Should roasters include best-by dates on coffee packaging?

Jane Merchant
August 16, 2022
package coffee for optimum quality

Transport delays, poor quality packaging, and improper storage are just some ‌factors contributing to food waste. 

This is according to the Postharvest Education Foundation, which adds that food waste is a major issue affecting the planet’s population. To address this problem, many businesses have removed the best-by dates on products.

Notably, 86% of customers discard food on or before its listed best-by date. Often, it is sent to landfills where it produces methane as it breaks down, further contributing to rising global temperatures. Therefore, businesses must increase their waste reduction efforts while preserving their product’s quality and safety.

Additionally, this will differ according to product type: fresh produce degrades quickly and may develop dangerous bacteria. However, the majority of shelf-stable goods may be safe to consume for a longer period. 

Coffee roasters are in a unique position, as it is unlikely roast coffee will make consumers ill if it is consumed past its best-by date. However, the quality of coffee is time sensitive, which means consumers may not enjoy it at its best if they do. 

To find out whether roasters should include best-by dates on coffee packaging, I spoke with the Head of the Starbucks Reserve in South Africa, Ishan Natalie.

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A close up image of a coffee roaster roasting coffee in an article on whether roasters should include best-by dates on coffee packaging

Why do we include dates on food products?

Best-by dates have appeared on products since the 1950s when it was introduced by Marks and Spencer.

It goes by many names, such as “best-by” or “use-by” date, however, in the 1970s, it was officially titled as a “sell-by” date. By the 80s, it became commonplace for retailers to use it on packaging. 

While many countries have food safety regulatory bodies, they may have less control over the use or application of these dates. 

For instance, in the UK, manufacturers can decide whether to include these dates on products. In the USA, businesses are governed by a combination of individual state laws, best practices, and general guidelines.

Across Europe, use-by dates are mandatory, however over 50% of Europeans are often confused by what the label means.

In essence, best-by dates concern food quality, while use-by dates concern food safety. This means customers can safely consume foods past their best-by date, but its quality may not be as good as it was originally. 

The rate at which quality is lost will also depend on how the product is packaged, stored, and used. Additionally, it will depend on if the consumer adheres to the recommended guidelines on the packaging.

Ishan explains roasters tend to use best-by dates as optimal quality timeline indicators for a quality cup or sensory experience. 

“Roasters want customers to have the best experience from their coffees,” says Ishan, who is also a three-time South Africa Barista Champion. “This is born out of pride and passion for their coffee and a responsibility to the farmers.

“Coffee beans are best when fresh and in season – and they’re not as flavourful and enjoyable when they age,” he adds.

He adds roasters tend to have varying approaches and recommendations on these dates. Many factors can influence this, such as environmental conditions, altitude, packaging, as well as product handling and storage. 

“Generally, roasters will give their coffees a best before date of three months from roasting, with quality lasting for up to 12 months.”

An image of a coffee bag with a roast date printed on the bottom in an article on whether roasters should provide best-by dates on coffee packaging.

What are specialty coffees best-by dates?

Coffee occupies a unique position in the market, as it is a food that does not perish in the traditional sense. 

Additionally, it can taste and smell completely different as it ages. As specialty coffees often differentiate themselves based on their unique scent and flavour notes, this can be a significant issue.

“Once coffee is roasted, it begins to expel carbon dioxide: a bi-gas that is responsible for freshness,” Ishan explains. “Around 85% of your sensory and flavour perception of coffee is from the aroma. The fresher and gassier the coffee, the more compound aromatics there are.”

Ishan says the coffee begins to decay as these gases are released and dissipate. 

“The chemical compounds in the coffee ‌break down, its cell structure falls apart, its flavours diminish, and it becomes more bitter and dull.” 

According to Ishan, espresso quality is best when the coffee is settled, which can range from 5 to 10 from roasting.

However, in Ishan’s experience, when roasted and served at lower altitudes, espresso may require a settling time of anything between 14 to 35 days from roasting. 

Coffee roasted at higher altitudes tends to degas at a slower rate, and requires longer periods of settling or ageing for peak extraction, fullness, and balance in the cup,” he says.

An image of a roaster collecting roasted coffee in order to package it in an article on should roasters provide best-by dates on coffee packaging

How to package coffee for optimum quality 

To date, there are no regulatory bodies that dictate if and how roasters should use best-by and roast dates. 

As it is an individual decision that can be affected by many diverse factors, it is up to the roaster to decide whether to include none or both. 

That said, there are a few ways roasters can package coffee and strategically use dates to ensure customers have the best drinking experience. 

Explain dates

Coffee can be consumed past its best-by date or a certain number of days past its roast date. However, roasters should advise consumers to brew it before then. 

Ishan says roasters can highlight a best-by or roast date along with a disclaimer of up to when it is best to consume. 

“Essentially, roasters can provide a timeline from roasting to the decline in quality,” he says.

Offer sample sizes

Roasters can offer sample-sized packages for new customers who are unfamiliar with specialty coffees or how to enjoy them. 

Then, customers can consume this convenient sized sample without being stuck with large volumes of a coffee they may not like. Additionally, this can help prevent them from throwing it away and further contributing to the food waste crisis.

Choose superior packaging

When packaging larger volumes of coffee, roasters should consider adding lining to their packaging, as well as a degassing valve and an airtight resealing mechanism.

This allows them to package coffee sooner after roasting and maintain its lifespan while it awaits sale.

Investing in a secure sealing mechanism, such as a zipper instead of a tin tie, can also preserve the quality of coffee as the customer opens and closes it.

For Ishan, a coffee’s packaging quality and integrity are essential. “The more layers, or more robust the packaging material, the less it will degrade,” he says. 

The layers and quality of the packaging material act as a barrier to external factors that can damage or degrade coffee, such as light, air, heat, and moisture. 

“The best way to extend the lifespan of coffee is to use quality packaging with thicker walls of material that are properly sealed to prevent oxygen from getting in,” he adds. 

As freshness is one of the pillars of third wave specialty coffee, it is the roaster’s responsibility to prolong the shelf life of their coffee and ensure it’s still fresh when consumed.

A close up image of multilayer coffee bag with a resealable zipper in an article on should roasters provide best-by dates on coffee packaging

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable packaging made from eco-friendly materials, such as kraft or rice paper with a LDPE or PLA lining.

Additionally, we can use digital printing to customise coffee bags to convey a best-by and roast date for your coffees.

We have a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time, allowing us to offer low minimum order quantities (MOQs) of packaging, no matter what size or material.

For more information on sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.

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