As a specialty coffee professional, it’s difficult for me to stop by the bean shelf at an independent café or grocery store without cringing. This reflex is not a result of coffee snobbery, but of the knowledge that far too often these shelves are filled with horrifically old coffee. I’m not talking about coffee that is more than two weeks off-roast; I’m talking coffee that has been sitting there for two, six, sometimes even twelve months or more.
I cringe because I’ve seen, firsthand, all of the hard work that goes into getting those beans onto those shelves. Someone cared for seeds in a nursery and tended to those coffee trees for years. Someone painstakingly picked and sorted through thousands of cherries to ensure that only the best of the best made it to the mill. A team of people kept a close eye on those beans to make sure that they were washed, properly dried, and packaged for safe transportation to the roaster.
The roaster performed a series of tests to showcase the inherent quality of each bean in the cup. The roasting process entails chemical reactions and physical changes to the structure of the coffee bean. As a result, roasted coffee releases carbon dioxide and begins the process of oxidation immediately after exiting the roasting drum. Controlling exposure to oxygen will help slow the rate of staling and help ensure that your coffee beans taste their best. If done properly, the seeds of the coffee fruit will remain in a state of perfection from the time they leave the tree to the time they reach your café. The next step is your responsibility.
This begins with ordering the correct amount of beans. Coffee orders will always hinge on your current or anticipated rate of drip and bean sales, and these aren’t unrelated numbers. The coffees can come from the same pool by bagging retail coffee from your roaster’s five-pound wholesale bags. When the bagged retail coffee approaches the end of its freshness, it can be brought off the shelf and used at the bar. This is a good way to pin down waste and keep your retail coffee fresh. Ask your roaster if they can provide empty bags that can be filled upon customer request. Strategically placed bags or containers will alert customers that they can purchase coffee for consumption at home and serve as a nice addition to your revenue stream.
If you are opening a café, I recommend speaking to your roasting partner about their experiences with managing beans. They have a deep interest in you dialing in the right amount of beans you need every week.
Storing coffee in a bag or container with an airtight seal and one-way air valve is ideal. Storing coffee in jars, bins, or bean dispensers will accelerate the staling process and negatively affect the flavor of the coffee. You should be checking the roast dates on your inventory daily. While all roasters will have their own preferences, my company, Stone Creek Coffee Roasters, recommends that coffee does not sit on the retail shelf for more than two weeks. After two weeks, you should brew the coffee on your batch brewer immediately. Try not to order more coffee than you will need to brew or sell in a two-week period.
Retail coffee is the culmination of years of hard work by dozens of interconnected people. It’s one of the simplest parts of the coffee supply chain and it is often the most overlooked. The café is the last stop before the consumer enjoys a near perfect bean; it is the place where the consumer experiences great quality—or a lack thereof. Understandably, as a café owner you are not always obsessing about the roast date of the beans gathering dust on the shelf in the corner. You have many more obvious and immediate things to worry about: a delivery is late, a staff member quits, a disgruntled customer is bad-mouthing you on Yelp; the list of challenges is endless. However, the beans for sale in your café are a direct reflection of your brand and should be watched carefully.
As a café owner, it is your best interest to have the highest quality products available. The specialty coffee industry continues to become more competitive as cafés strive to position themselves as a leader in quality coffee. Quality is observed in the skills of the baristas working on the espresso bar, and in the layout and functionality and feel of the café and in the product that is purchased. All of these things add up to a memorable customer experience that builds trust and loyalty. Your brand will be defined not just by the experience of the customers walking through your door but when they take the beans they bought home. So, please do yourself a favor and keep me from cringing the next time I stop by the bean shelf.
—Phil Lenaghan was Stone Creek Coffee’s director of wholesale.