As much as we want our coffee to be in tip-top condition forever, the sad fact is that even freshly picked and roasted coffee beans have an unfortunately short shelf-life. That life is about a couple of weeks, depending on the type of coffee bean and roast level. Even once brewed, coffee loses its delectable flavors rather fast, usually within hours.
While we know that the flavor of coffee is usually the first thing to go, how does the caffeine content fair to time's ever-encroaching inevitability?
Do old coffee grounds have less caffeine? No. While coffee's more delicate features such as its flavor will start to degrade within hours of being exposed to the air, caffeine is a much more stable chemical and tends to last for months without making any significant impact on its potency. Most of the time, caffeine will stay potent longer than anything else in the coffee.
So, with that answered, just how long can you leave your coffee grounds out and still have the same potency of caffeine? After all, besides its delicious taste, most people drink coffee for that killer caffeine kick. Read on to learn more!
What is caffeine?
For the most part, a lot of us have a basic understanding of what caffeine is. Caffeine is that fancy naturally occurring chemical found in many foods and drinks that gives us humans an extra boost of energy. But caffeine is a little more complex than that simple answer.
How complex really is caffeine? I'm not going to go into all of the intricate details of caffeine's chemical makeup, that would take far too long and that's not really the point of this article. However, to fully grasp how long coffee grounds can keep their zippy caffeine buzz, you need to understand at least some of the science behind it.
Caffeine is a water-soluble alkaloid. It acts as a mild to moderate stimulant to the human nervous system. It doesn't evaporate like the other chemicals in coffee, however. This is because caffeine is a pretty stable and solid chemical comparatively. Rather than disappearing into the ether, once extracted and dried out completely, caffeine would appear as a white, powder-like substance.
Do old coffee grounds have less caffeine?
The most obvious difference between coffee made with fresh grounds and coffee that was made with several weeks old, or even several months old, grounds is the flavor. The older the grounds get, the weaker and less complex the flavors get.
But what about the caffeine in the coffee grounds? Does it diminish with time just as the flavors do?
The short answer is no. Caffeine is much more stable than the chemicals that make up the flavors in coffee. That means the caffeine can last for much longer than the flavors before even starting to lose the tiniest bit of intensity. In fact, caffeine will probably be the only thing left if you were to leave your coffee out for long periods of time. Granted, it would taste like hot garbage at that point, so yuck!
Old used, not old age
But there is more to this answer. Maybe you don't mean old grounds as in age, but how about previously used grounds? Do pre-used grounds have less caffeine than fresh ones?
Since caffeine is the last thing to be extracted from coffee during the brewing process, most of the caffeine is actually left over after standard brewing. Now, before you start re-using your coffee grounds, I feel like I have to warn you that not only is caffeine a very bitter chemical, but the rest of the complex flavors and oils from the coffee grounds will no longer be present to counter the very bitter caffeine.
What will end up happening if you were to re-use coffee grounds is that you'll just end up getting a cup of coffee that's mostly flavorless, aside from being really bitter of course. This is what's usually called “over-extraction”.
I'm all for re-using things, but only things that can be reused. Sadly, coffee grounds aren't really reusable. Well, I suppose if you have no taste buds or you are really desperate for caffeine you might not care. But this is a coffee website, so I'm going to assume you love the flavors of well-brewed coffee, too.
Re-use coffee grounds? No thanks!
How long does caffeine in coffee actually last?
Whether you're more a fan of coffee's flavors or its caffeine, no doubt you're not a fan of expired and stale tasting coffee with little to no caffeine. I mean, what's the point of coffee if all the flavor is gone and the caffeine has dwindled down to nothing?
If coffee is kept in the optimal conditions, then caffeine has the potential to outlast the rest of the coffee grounds' attributes—such as flavors and oils. That is generally at least four years for most roast coffee.
Surprisingly, even used or spent coffee grounds even still have a significant amount of caffeine left. How could that be? Well, as stated earlier, caffeine is one of the last things to get extracted during a standard coffee brew time. And actually, caffeine is partially the reason why the longer you brew your coffee, the more bitter in flavor it gets. I can't stress this enough: caffeine is a very bitter component of our favorite bean.
Is it safe to reuse old coffee grounds?
It isn't ever recommended to reuse spent coffee grounds on account of the abysmal flavor. However, bad taste isn't likely to kill you. Using old, used coffee grounds to squeeze out just one more cup of Joe is not typically dangerous, just really gross.
There are, of course, caveats to the “not dangerous” comment above. If you've used your coffee grounds already, but then store them in a warm, dark room for a week, that's going to grow mold and bacteria. Make a cup of coffee with that and you'll be looking at a hospital trip.
How can you lengthen the life of coffee beans?
We know that caffeine doesn't seem to be much of a problem when stored for long amounts of time, but when the flavors start to deteriorate, leaving only bitter caffeine behind, it makes your coffee sad and pointless. So, how can you prevent the early expiring of the rest of the coffee grounds, if at all?
The number one way to ensure your coffee doesn't lose its delicate flavorings too quickly is to only grind your coffee beans if you plan on using them right away. Why? A whole coffee bean is thicker and can protect the flavors and oils inside of the bean. However, all of that changes the moment you grind it up. With ground beans, the oxygen can get inside faster and dissipate the flavors much faster.
Coffee beans also last much longer in a dark and cool place. This doesn't mean you should freeze them, though. Freezing coffee tends to weaken the flavor a bit.
How can you lengthen the shelf life of ground coffee?
Not everyone can use up all of the coffee they grind in one go, and there's also the coffee that comes pre-ground to worry about as well. That doesn't mean you're destined for bitter bean water though.
Keep your coffee in an airtight, opaque container (see Amazon). Be sure to only leave the container open as long as you need it to be. Remember: the longer the coffee is left exposed to the air, the faster it's going to expire.
You should also be sure to store unused coffee in a dark and cool place, like with whole beans. Now you know that caffeine is a stable chemical in coffee that won't dissipate too quickly over time. You also know that the flavors in coffee do fade quickly. With that knowledge, you should be able to find that happy medium between coffee storage, taste, and caffeine content. Just remember not to reuse old coffee grounds unless you like