Age in Coffee: A Primer

Coffee is a seed, and like any other produce, it is perishable—meaning that even the very best, most shelf-stable coffees on the planet will eventually show their age. Coffee shelf-lives vary region to region, coffee to coffee, and year to year based on myriad factors, some known, some suspected yet unconfirmed, and likely some not yet discovered.

Age is something that we at Red Fox track closely. All coffees age, and we can learn a lot about the process: how it progresses as well as its various causes. By testing the physical attributes of coffees (in our case, moisture and water activity) and tasting them at tight intervals, we try to learn as much as possible about what gives coffees the longest possible shelf-life and what the often subtle and gradual process of aging can teach us about coffee processing.

What Age Tastes Like

Once coffee is harvested, it goes through constant, if subtle, change even in its green form. Typically, coffees that are processed meticulously tend to open up and improve for a certain amount of time off harvest (a few months in most origins, but sometimes much longer). After that, they tend to stay relatively static for a period, then begin to lose some of their highlights, their subtler flavors like flowers and fruit. From there, they continue to round out, and as more nuances of flavor pass out of the seeds, notes of paper and cardboard start to creep in. Eventually, those flavors become predominant and the coffee loses most or all of its original character.

You might also hear this profile referred to as “faded” (because most of the original character has faded from the beans), “woody” or “papery” (because the coffees taste like wood or paper), or “baggy” (because the flavors taste very similar to the jute bags coffee is packed into, originally thought to cause these flavors).

Our QC Check-in Process

At Red Fox, we use a carefully calibrated set of procedures to track each coffee’s aging process from the time we decide to purchase it until it passes completely from our hands.

Prior to roasting and cupping, we take moisture and water activity readings on each sample that enters our lab and collect them in our sample database, which also stores roast metrics and cupping notes. Using controlled roasting and cupping processes, we cup coffees as offerings in order to make purchasing decisions, as preships to ensure quality prior to shipment, and as arrivals once the coffees enter the warehouse. Then, every 30 days after arrival, we retest moisture and water activity, roast the coffees, and cup them again, taking note of changes over time.

Once we start to taste even a hint of age flavor in coffees, we note and measure it on a scale of 1-5. At 1, the very beginnings of age, not perceptible to many, start to show. At 3, the coffee possesses about half of its original character and half characteristics of age, like cardboard or paper. At 5, the coffee retains none of its original character, giving over completely to age flavors—although many coffees never reach this point and do continue to retain some original character elements no matter how far off harvest.

Level of AgeDescription
Level 1Some faint beginnings of age characteristics. Not readily perceivable by everyone.
Level 2Age can clearly be noted; slight dryness. Origin characteristics are still the predominant flavors.
Level 3There is an equal amount of age and original character.
Level 4Age is the dominant flavor though some brightness and/or sweetness can still be found.
Level 5Only characteristics of age are present.

Once we taste age in coffee, we discount the coffee to make sure that it gets sold and roasted quickly, while it retains a significant amount of its original character.

Water Activity and Age

We’ve noticed that even more than a coffee’s moisture content (the literal amount of moisture found in the seeds), water activity level seems to be an excellent indicator of how a given coffee will age over time. Water activity describes how bound the moisture is inside the coffee seed, how much it moves in and out. Unlike moisture, water activity often fluctuates dramatically over the course of a coffee’s lifespan. We’ve found that both high water activity in general but also major fluctuations in water activity—whether during milling, transit, or warehousing—tend to act as solid indicators that a coffee’s shelf life may be shorter than similar coffees whose water activity stays more stable throughout those processes.

This is difficult to track at parts of the process where we aren’t in the physical vicinity of the coffee, like shipping, so last year we started packing data loggers along with select containers to gain more insight into the conditions coffees experience during transit. We’ll have data to share on this soon, and we hope it will help us start to close the gap on the few remaining inconsistencies in our research on water activity and age. If you want to be a part of these experiments, get in touch and we can talk about getting data loggers in some of your coffee.

Past Crop v Age

Many use the term “past crop,” meaning coffee from a past year’s harvest, synonymously with age, but they are not synonyms. We’ve had coffees pass across the cupping table for over a year without showing any age—and in fact, some Ethiopian coffees start to hit their stride far after most coffees would show almost nothing but age. Unfortunately, some coffees display age characteristics at the offer level, before they’ve even left their country of origin. Most coffees sit somewhere in between, but the arrival of a new crop shouldn’t be seen as a switch that flips, rendering the older crop automatically aged.

