Can You Drink Coffee Past Best by Date?

When I get up each morning for the last 25 years, the first thing I do is make a pot of coffee. Usually I use an espresso or a French press and, when finances are good, I drink the best, most fancy coffee I can get! However, when money is tight, I still find a way to get my morning cup of joe no matter what! At times, that has meant opening up and using expired coffee.

That's right, today I'm talking all about expired coffee as we look to answer the question: can you drink coffee past best by date?

The short answer is of course, yes you can drink it, but do you really want to? Is it safe? What happens to the flavor and caffeine levels? How do I best store coffee to maximize its shelf-life? As someone who has consumed large amounts of expired coffee, I feel uniquely qualified to answer all these questions and more in today's deep dive into expired coffee.

What Defines "Fresh" Coffee & Why is it Preferred?

Before starting off, let me get one caveat out of the way: there are certain expensive and exotic coffee beans that are purposely aged 5 to 10 years to get their unique flavor profiles. However, these are the exceptions to the rule. Generally, modern coffee drinkers, like you and I, prefer to have fresh coffee. So, to start our journey into figuring out if you can drink coffee past best by date, let us begin by figuring out why most people prefer fresh coffee.

What is considered "fresh coffee" will depend on the type of coffee you are brewing. When I worked for a local coffee farm, we had the following "rule of 20" for each state of the coffee bean:

  • Ground coffee - Expires 20 minutes after grinding
  • Roasted coffee - Expires 20 days after roasting
  • Raw coffee - Expires 20 months after harvest

In all 3 of these states, the main concern is losing the flavor profile due to oxidation and degassing. People today prefer fresh coffee because it has the preferred "fresh coffee" taste that they're used to.

The rules I mention above are not universal, and different beans as well as different personal preferences will dictate the fine details of what is considered fresh coffee. However, the rule of 20 is easy to remember and can be a good place to start from. Now that we know what defines fresh coffee, and why people prefer it, let's talk about extending coffee's shelf life.

How to Preserve Coffee Beans for a Longer Shelf Life

fresh coffee beans

One of the techniques that larger coffee companies will use to extend the freshness of roasted coffee is called a "nitrogen flush." This is a process which helps remove the CO2 gas stored inside the beans. Afterwards, the coffee is vacuum sealed in an airtight container. Once you break the air seal, you'll have a good 3 weeks before you've lost most of the oils.

Smaller coffee companies do not perform a nitrogen flush on their beans, meaning the roasted beans need to off-gas for about a week before they taste as you'd expect. Failure to degas the beans results in an uneven or unpredictable flavor. This extra week of prep time also means you end up having only 2 weeks before the coffee has gone past its prime.

To help extend any opened coffee, you should store it in a cool, dry place like your freezer or refrigerator. This can extend freshness for months to raw coffee, weeks to roasted whole bean coffee and days for ground coffee. I personally always store my opened coffee in the freezer.

Some final tips before moving on, as you probably already know "whole bean" coffee stays fresh longer than ground coffee. I personally grind my coffee to a consistent grain every morning, meaning I enjoy fresh coffee every day.

What Happens to Coffee as it Continues to Age?

The real long-term problem with keeping coffee fresh is oxidation, which is exposure to normal air. Keeping coffee vacuumed sealed is one way to guard against oxidation, but once you've broken the air seal, oxidation immediately begins. Keeping coffee sealed or limiting its exposure to air is your best bet for preserving your coffee for the maximum shelf-life.

Oxidation is the same process that makes food go bad or that makes metals rust, and the same type of thing happens to our coffee beans when they are exposed to air for a long time period.

You may be wondering about the caffeine content in old coffee. Thankfully, caffeine is quite stable, so even in decades old coffee that is sealed, you will find almost the same level of caffeine. The only danger to caffeine degradation is when it has been exposed to air for long periods of time.

Eventually, certain microorganisms and bacteria will start to process the caffeine, changing the coffee's chemical structure and eventually consuming most of the caffeine content.

Can You Drink Coffee Past Best by Date?

coffee,clock, calendar, notebook, pen and phone on a table

To definitively answer the question: can you drink coffee past best by date, the answer is definitely yes you can. As I mentioned at the beginning, the real questions are what can you expect from the experience? To that end, let's explore when and how to drink old expired coffee.

How to Drink Expired Coffee Without Dying!

So, the rule of thumb then is that it takes a long time for sealed whole bean coffee to expire. If you've got some that is passed the "best by date" but is still air-sealed, then while it might not be the freshest tasting coffee around, it is still 100% drinkable. Old coffee is technically "drinkable" without any obvious adverse side-effects for decades… as long as it is sealed and was kept in a clean, dry area.

As someone who has reheated day-old brewed coffee and who has busted out over a year-expired sealed can of Folgers out of desperation, I can say with authority that you can drink old coffee without any real consequences. Just expect a funky off-taste, but no real side effect other than the dull, lifeless taste of expired coffee. Hey, it works in a pinch!