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How to Tell If Your Coffee Beans Have Gone Bad

A man pouring a cup of coffee at home.
Aleksandra Suzi/Shutterstock

Does coffee go bad? While coffee beans might not spoil as fast as the milk you put in your coffee, they do have a shelf life. Here’s how to tell if bad beans are the reason your morning cup of coffee tastes a little off.

We’ll delve into the difference between grinding beans fresh each morning versus buying pre-ground coffee beans and show you how to store coffee beans for top-notch quality and freshness.

After all, there’s not much point in trying to keep your coffee hot and fresh after you’ve brewed it if you’re starting with cruddy beans in the first place, right?

Do Coffee Beans Go Bad?

The answer is a bit complicated because while coffee can “go bad” and provide a less than stellar tasting experience, coffee doesn’t go bad in the same way that other food does. Yes, coffee beans definitely get stale and can taste rancid over time, but they are pretty much always safe to use and brew, as long as they are stored properly.

The best-by date stamped on the bag, or plastic bin signifies how long the beans will remain in peak quality. However, if you purchase high-quality coffee beans from a local coffee shop, you might find a difference in flavor within just a few short weeks.

Keep in mind; there is a difference between fresh flavor and safety. Your coffee beans will last a few short weeks before that really nice aromatic flavor fades away, but as long as your beans are stored in a dark, cool place, they will be safe to consume for months on end. They just won’t taste as good because all those delightful aromatic compounds that give coffee its rich and nuanced flavors have floated away into the ether.

You might be wondering how you can tell if your coffee is actually “bad” or not, given that freshly roasted beans and old beans are practically indiscernible from each other. Trust your senses. Fresh coffee beans have a rich smell. Depending on the variety and the roast, you should smell all sorts of notes like the general coffee fragrance and other scents like caramel or even slightly fruity undertones. Old coffee has a distinctly stale and flat smell that smells more like the burnt carbon side of the roasting equation and less like the wonderful coffee flavor side of things.

You’ll also be able to tell when you brew it. Stale coffee tastes very bitter and sour. If you take a sip and your immediate impulse is to cover up the flavor of the coffee with creamers, sugar, or anything to take away the sour bitterness, then your beans are well past their use-by-date.

How Long Do Coffee Beans Last?

A cup of espresso next to coffee beans spilling out of a bag with a wooden spoon that has plenty of beans.
diego1012/ Shutterstock

Unground coffee beans can last for several months without significant degredation of the flavor because the solid form of the bean locks a lot of the volatile aromatic compounds inside and protects the oils and such from oxidizing. However, if not stored properly, the quality and flavor will decrease more and more over time.

When coffee beans contact oxygen in the air, the delicate aroma components we all love start to degrade. Oxidation also affects the oils in your coffee beans, which leave them tasting bitter and unpleasant.

There are a few other reasons your coffee beans might not last as long as you’d like. Heat and light are two other components that speed up the degradation of those beans. Moisture is another enemy of coffee beans and can spoil your beans, making them unsafe.

You’ll note that in this section we’ve talked exclusively about beans and not pre-ground coffee. Let’s take a look at the differences between the two now.

Should I Purchase Coffee Beans or Ground Coffee?

Three coffee cups, one filled with coffee beans one filled with coffee and one with grounds.
JulijaDmitrijeva/ Shutterstock.com

Any coffee aficionado will tell you whole beans (that you’ll grind before use) purchased from a coffee shop or specialty roaster is your absolute best bet. If optimal flavor and quality freshness is your number one goal here, then that is completely true. Once you grind coffee you start an immediate (and rapid) countdown clock. While some people are fine with the tradeoff of flavor for convenience, when it comes to pre-ground coffee, the flavor profile between whole bean and pre-ground is night and day.

If you’ve been purchasing pre-ground coffee for decades, but you are looking for the quality of a cup you’d get from a coffee shop, then your answer is making the switch to whole beans.

When purchasing beans look for sealed bags with a little hole over a round valve in the side. Coffee beans will “outgas” after roasting and that little valve allows the gas to escape without pressurizing the bag while also keeping the outside air away from the beans.

Be sure to look out for the roast date, too. Anything older than a couple of weeks has already begun to degrade in terms of peak flavor potency. In a bind it’ll do fine, but the closer you can get to just-roasted the better off you are. If a bag doesn’t have a roast date on it, consider skipping it and opting for a coffee brand that is more upfront with the information.

