To freeze or not to freeze? That actually is the question . . . at least the one I get asked most often by friends and relatives when they find themselves with a super-delicious bag of coffee in their kitchen. There are a lot of different thoughts about the best approach to storage for freshly roasted coffee, and some of them might be surprising, though maybe not quite as controversial as the great should-you-refrigerate-tomatoes debate.

When you find yourself with coffee for brewing, you’ll need to take a few things into consideration before deciding where to stash the stuff until you’re ready to use it.

Is it whole bean or ground?

Once it’s roasted, coffee’s shelf life quickly starts to diminish. It doesn’t “go bad,” per se—at least not in an obvious and smelly way like vegetables or bread do—but it does start to fade after a while, losing some of what makes its flavors nuanced and interesting. Fruity and floral characteristics are especially vulnerable, and will vanish quicker than, say, chocolate and nut tones, but overall the longer roasted coffee sits, the duller it will be in the cup.

Whole-bean coffee, however, has a bit of an advantage on this death march than ground coffee: Leaving the bean intact before brewing it sort of allows the coffee’s flavor and aroma compounds to rest inside a protective shell, seeping out slowly over the course of a few weeks. Once you break that bean open, however, it’s kind of like cracking an egg: You just broke it, so you better buy it—and quick, because all of the aromatics are now exposed to air instead of being holed up in their little bean fort, and they’re flitting away into the air in your kitchen without your even knowing it.

How quickly do you go through a bag of coffee?

If you’re a three-pot-a-day coffee drinker, you probably go through a bag of beans pretty quickly, which might influence the way you store it. Generally speaking, experts (read: coffee nerds) suggest buying coffee like you would buy fresh-baked artisanal bread—less at one time, and more often. If you buy your supply from a local coffee-shop, they might be able to sell you smaller than 1-pound quantities, which can help you manage your personal inventory, though it might mean seeing your local baristas more often than you see your best friend.

For anyone who takes longer than three weeks to use up a bag of coffee, it might be worth it to consider sourcing smaller packages—though simply breaking “the freezer rule” might work for you, if you’re willing to be open-minded (and can let your coffee-obsessive friends’ criticisms roll off your back). See below for a few caveats on taking this tack, but consider this post your “permission” to freeze if necessary.

How do you brew?

Yes, it’s a bit extra, but different coffee-redwing methods do require a bit of individual attention when you’re considering how to store and use the beans for them. For instance, espresso is a pressurized extraction that typically requires the coffee beans to rest a few days after roasting in order to taste to their full potential, while pour-over coffee tends to be better way fresher.

Furthermore, the freezer-or-counter argument takes on a new level when we also consider the way the coffee beans and grounds themselves will interact with the material: Freezing, for instance, creates moisture on the coffee itself, which can cause disaster in a grinder (no one wants rusty burrs!), but with some other brewing methods it’s not a big enough deal to fret.

THE BOTTOM LINE

If you buy freshly roasted coffee, brew regularly at home, and don’t have space-saving concerns, store your whole-bean coffee in a cool, dark place in your kitchen, away from anything that gives off heat or odor. (In other words, not next to the onions, and probably not next to the toaster.) An airtight container is great, but if the bag the coffee comes in has a resealable option and a one-way valve that lets gas out of the beans without letting air in to make them stale, that’s just fine, too.

If you buy coffee every once in a while for a special occasion, brew a few times a week or even a month, or simply don’t have the room for all the coffee bags and paraphernalia, you can store your coffee in the freezer under one condition: Grind it immediately beforehand, and portion it out first. Whole beans in the freezer are a no-no because the moisture they will emit as they start to thaw—even within seconds of being taken out for brewing—will ruin your grinder in no time flat. And big batches of ground coffee in the freezer will defrost unevenly as you take out the bag to scoop out what you need for the day.

Taking the extra step of weighing out individual containers of just-ground coffee, however, and stacking them in the back of your freezer, will let you have a decent cup of coffee when you need it, without the pressure of rushing through a bag or compromising flavor. (Don’t bother freezing coffee that’s been ground more than 30 minutes ago, though: That horse is already out of the barn, believe it or not.)

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.

Erin Meister (you can just call her "Meister") is both a longtime journalist and a coffee professional with nearly two decades' experience. She has written about food, coffee, film, travel, music, culture, and celebrity for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Rachael Ray Every Day, Saveur.com, Time Out NY, Chickpea Magazine, Food & Wine's FWx.com, BUST magazine, Barista Magazine, and more. She is the author of the brand-new book "New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History (The History Press, 2017)".
See more articles