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How to Tell if Coffee is Rancid: Tips & Tricks

coffee beans and ground coffee

Around the world, millions of people start their morning with a fresh cup of coffee. Coffee is one of the most popular beverages on Earth, with humans gladly gulping over 400 billion cups of java every year. There is something special about coffee that we genuinely love, including the aroma, that warm feeling in our bellies, and, of course, the eye-opening, focus-improving caffeine.

One question many coffee drinkers have is how long coffee stays fresh once a container of coffee has been opened. More than that, many ask the same question about their favorite morning beverage; how to tell if coffee is rancid? The easiest way to tell if coffee is rancid is to smell it. If it doesn’t smell good, it is probably time to throw it away.

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How to Tell If Coffee is Rancid

1. Smell It

Using your nose is one of the best methods to tell if coffee is rancid. Rather than smelling nutty, chocolaty, or like caramel, rancid coffee will smell like mildew. Some liken the smell to an ashtray, which is much different from the pleasing smell of fresh ground coffee or coffee beans.

coffee beans, ground coffee, and instant coffee
Image Credit: Jiri Hera, Shutterstock

2. Taste It

Another, possibly better, way to tell if coffee is rancid is the taste. If you know what a truly fresh cup of good coffee tastes like, the taste of rancid coffee will not be pleasing to your tastebuds. The taste of spoiled coffee has been described as bitter, dull, and, worst of all, flavorless. Rancid coffee can also taste sour, a dead giveaway that it’s gone bad.

Now that you know how to tell if coffee is rancid, we’re betting you have more questions about the incredibly popular drink. For example, can rancid coffee make you sick, and how long does coffee last? If so, we invite you to keep reading! We have the answers to those coffee questions and several more below, plus information and advice to help ensure every cup is truly enjoyable!

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How Long Does Coffee Last?

Fresh, roasted coffee beans and ground coffee beans have a relatively long shelf life when stored in a sealed container. Although the length varies from one coffee manufacturer to another, coffee can last anywhere from a few weeks to a year (or longer) if it’s unopened. After a container of coffee has been opened, it will typically last anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks, sometimes a little longer.

bags with ground coffee on wooden background
Image Credit: Pixel-Shot, Shutterstock

What is the Best Way to Store Coffee?

Some consumers store their coffee in the refrigerator, but that’s one of the worst ways to keep it. Coffee experts recommend storing coffee in a cool, dry part of your kitchen, away from light, moisture, and heat. Your pantry or a kitchen cabinet works best. If you want to keep your coffee on your kitchen counter for convenience, it’s best to store it in an opaque (dark) container with an airtight seal. A metal or ceramic container is best, but a glass container works well too. Also, keep it as far away from your stovetop, oven, or even a toaster oven as possible.

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Coffee Storage FAQS

Can Rancid Coffee Make You Sick?

It’s unlikely that rancid coffee would make you sick (although the taste might not do any favors for your tastebuds). Once ground coffee has been brewed, though, it can start to grow mold if it’s not refrigerated. That mold might give you an upset stomach or diarrhea.

Can You Use Coffee After its Expiration Date?

Using coffee after its expiration date is certainly possible and, under most circumstances, perfectly safe. You should check to make sure the coffee in question hasn’t developed mold. Of course, expired coffee is more likely to be rancid and thus more likely to have an “off” taste when brewed. If that’s not a problem for you, you’re probably safe consuming coffee that’s slightly expired.

spoon with ground coffee over the white empty cup
Image Credit: Vitalii Stock, Shutterstock

Which Coffee Lasts Longest Unopened: Beans, Ground, or Instant?

You can purchase coffee in three different forms in most places: coffee beans, ground coffee, and “instant” coffee. Of the three types, instant coffee lasts the longest because it has the least amount of water and oils. Instant coffee can last over 20 years unopened, which is why many people have instant coffee in their emergency food supplies. Coffee beans are 2nd in line and can last several years. That leaves ground coffee with a shelf-life of 1 to 2 years if the seal hasn’t been broken on the container.

Can You Store Coffee in the Freezer?

Storing coffee in the freezer raises a few red flags for java junkies but is the “best” method for others. The latter believe storing coffee in the freezer is the ultimate way to keep it fresh and prevent it from becoming rancid. The former, however, believe that the humidity in the average freezer is problematic and can cause the coffee to go rancid faster. One thing they agree on is that if you’re going to store coffee in the freezer, it should be in an airtight container and be extremely dry before placing it inside.

Does Coffee Expire if It’s Unopened?

Unfortunately, yes, coffee can expire even if it’s unopened. It will certainly last longer unopened, especially instant coffee. But, like any natural product, coffee breaks down and decomposes with time. The older it is, the higher the chance that your coffee will be expired and rancid when you finally open it.

coffee pack or bag with coffee machine in background
Image Credit: Skumer, Shutterstock

What Can You Do with Expired Coffee?

Most people believe that once coffee has expired, the best thing to do is toss it in the trash. That couldn’t be further from the truth, however, as there are several things you can do with expired coffee. One caveat is that the coffee should be regular, not instant, and should be ground. Expired coffee beans won’t work in most situations, but after a quick spin in your grinder, they will do just fine. Below are a few of the many interesting uses for expired coffee.

As Fertilizer for your Garden

Coffee is high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which can benefit plants and flowers. You can use it directly in the soil or, if you’re really into recycling, keep it stored wet in an airtight container for a few weeks. The coffee will grow mold, and, surprisingly, that mold is fantastic for many plants. One word of caution; unbrewed coffee is acidic, so be careful with plants that can’t take high acidity.

As a Deodorant for Strong Odors

Does something in your home smell bad? If so, place your expired coffee grounds into an open plastic container and place the container where the smell originates. Like baking soda, coffee grounds absorb odors and will eliminate the smell.

As a Face and Body Scrub

By mixing some coffee grounds with honey and sugar, you can create your own face and body scrub. Don’t use too much coffee since it will be too abrasive.

As Charcoal Bricks

If you have wood ash, mix it with expired coffee grounds and a little water. Pour the mixture into an old ice cube tray and set the tray somewhere the mixture can dry. When it does, you’ll have coffee charcoal bricks to use during your next barbecue that will smell amazing!

hand holding coffee grounds
Image Credit: Weerayuth, Shutterstock

Should You Store Coffee in the Fridge?

We’ve seen that some coffee aficionados like storing their coffee in the freezer, but should you store it in the fridge? The answer is a resounding “no” for several reasons. First, the fridge is too humid and can affect the coffee if the container isn’t airtight. Also, since coffee absorbs odors, there’s a high likelihood it will absorb the odors in your fridge and taste “off.” Lastly, unlike the freezer, the fridge isn’t cold enough to keep your coffee truly fresh.

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Final Thoughts

As we’ve learned today, the best way to tell if coffee is rancid is to smell it, look for mold and taste a freshly brewed cup. If it smells sour or mildewy, has mold, or tastes like an old shoe, there’s a high likelihood it’s rancid. We think you’ll agree, rancid coffee is not what you want when you need something tasty to drink with your morning paper (or blog post). The good news is coffee lasts a long time if stored correctly. We hope today’s article answered your questions about coffee, how to tell if it’s rancid, and how long it lasts. Here’s hoping every cup of java juice you drink is always fresh and tasty!

Featured Image Credit: wideonet, Shutterstock


Kate MacDonnell

Kate is a lifelong coffee enthusiast and homebrewer who enjoys writing for coffee websites and sampling every kind of coffee known to man. She’s tried unusual coffees from all over the world and owns an unhealthy amount of coffee gear.

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