How to Store Coffee Beans for Maximum Freshness

We all have that one designated space for coffee beans or ground coffee, and it’s probably in a convenient location near the coffee maker. But that might not be the ideal place to store your beans for maximum flavor. Here are there are a few rules to follow to keep those beans from getting stale.

  • Use an airtight container: Airtight containers are your best bet as they seal and keep air from getting in and provide a dark canister for your beans.
  • Avoid the heat: Keep your coffee away from the oven, toaster, or any appliance that often gives off any form of heat—store coffee beans in a cool and dry place like a pantry or cabinet.
  • Keep out of the light: While those glass jars look really pretty, letting direct light hit your beans is no good. Light exposure will break down all the yummy aromatic compounds in your coffee before you get to enjoy them.
  • Don’t store in the fridge: While the fridge is often recommended for keeping foods fresh longer, coffee beans aren’t one of those. Putting coffee in and out of the fridge every day will cause moisture to condense on the beans and lead to flavor and safety issues.
  • Don’t store coffee in the freezer: The same rules apply to the freezer because the temperature differential is even higher than the fridge. There is an exception to this rule, which we’ll cover in detail below.

Who would have thought there were so many rules to ensuring top-notch tasting coffee? Follow these tips, and you’ll have the freshest cup of jo you’ve ever tasted.

Handy Tools to Help Keep Coffee Fresh and Delicious

Two images displaying the Veken coffee vault canister. The left image displays a young woman filling a cup of with hot pressed coffee with the canister next to her and the right image displays the canister next to a hot cup of coffee.

There are two gadgets you might not yet own, but having them will really help keep your beans from going stale and losing flavor quickly.

A Coffee Vault

One way to maximize the flavor of your beans is by storing them in an airtight container like a coffee vault. The Veken coffee canister is a stainless steel airtight container that’ll keep your beans in a sealed, dark environment.

We love that this vault features a date tracker to ensure your coffee is always exceptionally fresh. The scoop is a nice touch, too, and attaches directly to the canister. It’s sleek, comes in three sizes, and will really be up to your coffee flavor game.

Veken Airtight Coffee Canister

An airtight jar is just what you need to keep your coffee extra fresh.

A Burr Grinder

If you are ready to start grinding your beans and taking advantage of coffee shop quality in your home, then a burr grinder is just what you need.

What’s a burr grinder and why use one? You’re probably familiar with blade grinders, the coffee grinders that have a flat food-processor-like blade that whirls around the bottom of the grind chamber. Blade grinders are very imprecise and give very inconsistent results. A burr grinder has two metal “burrs” or grinding surfaces that are spaced precisely apart to ensure your coffee is consistently ground to the size you want.

The Cuisinart burr grinder is a great affordable grinder for folks who want consistently grind quality but aren’t in the market for a premium coffee grinder. It’s high quality enough to give you good results but doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars.

Cuisinart Automatic Burr Grinder

This little burr grinder is a fantastic value in the budget grinder market.

Should I Store Coffee Beans in the Freezer?

You’ve probably heard people talk about storing their coffee in the freezer to keep it fresh. This is one of those situations where if it is done correctly it does, in fact, keep your coffee very fresh. But if it is done incorrectly you’ll end up with gross stale coffee (and maybe even mold growing on it).

The key? Only store coffee in the freezer if it is a deep freezer (like the chest or upright deep freezer you might have in your basement or garage) because such freezers stay very cold very consistently, and only store sealed coffee you intend to use in the future.

If you vacuum seal the coffee or seal it in a filled-to-the-brim mason jar, you can put fresh coffee beans into the freezer and they will keep for a long time. The key is to not take them in and out but to remove them from the freezer once and use them as if you’d just bought a fresh bag of coffee.

The constant in and out of the freezer will cause moisture to develop on the beans, which could actually make them spoil and grow green fuzzies. So, your best bet is to keep the coffee beans in the freezer until you are ready to use them or don’t freeze them at all.

A delicious cup of coffee starts with quality and fresh beans. From there, it’s fun to experiment with brewing methods until you find one you really fancy. From French presses coffee makers to pour-overs, there are so many ways to prepare coffee! Starting with fresh beans and your favorite method, don’t overlook these tips to help keep your coffee fresh and tasty once it’s brewed!

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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