About to cup a large table in the Berkeley lab.

Age is Not Death

All coffees age, and that doesn’t mean that they no longer have great flavors or a place on a well-rounded menu. While we work to understand coffees’ aging process as much as we can and to guarantee the longest shelf lives possible, coffees showing various amounts of age can still bring just as much to the table as fresh coffees.

Even the most seasoned palates have variable sensitivity to age in coffee, and many consumers not only can’t taste mild to moderate age in coffee, they actually enjoy flavors like cedar that present in coffees with significant age. While coffees showing moderate to significant age may not be the best match for light roasted products, they can still bring sweetness and character at fuller roast levels, which many consumers prefer.

Perhaps even more critical than the flavors that remain in the cup as coffees age, the value that coffees bring through the strength of their supply chains does not diminish with time. Coffees that represent an investment in a deeply-rooted, high-quality value chain still hold that value and are worth investing in.

We’ve gathered a lot of data on age in coffee over the years and will continue trying to crack its complex code, so stay tuned for more results as we continue to gain insight into coffee’s aging process.

To learn more about how we source coffee, visit our journal.

Paying for Coffee: Inzá

In our previous series, Paying for Coffee: It’s Complicated, we talked about the various factors that underpin how we as a coffee sourcing company buy coffee, as well as how to discuss it. While that series looked at the larger picture and laid crucial groundwork for the discussion, this is something we feel we—and the industry at large—need to go deeper on. This series will take a closer look at the details that underpin how we buy coffee in our major supply chains, each of which is unique. 

 

Inzá, Our Oldest Relationship

In this piece, we take a deep look at Inzá, our longest-standing relationship at 13 years. In Inzá, we’ve seen other buyers come and go, dealt with hyper-competition, and experienced both success and failure; through it all, we’ve remained just as invested in the hardworking and honest members and leaders at producer association Asorcafe and the exceptional quality and consistency they produce. This is a group we’re completely committed to, and here, we dive into what that commitment looks like, talking about not just what we pay for coffee, but how we buy it.

What We Pay

First, the simplest part of the equation: what we pay. We visit our trade partners in Inzá each May to establish pricing for the following 12 months of harvest. Our motivation is not just to make coffee production worthwhile in Inzá, but to make sure that the extra effort it takes to produce the above-and-beyond quality we look for here drives the incentives producers receive. Asorcafe sells their specialty coffee production to us exclusively, so we also need to ensure that our pricing is superior to what they could get elsewhere in order to maintain our exclusive access to their specialty weight.

Farmgate Pricing

As part of this strategy, we set our base prices high and we don’t tie them to the C market in any way. First, as a comparative baseline, the local price offered by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) on our most recent visit was 837,000 pesos per carga (the standard price/volume measurement in Colombia—around 125 kg parchment) with no pricing incentive for better quality—a price that goes up and down with the C market. In Inzá, Nespresso is a huge commodity buyer, offering prices slightly higher than the Federation: at the same time the FNC was offering 837,000 pesos per carga, the Nespresso price was 850,000, also tied to the C market.

Looking at our prices, we pay a baseline rate for coffees scoring 84-85 of 1,150,000 Colombian pesos per carga, equivalent to 2.47 FOB (or free on board, the price of the coffee at export). For coffees that score an 86, we pay 1,250,000 pesos per carga, equalling 2.64 FOB. For coffees at an 87, we pay 1,400,000 pesos per carga, or 2.90 FOB, and for 88-89 point coffees, we pay 1,500,000 pesos per carga, or 3.07. For coffees at or above a 90, we pay 1,700,000 pesos per carga, or 3.42 FOB. Once again, our prices don’t fluctuate based on the C market.

Price Comparison:Farmgate (pesos per carga)FOB (USD)
FNC837,000<2.00
Nespresso850,000<2.00
Red Fox 84-851,150,0002.47
Red Fox 861,250,0002.64
Red Fox 871,400,0002.9
Red Fox 88-891,500,0003.07
Red Fox 90+1,700,0003.42

FOB Pricing

As we’ll go further into below when talking about how we buy, costs that take the coffee from farmgate to FOB include transportation from the interior to the mill (which Red Fox pays for directly), meticulous preparation for export, GrainPro for protection through transport and storage, transport to port, and loading onto the cargo ship. We expect a process and prep that’s close to perfect and we pay well for it.

