How to Tell If Your Coffee Beans Have Gone Bad 

You live for the aroma of coffee beans in the morning, but today, the beans just didn’t smell as fragrant and rich as they should have. If anything, they smell sort of stale. Have your coffee beans gone bad? How can you tell?

Here’s how to confirm whether your coffee beans are past the point of usage:

  • Check the expiration date
  • Check the roasting date
  • Try the plastic zippy bag test
  • Smell them

In this helpful article, we’ll go over the methods above for determining how fresh your coffee beans are (we bet you’re very curious about the plastic zippy bag one, right?). We’ll also discuss how long coffee beans should last and what you can do to extend their lifespan.

Let’s begin! 

4 Methods for Confirming Whether You Have Old Coffee Beans

Fortunately, you don’t ever have to swallow a mouthful of terrible-tasting coffee made with bad beans when there are more foolproof ways to determine bean freshness. Per the intro, let’s look at your three options now. 

Check the Expiration Date

Whether you buy your beans directly from your local café or on the shelves of your town’s grocery store, somewhere on the package, you should see an expiration date. 

We’ll talk in the next section about how long coffee beans should last, but we always recommend you defer to the expiration date on the packaging of your coffee beans.

The producer of the beans will know best how long the beans are good for, after all!

Like most foods and products with expiration dates, it’s fine if you use your coffee beans on the day they expire. You probably also won’t have funky-tasting coffee if you use the beans a few days after the expiration date.

Once you get to the seven-day mark, though, you shouldn’t keep dragging things out, and you especially don’t want to go two weeks with expired coffee beans. 

The expired beans are never going to get fresher, which means their taste will only get worse the longer you use them. 

You might have gotten lucky with decent-flavored coffee so far, but once your coffee begins to taste rancid, you’ll never want to push your coffee beans so far past the expiration date again. 

Roasting Date

Another date you’ll likely see on a bag of quality beans is the roast date. This will tell you exactly when the coffee beans were cooked or roasted. You’ll want to make sure the day you use the beans is at least 7 days past the roast date because any earlier and the beans are still degassing (releasing carbon dioxide, CO2)

Try the Plastic Zippy Bag Test

Okay, so we’ve mentioned it enough times. What in the world is the plastic zippy bag test?

It’s a cool way to determine whether your coffee beans are fresh or on the verge of expiry; that’s courtesy of Cook’s Illustrated

If you can’t see a visible expiration date on your coffee bean bag, then this method is the next best thing.

Admittedly, you will not get results until the next morning. You can’t rely on this method if you’re standing in your kitchen with 45 minutes to go until you have to leave for work.

If you do have the time, then all you have to do is transfer half a cup of coffee beans into a plastic zippy bag.

Before you close the seal on the bag, make sure you push out all the air. Then seal the bag and leave the coffee beans on your counter until the next morning.

Overnight, the bag should have gotten puffy on its own if the beans are still fresh. The reason this happens is that the coffee beans have released carbon dioxide.

You have about seven to 10 days to grind and roast these coffee beans, so don’t delay!

What if you wake up and the plastic zippy bag is still as flat as a pancake, just the way you left it? The coffee beans are no longer producing carbon dioxide, which is a sign that they’ve gone bad. 

Smell Them 

Your last option to ascertain the freshness of your coffee beans is to smell them. Yes, this is the most unpleasant option of the three, hence why we saved it.

This method works if your bag of coffee beans has no expiration information, but you need to tell whether your coffee is fresh right now, not tomorrow morning. 

Once coffee beans go stale but aren’t expired, their normally distinct aroma will fade. Bad coffee beans past the point of expiry have a much more noticeable smell, but not in a good way.

The odor will be musty or even rancid. 

If you’re pinching your nose after smelling the beans, then do yourself a favor and don’t brew any coffee with them. The coffee will taste just as rancid or musty, which can make you sick to your stomach. 

How Long Do Coffee Beans Last on Average?

Is it standard stuff for your coffee beans to have expired when they did, or should they have lasted longer? How long is the coffee bean lifespan on average anyway?

If your coffee beans are unopened and stored in a vacuum-sealed container or bag, then the beans will keep for six to nine months. 

Once you open them, your coffee beans are good for six months, but should be consumed sooner for freshness.

Do Coffee Beans Last Longer Than Ground Coffee?

You’ve enjoyed buying whole coffee beans, grinding them, and then roasting them. You feel like you’re a lot more involved in the process of making coffee, but you have to admit, it’s all terribly time-consuming.

You just don’t have the time in the morning anymore, and you were thinking of skipping the whole beans and buying ground coffee beans instead.

Do ground coffee beans have a longer lifespan than whole coffee beans, or is it vice-versa?

Indeed, it’s vice-versa.

You’ll recall from the last section that an unopened bag or container of vacuum-sealed whole coffee beans will last for six to nine months.

Ground coffee that’s also vacuum-sealed and otherwise stored in the exact same conditions is only good for five months. You’re losing one to four months by purchasing ground coffee rather than whole beans.

Once you open your bag or container of vacuum-sealed coffee grounds, they still don’t last as long as vacuum-sealed whole coffee beans. It’s six months for the opened beans versus three to five months for the opened coffee grounds. 

Why do coffee grounds expire first? The grounds receive more exposure to the elements compared to whole coffee beans. 

Further, the components of the coffee beans have been separated after grinding, such as the coffee oils. The oils will evaporate faster in ground coffee than in whole coffee beans, which also makes the grounds go bad faster.  

Tips for Extending the Shelf Life of Coffee

After reading the information in the last section, you think you’ll stick with coffee beans over ground coffee from now on. Even though whole coffee beans don’t last forever, they have a longer life than grounds!

Could you possibly prevent stale coffee beans even further? Yes, you can! Here’s how. 

Store in the Freezer

If you don’t want to use your coffee beans for the foreseeable future (or you’re not sure if you will), then freeze them.

Stashing coffee beans in their original vacuum-sealed container when unopened will extend their shelf life from a moderate six months to a hugely impressive two to three years.

Even if you opened the coffee beans, but they were otherwise kept in a vacuum-sealed bag or container, the beans will survive up to two years if they stay frozen. 

Click the link to read more about freezing coffee, and why you shouldn’t store them in the fridge.

Store Coffee Beans in an Airtight Container

Coffee has four enemies and they’re light, heat, moisture, and oxygen. You want to go out of your way to ensure your coffee beans aren’t exposed to any of those elements.

You’ll notice that when you buy quality coffee beans, they are stored in an airtight bag hopefully with a one-way valve. These valves allow CO2 to escape without letting oxygen in.

To keep your coffee beans free of light and air, store them in an airtight container after opening.

Prevent heat and moisture exposure by keeping your coffee beans in a cool (or room temperature), dry location. 

Buy Smaller Batches of Beans 

Are you guilty of buying those big bags of coffee beans because they just look so tempting at the store?

Tempting they are, but unless you’re working for a coffee shop or you have a huge household of coffee lovers, then you don’t need quite so many coffee beans. The quantity is far too much for one person to roast and drink by themselves.

Buy your coffee beans in very small batches instead. You’ll save money this way, and, even better, your coffee will always taste fresh. 

Grind Only What You Need

Using a burr grinder to only grind the coffee beans you will use will limit their staleness. The oxidation process is faster in ground coffee than in pre-ground coffee. This is because there is more surface area in ground coffee.

Final Thoughts 

You have lots of methods for ascertaining whether your coffee beans have gone bad, and all come in handy at various points. Freezing your coffee beans is one way to make them stay fresher longer, as is buying in smaller batches and storing coffee properly. 

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