At some point in their career, roasters may have to consider what to do with past crop coffee.
The term “past crop” is often used to describe coffee that is over a year old – essentially it is the coffee that is still on hand when the new year’s harvest comes in. Many roasters avoid using past crops by estimating how much coffee they will consume in a year.
However, the recent Covid-19 pandemic disrupted buying and consumption habits, as well as shipping logistics around the world. As a result, there are more past crop coffees available than before.
As freshness is a priority in the coffee industry, specialty roasters often ignore past crop coffees. This is because it may lack the complexity and characteristics of in-season green coffee.
That said, as the industry embraces more sustainable practices, roasters have an opportunity to change the narrative around past crop coffee. To disregard it would be a waste, so it is important for roasters to know how to get the best out of it.
For more information on how to maximise the potential of past crop coffee, I spoke with the owner of MABÓ Coffee, Bogdan Georgescu.
What is past crop coffee?
Generally, past crop coffee is considered to be any green coffee that is leftover when a new harvest arrives.
The term is often incorrectly given to green beans that may have age-related defects or begun to taste past their best. As coffee ages, it will lose some acidity and brightness, and may have a slightly dusty or flat flavour.
For roasters, the secret to prolonging the shelf life of green beans lies in how they are stored.
“Usually past crops are not that different compared to new ones,” says Bogdan, who is also the 2019 Romanian Coffee Roasting Champion. “This is only if the green coffee is stored properly. Otherwise, it may age and develop a woody taste.”
Notably, moisture content, as well as the water activity of the coffee beans can affect flavour preservation. According to Bogdan, when green coffee is stored incorrectly, it can lose too much moisture and end up tasting flat and old.
“Once the moisture content falls below 8%, the beans have become too dry and will not roast to the same quality,” says Bodgan, who was also a runner-up in the World Coffee Roasting Championship.
This is because the Maillard reaction and sugar browning rely on water activity to develop flavour. Water activity refers to measuring the vapour pressure of green coffee in a closed container. However, this may vary based on the ambient temperature.
On the other hand, past crop coffee with a higher moisture content and water activity will deteriorate quickly. Furthermore, it may pick up harmful mycotoxic bacteria as moulds and fungi can propagate in this environment. This may lead to more taste defects, as well as present obvious health issues to both roasters and consumers.
Is past crop coffee as bad as people make out?
Past crop coffee tends to have a bad reputation as it often loses some acidity as it ages and requires strict storage conditions.
Additionally, roasters may feel they are missing out on the excitement of a new season’s crops while they still have to sell last year’s produce.
But is this reputation justified?
Bogdan suggests this negative impression stems from the paradigm that “fresh is always best” when it comes to specialty coffee. However, this is not necessarily the case for every coffee.
It is possible to find past crop coffees where the quality has remained excellent. This is because different coffees that are processed and stored in various ways will respond differently to ageing.
For roasters, the fact there is a new crop available does not automatically render current stores as past their best.
Mike Ferguson, at Olam Specialty Coffee green coffee importers prefers the term “second act coffee”. He believes that in many cases, past crop coffees do not deserve the bad reputation, and choose to avoid the stigma attached to them.
He uses the analogy of beloved friends and relatives growing older, stating that we don’t think less of people for growing older. However, we recognise they may not be able to do everything they once did, or they may need to do it differently.
Notably, a growing number of people within the industry believe past crop coffees can still be specialty.
Even a coffee that only scored in the mid-eighties when it was fresh may last for up to 12 months if stored correctly. Furthermore, if it were to be recupped a year later, it may perform just as well, or even better.
Admittedly, some things may change, but providing it has retained enough of its flavour and aromatic compounds, the coffee may still have the potential for a great roast.
For instance, some coffees such as Monsoon Malabar and Old Java are past crops by definition. The harvested beans are aged by exposing them to the monsoon rain and winds for up to four months, which causes them to swell and lose the original acidity. This often results in a unique flavour profile with a neutral pH balance.
However, many modern specialty coffee professionals are not fans, including Bogdan.
“I feel monsoon coffees have a distinct processing defect in taste,” Bogdan says. “But, this is just a matter of taste: that doesn’t necessarily make it right or wrong. I do know these coffees have a large number of consumers who enjoy them very much.”
Alternatively, some feel that using past crop coffee is a key to reducing waste in the industry.
For instance, head roaster at Trailhead Coffee, Baylee Engberg believes that turning neglected coffee into something worth drinking can become an art in itself. Additionally, it saves having to discard it, which would result in unnecessary money being lost.
How can roasters make the most of past crop coffee?
For roasters who want to make the best of their past crop coffee, it is worth distinguishing between old coffee and past crop.
This is important as not all past crop is past its best: fresher past crops can still be treated as if it were new.
For coffee that is beginning to pick up “aged” flavour notes, Bogdan recommends it is roasted a bit darker.
“I would suggest roasting towards an espresso profile, or espresso blends,” he says. “This is because in a filter or omniroast, you may start to feel and taste the ageing.”
Including past crop coffees in blends is another option roasters should not overlook.
Mike from Olam stretches his analogy further, suggesting that lead actors, or fresh crop single origins, are great, but “everyone loves a well-executed ensemble piece.”
This attitude allows a blend to be greater than the sum of its parts and is commendable in the quest to reduce coffee waste.
Past crops may not be exactly what they were when new, but it is important to remember they are not necessarily stale. Furthermore, a place should be found for them within the special coffee sector, as the industry moves to eliminate waste and create more sustainable practices.
At MTPak Coffee, it is our goal to support your business in making your products, practices, and packaging more environmentally friendly.
To ensure your past crop coffee offerings retain their unique flavour profiles, we have a range of sustainable coffee bags that include recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable options made from renewable and environmentally friendly materials.
We also have a variety of packaging structures to suit your business needs, including stand up pouches and quad seal pouches.
Whether you’re looking for all natural solutions or high-barrier multilayer options, we can help you design and package any volume of coffee to your exact preferences.