As we explored in Paying for Coffee: It’s Complicated, just as exporting coffee adds costs over and above the amount the producer got paid, the importing and warehousing process also adds costs of its own. Once we factor in the cost of bringing coffee into port, getting it into a warehouse, holding it in the warehouse until it’s sold, and covering the additional operating costs of our business, we get to our ex-warehouse prices, the point at which roasters purchase our coffees.

Managing Risk

Another factor we have to account for in our ex-warehouse pricing is the risk we take when carrying a large spot position from these producer groups. Where many other importers and sourcing companies only buy what they can sell in advance, reducing their warehousing costs, we commit to the quality volume Asorcafe produces, selling it over a longer period of time.

What this often means is that we’re managing some amount of inventory in the warehouse for a longer period in order to do this—a cost we have to account for. We’re also accountable for any quality risks involved in this process, paying what we’ve committed to paying even if the coffee doesn’t arrive at the contracted quality level.

Just like the price roasters charge per retail pound is higher than the green price per pound of the same coffee, our ex-warehouse prices are necessarily higher than our FOB costs. Just like the costs roasters face in taking coffee from a green to a roasted product, we face costs during the sourcing, exporting, importing, warehousing, and selling process that take the coffee from its FOB to ex-warehouse prices, while carrying the quality risks incurred at all these stages.

How We Buy

One thing we’ve seen over time—in every region we source, but especially Colombia—is buyers who attempt to pick off those they perceive as the “best” producers rather than working with producing groups like Asorcafe who provide resources, structure, and community investment. Critical to our success in Inzá over time is our investment in the community structures that support producers, rather than just an interest in skimming the highest-scoring lots and producers off the top.

The essence of what we do in Inzá is similar to everywhere else: we try to incentivize quality. We do this with the prices we pay, discussed above, but those aren’t the only incentives for producers to grow great coffee. Asorcafe works with an agronomist to help with nutrition, shade coverage, and pruning, as well as fermentation times and processing details. We pay 50% of the agronomist’s fees, making it easier for Asorcafe to afford the quality improvements that come along with better plant health and processing.

We also pay for transportation of the coffee to the dry mill, which is a significant cost, and one that producers usually have to cover themselves. From there, we buy the coffee in parchment. We take on the cost of removing the parchment and sorting via gravity tables or machines—the latter which not only has a process cost but also removes a minimum of 20% of the coffee’s weight but results in a significantly better cup.

We then pay for the coffee to get packed in GrainPro bags to preserve the careful work that went into processing and drying. We transport the coffee to the port and get it onto the ship that will bring it to its destination, selecting the fastest shipping option—which often is not the cheapest—in order to minimize the impact the shipping process can have on quality.

Cupping and Communication

As we talked about in Scaling Quality: Signal Detection Cupping, farmers in Inzá average just 1 exportable bag of coffee a year, but even though it takes a lot of time and energy, we feel it’s well worth it to taste what each farmer has to offer individually and blend in ways that truly represent their work. We apply the signal detection process to all offer samples, making sure we’re cupping samples anonymously to remove bias and quantifying our results in a way that’s easy to communicate back to Asorcafe.

Once we have our scores, we compose lots at various tiers custom-made from specific producers and communities to best showcase their work. We then send the results to Asorcafe leader Geovanny Liscano, who communicates them to Asorcafe’s membership.

Coffees that score below our threshold are typically sold by producers to Nespresso, which is why we work hard to both incentivize and assist quality production. For us to buy coffee at lower quality tiers at high-quality prices, we would need customers to both embrace and commit to that.

Paying for Coffee in Inzá

Inzá is a perfect example of how we buy coffee. As our oldest relationship, it’s an ideal vantage point to examine not just at what we pay for individual lots, but the other types of support and incentives we offer, as well as the specific logistics that move coffee from point A to point B in this unique supply chain. As we move through the year, we’ll continue to shine a light on our individual supply chains, going deeper in order to show what our sourcing really looks like, from the ground up. It’s critical to the future of coffee that we as an industry have conversations like this: conversations where we discuss not just what we as companies pay for coffee, but how we buy it.