Buzzwords in marketing are a funny old thing. They’re meant to grab a lot of attention and hold onto it for as long as possible, or until someone somewhere purchases a product. Visit almost any major city in the world and you’re bound to stumble upon a quaint little cafe or burgeoning roastery peddling the very best coffee, and many of them describing themselves as “specialty” coffee shops. Brands pushing the word “specialty” now face an ironic reality: a market full of specialty coffee shops.
The domination of the word “specialty” in the coffee industry has led to a massive devaluation of what the term is supposed to mean. Putting it briefly, “specialty” was a designation reserved for coffees that score above an 80 point threshold (out of 100) by quality experts known as Q graders. These higher scoring coffees account for roughly 5% of coffee grown in the world and truly necessitates the use of the word “specialty”. Mislabelling certain coffees as specialty is in abundance and as a result, diminishes what that title is meant to represent from a qualitative standpoint.
Along with the muddying of that particular buzzword, brands sharing the same affinity for this eye-catching blurb also tend to share a similar philosophy regarding the freshness of a coffee bean. The idea that coffee should be enjoyed as fresh as possible has absolutely flooded the industry, solidifying the notion that any coffee too far past it’s roast date isn’t a coffee worth enjoying. Not all coffees, however, are grown, roasted, or brewed the same, so this philosophy that demands such strict adherence to the roast date stamped on a bag is inherently flawed.
Coffee beans, when roasted, produce a large amount of CO2 gas that gets trapped within the hard plant material of the seed. It is impossible to extract all the flavors of any coffee while those gases are still present inside the cell structure of the bean. This is the purpose of an initial dosing of the ground coffee with hot water (known as a bloom when brewing drip coffee, or a pre-infusion when making espresso) to push out the CO2 gasses; the heat and moisture from the water helps to release these gases accumulated during roasting. Over time, the gasses will naturally seep out of the beans; a common feature of commercially available coffee bags is a valve that lets both CO2 gases and excess air escape. A darker roasted bean will have less structural integrity compared to one exposed to less heat during roasting and therefore will de-gas significantly faster, and once fully depleted will start to lose flavor over time. A good rule of thumb is to enjoy a deeper roast closer to the roast date while letting lighter coffees age to allow the complex flavors of the bean itself to develop and evolve.
We at modcup prefer to roast on the lighter side of the spectrum in an effort to highlight the naturally dynamic flavors in the bean as opposed to relying on the maillard reaction to develop tasting characteristics. We do run a handful of deeper roasted, traditional tasting coffees that pair incredibly well with milk and sugar. These being our Casuals espresso, Classico cold brew, and American diner-style drip 7/6 blend. All of these reach their flavor peaks quite close to the roast date and should be enjoyed closer to said date. The lighter roasted fruit forward single origins benefit from some aging to allow gases to dissipate, and we recommend waiting about 10 days after the posted roast date before brewing to catch these more exotic coffees at their flavor apex.
We aren’t alone in this philosophy either. Look at progressive roasters like Harken Coffee in Canada and shops like OMOTESANDO/Koffee Mameya all the way in Hong Kong, who have come to the same understanding that while some coffee reached peak flavor days to weeks after roast others are better left at least a month after roast and can continue to be enjoyed for as many as 3 or even 4 months post roast.. The preservation of the natural flavors found within a single coffee bean is very important to us, due to all the incredibly hard work done by the farmers to ensure impactful factors like plant varietal, climate, elevation, and processing are all treated with utmost respect.
It had, at one point, been part of modcups identity to push hard on the freshness wagon; we have certainly been proponents of the “drink the absolute freshest coffee you can find” mindset. But, as more discoveries are made and new information is presented, we’ve come to understand another layer of nuance and complexity with these magical fruits. Taste your coffees after a week, a month, or even three months post roast to really experience the evolving flavors inherent in quality beans, and let us know how they treat you over time. Just as the cherries go through a long, complex journey from harvest to the final sip in your cup, we too are in the middle of a fascinating and wonderful exploration of coffee. We hope you’ll join us on that journey.