Coffee has its own Cain and Abel: siblings with opposed personalities sharing the same DNA. Aging is coffee's Abel—the positive, naturally occurring chemical and physical processes that, over time, optimize roasted coffee's aromas and flavors. An opposing process, staling, is coffee's Cain: negative (yet, still natural) changes to aroma and taste, bent on ruining aging's good and vital work—literally killing quality, if given the opportunity. Whether Cain wins comes down to how coffee is preserved after roasting.
The sermon stops here, its purpose to introduce a discussion about coffee packaging—a complex topic that raises lots of questions. The critical factor in coffee packaging is roasting—specifically, the chemical changes that occur during and after the roasting process. Understanding roasting dynamics creates the foundation to understand packaging, and the strengths and limitations of bags and cans. What's more, all bagging methods aren't created equal; same goes for canning. I'll sort out the specifics in a bit.
A green-hued coffee bean picked at the farm is a very different thing from its later, roasted self—what we picture as "coffee." Green coffee beans are essentially composed of water, minerals (mainly potassium), carbohydrates (sugars, mono/poly/olyglycerides), amino and chlorogenic acids, proteins, lipids (mainly triglycerides), caffeine, and a host of other substances like trigonelline, enzymes, and polyphenols—some in minor quantities, but still fundamental. Many of these team up during roasting to create aromas. Other kinds of aromas, called volatiles, with names like 3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine, are present in the raw beans themselves, in large amounts. I'll refrain from giving the full list.
When coffee is roasted, almost everything about it becomes something new. Small, hard, green, and barely aromatic raw beans become bigger, brown, fragile, and fully aromatic.
The wonderful, warming coffee aroma we know isn't present in these raw beans. It emerges through the magic of fire during the roasting process: through coffee's physical and chemical reactions to high temperatures. What takes place is known as the Maillard Reaction.
During any chemical reaction, nothing is destroyed or created, it is often said; rather, everything is transformed. When coffee is roasted, almost everything about it becomes something new. Small, hard, green, and barely aromatic raw beans become bigger, brown, fragile, and fully aromatic. Volatile and non-volatile aromas melt into one another, creating thousands of new aromas. And the process generates lots of carbon dioxide.
That carbon dioxide—up to 10 liters per kilo of coffee for dark-roasted coffee, owing to the long roasting time—naturally releases from the beans over a period of weeks after roasting, rapidly over the first few days, then more gradually over the remainder of what's called the degassing period.
Carbon dioxide is a friend of coffee: part of its Abel side, since it preserves and even enhances quality. Carbon dioxide that escapes from beans forms a barrier against coffee's biggest enemy, its main Cain: oxygen, and the oxidation process it fuels. Oxidation is part of staling, and it degrades quality by altering coffee's essential oils and aromatic components, ultimately creating a rancid taste akin to butter left out too long.
Other post-roasting, staling-promoting enemies of coffee include moisture, high temperature, and light. Moisture and heat do their dirty work quickly, accelerating oxidation and degradation of aromas. Light has a similar, albeit less aggressive effect.
As blood brothers, aging and staling are a part of the same process, with a complicated, delicate relationship. Right after roasting, for up to roughly five days, coffee beans contain too much carbon dioxide to be brewed properly. [Corby's note: When I was researching The Joy of Coffee, I found that three days past roasting was the ideal time to brew beans.] Its aromatic components are unstable. Preparing espresso with young and carbon dioxide-rich beans creates far too much crema (yes, too much of the silky foam isn't a good thing), because crema is primarily composed of carbon dioxide. Overly young coffee, as I call it, is less aromatic and less flavorful—under-developed, like a Polaroid picture before everything comes into focus. The taste strikes some as sour.
Conversely, beans not properly preserved or used too long after roasting lose too much carbon dioxide; in the process, too many volatile aromas escape. The result is degraded, weakened coffee in the cup.
All of which, finally, brings us to packaging, to bag vs. can. How best to ensure aging triumphs over staling? The answer is: It depends.
NEXT: How packaging and proper storage can extend coffee's shelf-life
Let's look at bags first. If your favorite coffee can be found in a supermarket or other kind of store, and isn't scooped as whole beans or ground fresh on-site, look for brands packed in bags with a one-way valve. They are common. You can spot the valve, which looks like a little round button, near the top of the bag. In addition to protecting contents from moisture and light, one-way-valve bags allow coffee to be packed soon after roasting, without forced degassing.
