Aging Coffee

Is Older Better?

Full Frame Shot Of Unroasted Coffee Beans
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In recent years, there has been a trend of aging coffee. The hype goes something like, "Aged wine is great. Aged whiskey is great. So is aged coffee!" The hype isn't everything with aged coffee (nor is it with aged wine or whiskey, for that matter!). However, aging coffee isn't exactly a novelty, either, and it does deserve some credit. Here's the lowdown on aged coffee's history, hype, and truth.

The History of Aged Coffee

When coffee first came to Europe in the 1500s, it was aged coffee. At that time, Europe's coffee supply came from the port of Mocha in what is now Yemen. Importing coffee to Europe required a long voyage by sea around the southern tip of Africa. This still held true when coffee production spread to Indonesia and India.

With these three coffee origins, time and the salty sea air changed the coffee significantly, and Europeans came to love this taste over the taste of fresh coffee. In fact, when the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Europeans largely rejected the fresher coffee that was newly available to them in favor of the aged stuff. And so it came to be that some coffee was intentionally aged for six months or longer in large, open-sided warehouses in shipping ports (which had plenty of salty sea air to help mimic the aging process to which Europeans of that time had become accustomed).

Over time, the preference for aged coffee faded, and fresh coffee beans became the preferred type of coffee in Europe. Similarly, the United State's relationship to aged coffee shifted over the years as fresh coffee became increasingly available. However, in recent years, the trend of intentionally aging coffee has been on the rise in Europe, America, Taiwan and elsewhere.

The Hype Behind Aged Coffee

Many marketers are hyping aged coffee as a connoisseur product akin to aged wine or aged whiskey. While this is true for certain aged coffees, others are simply stale, old coffees being repackaged as a specialty item.

Furthermore, some people claim that all coffee ages well. This is highly debatable. Some people also claim that the older a coffee is, the better it gets. Once again, very questionable.

The Truth Behind Aged Coffee

Only certain types of coffee age well, and they must be aged under the right circumstances or else they simply lose their oils (which give coffee its aroma and flavor) and become stale. Yuck.

Also, most experts agree that coffee does not continue to improve the longer it ages because it simply loses more of its flavor as it ages.

So while you can buy coffee that's eight years old, you may not want to drink it!

Which Types of Coffee Age Well?

Generally speaking, only certain types of green (unroasted) coffee beans age well. Usually, the best beans for aging will be high in body and low in acidity, though this is not always the case. Good candidates for aging may include low-acid coffees from India and Indonesia (especially semi-dry processed Sumatra and Sulawesi coffees, which may develop a spicy, complex flavor as they age), and bright / acidic wet-processed Latin American coffees (which mellow as they age).

How is Coffee Aged?

True aged coffee is not the same as old coffee (though sometimes stale, old coffee is sold as aged coffee--buyer beware!). Real aged coffee is carefully aged, usually for six months to three years, by regular monitoring and rotating the beans to distribute moisture and even out the aging process between coffee bags. This prevents mold and rot from occurring. Coffee is usually aged at origin and is often aged at a higher altitude, where the temperature and humidity are more stable than at lower elevations.

Lately, there has also been a trend toward aging coffee amongst coffee roasters, who often use barrels (like the ones used for aging wine and whiskey) to age their coffee. This imparts a whole other range of flavors and aromas upon the aged coffee beans and allows the roasters far greater control over the roasting process.

Coffees are usually tasted several times a year during the aging process and are roasted after they are finished aging. Usually, a dark roast is best, as it will even out the flavor and accentuate the body of the coffee. This is often the approach for a blended aged coffee or an aged coffee that is part of an overall blend. However, some connoisseurs prefer a light roast on their single-origin aged coffees, which emphasizes the single-origin nature of these unique products more heavily.

What Does Aged Coffee Taste Like?

Good aged coffee does not taste like stale coffee. Coffee that is simply old will taste boring and flat. Aged coffee has some oomph in its body without much acidity. It may or may not have some funk or "bagginess" (a burlap taste from storage). And it may be mellow and smoky, or (if it's aged in a barrel) oaky, woodsy, winey, or many other "-y"s. But each aged coffee is different, and that's part of what makes them interesting to coffee drinkers these days!

Which Coffee Companies Sell Aged Coffee?

There are many companies currently offering aged coffee. Here are a few for your tasting pleasure: