, you have to be attentive when choosing. A very important insight first articulated by Gordon Bowker is that all coffee companies claim that their coffee is fresh and of high quality. For some roasters, the claim is true, but beware. The real solution is less about being cynical than it is developing your own ability to discern the difference between freshness and its decline. Staleness is like obscenity. It's hard to define, but you know it when you experience it. And stale coffee is obscene.
An installer of packaging equipment told me of one roaster's idea of freshness--we'll call them Roaster X. He was installing a valve-bag packaging machine and asked for some fresh coffee to test it. The next morning he was perplexed, because the bags had not filled with carbon dioxide as it would from fresh coffee. When he asked when how "fresh" the coffee was, the reply was: "Very fresh. We roasted it about 10 days ago." Help!
Staleness is like obscenity. It's hard to define, but you know it when you experience it. And stale coffee is obscene.
Coffee is fresh when it comes from the roaster. The optimal distribution channels would have that coffee in your kitchen within a day or two. That first day will give the most flavor and aromatic pleasure. Even with careful storage, the flavors will slowly begin to deteriorate. Some who are able to take coffee home the day it is roasted rant about staleness starting very soon thereafter. Not everyone has this luxury.
Coffee goes from very fresh and highly aromatic with complex flavors intact to decline of flavors to flat to stale to rancid. As discussed in an earlier post, the rate of deterioration depends on temperature, time, and moisture. The higher the storage temperature and the longer the time at that temperature, the more that flavor and aromatics diminish--and moisture will accelerate the effects of both. Buy beans, buy small quantities, keep them cool, and keep them dry.
As a starting point for developing your own freshness detection skills, buy your next coffee while you still have a little left at home. When you get home with the fresh coffee, start by smelling the differences, especially after you grind it. Then brew a cup of each and taste them side-by-side. If you buy your coffee in a specialty shop or have it delivered from a roasting operation, the differences should smack you in the nose. If you've bought it in a valve bag from a supermarket, the differences may be less obvious.
The main thing is just pay attention. You will be rewarded in this life.