That's a good thing, because it means carbon dioxide remains present in the bag, pushing out oxygen to protect against oxidation and promote proper aging. The valve also allows small amounts of carbon dioxide to escape from unopened bags, protecting against the bag exploding during normal rises in atmospheric pressure. But the valve giveth and taketh away; escaping along with the carbon dioxide are those essential volatile aromas. Bottom line: You'll want to open one-way-valve bags within a few weeks of the roasting date.
But how to know the roasting date of non-store-roasted, bagged coffee? Forward-thinking roasters like Intelligentsia and some others have started to stamp the roasting date on bags. Otherwise, there is an unscientific approach that works pretty well: hold the bag with the valve close to your nose, squeeze gently and let a little gas escape. If the coffee is of a good age, you'll sense good, intense aromas. [Corby's note: But remember, those escaping aromas mean less in your cup! The problem, as Giorgio points out, is if the good aromas have already been lost, in which case you smell nothing, or whether the odor is frankly stale, in which case you shouldn't buy it.]
Try to use up the contents quickly—ideally, within a few days to a week—because of the ensuing rapid staling. The one-way valve fully opens the first time you open the bag, and serves no purpose afterwards.
Know that there will be some flavor and aroma loss. I don't recommend freezing coffee intended for espresso under any circumstances.
Non-valve bags are the norm for coffee packed fresh at your local roaster or café. [Corby's note: Though Starbucks and other large roasters used to, at least, ship bulk coffee in valve-lock bags.] They are a viable packaging option if the coffee going inside was freshly roasted three to five days beforehand, allowing for sufficient initial degassing. Maybe a day or two on the long side won't make a big difference, but more than that, and you'll experience a variety of issues, like the overabundant crema and taste flaws described earlier. I strongly recommend asking the barista or counterperson how recently your choice was roasted. If the person isn't sure, I'd recommend not buying. When you do buy, start using fresh-packed coffee right away—simply keeping the bag sealed doesn't stop the rapid degassing process—and finish it within a few days to a week.
If finishing a bag that quickly isn't in the cards, you can extend your coffee's life through refrigeration. The key is first transferring it to an airtight container, then making sure to bring it to room temperature before preparing, especially for espresso. [Corby's note: I don't think Giorgio's way! I never believe in refrigeration. Keep in an airtight bag at room temperature for five or so days, and that's it.] For longer-term preservation, you can put an open one-way valve bag or any non-valve bag in the freezer. Know that there will be some flavor and aroma loss. [Corby's note: a lot!] I don't recommend freezing coffee intended for espresso under any circumstances.
On to cans, where lots of confusion reigns. The most common canning process is vacuum packing, which does an excellent job protecting coffee from moisture, oxygen, and light—better than bagged coffee. You can store it for many months on the shelf, or in your pantry, before unsealing. But vacuum packing has one major flaw: The coffee must be completely degassed before packing, because there is no valve to let gas escape. Without degassing, vacuum-sealed cans are prone to expanding, or even exploding. The problem is that full degassing prior to canning causes immediate loss of very desirable, volatile aromas that come from coffee's natural aging process. So the tradeoff is clear: gain shelf life, lose some aroma and flavor.
The other major canning method, pressurization in a modified atmosphere, provides the best of both worlds: protection from staling-inducing elements while permitting proper aging though carefully calibrated degassing. Full disclosure: This method was invented in the 1930s by illy's founder, Francesco Illy, by chance as he was seeking the best way to transport his coffee from Trieste, Italy, to Switzerland. [Corby's note: And it's also Illy's opinion—its canning method best shows its own blend, as other companies' storage methods do, dictated by economy and technological prowess. And Illy has always been at the technological forefront.]
Left: coffee cells soon after roasting. Right: after pressurization.
This method puts newly roasted coffee in a rigid, sealed can with a special, one-way valve. As with vacuum packing, the air is drawn out. But a critical, extra step then occurs: the introduction of inert nitrogen gas, which pushes out any residual oxygen while increasing internal pressure, promoting proper aging from the start. As gas fills the can, the can's internal pressure increases, effectively slowing down future degassing.
During the initial 10 to 15 days, a strong aging effect takes place, improving the quality of the coffee. The high internal pressure spreads the natural oils around the coffee cells (see photo), creating a barrier whereby the volatiles normally forced out by escaping carbon dioxide remain trapped inside. The net effect is shelf stability for months, enabling long-distance transport with no quality loss.
Cain, Abel, and other biblical siblings aside, understanding coffee packaging can make your coffee a truly religious experience.