We’ve all been guilty of making ourselves a hot cup of coffee with the full intention to sit down and enjoy it while it’s the ideal temperature, but then letting life get in the way.
Whether you’ve got kids around or just a busy schedule, it’s normal to find cold cups of coffee sitting on the bench without being enjoyed, leading you to have to make another.
Some people don’t want to waste good coffee and instead try to heat it up and revive it, rather than make a fresh one. Others would rather a fresh and piping hot cup of coffee, turning their nose up at the thought of coffee that’s sat out too long and has long lost its heat.
How long does coffee actually last when it sits out, though?
This depends entirely on the brewing method, as there are some styles of coffee that do better when left to sit awhile. For a standard cup of instant coffee though, you shouldn’t drink it after 12 hours of it being made, as there are health concerns involved if you do.
If you’re one of the offenders who regularly leaves their coffee to sit out well passed its enjoyable frame of hotness, this is the guide for you. We’re going to explore how long can coffee sit out in every type of scenario, the potential effects, and how the flavor is altered, so you can determine whether or not it’s worth salvaging the next time you forget your cup of joe.
The Difference in Brewing Time for Coffee
Before we can jump into whether or not a coffee that’s been left out shouldn’t be drunk, it’s good to note that there are lots of different styles of coffee, and each has its own guidelines.
The way the coffee was brewed and is subsequently prepared to be served will impact its ability to be left out and enjoyed later or not, so check out some of these common brewing methods.
- Instant coffee
This method uses ground coffee beans diluted with hot water and stirred, without the need to filter. When making an instant coffee, you shouldn’t leave it out any longer than the day, and if it’s been mixed with milk you should only drink it while it’s still warm.
- French press
A French press is a traditional method for making coffee that features ground beans and hot water being left to steep, before plunging and filtering the beans and leaving the coffee to enjoy. Coffee made this way should be instantly poured from the carafe as it will keep brewing otherwise, leaving you with a very bitter cup.
- Cold brew
As the name suggests, cold brew coffee is brewed with cold or room temperature water. The process takes a minimum of 12 hours as the ground coffee is steeped with water and then filtered out. Generally, this type of coffee can stay out a little logner but should be stored in the fridge ideally.
An espresso machine brews coffee by filtering hot water through ground coffee beans. This method of brewing is best enjoyed while it’s still hot but can be drunk for that day only provided it hasn’t been mixed with milk, but will likely not taste as good.
The Chemistry of Coffee
One of the main reasons why you should avoid drinking coffee that’s been left out too long is the oxidization process.
While it’s completely safe to drink a coffee that you made that morning when it’s cold in the afternoon, the taste will be different and it likely won’t have the same effect.
This occurs due to oxidization, which is the process of air being mixed with the roasted coffee beans.
You might not be able to see a difference, but oxidation is working on the flavor compounds of the coffee and deteriorating them, releasing them into the air. The result is a coffee that’s a lot less flavorsome and probably lower in caffeine content as well.
The process of brewing coffee is a type of oxidization as well, as the beans are releasing their aromas and oils into your hot water during this time.
The oxidization process is also a problem with beans that haven’t been ground yet, which is why they need to be stored in an airtight container and used almost immediately after breaking the seal.
Can Coffee Lose Its Flavor?
The best time to enjoy a coffee if you want its full flavor is immediately after you brewed it while it’s still hot.
As discussed earlier with oxidization, as soon as the hot water has hit the ground coffee and released its acids, oils, and aromas, it will be at its most potent and flavorsome, so it’s the best time to enjoy.
You might have noticed if you ever drank a cup of coffee that sat out that it had lost some flavor, and even after heating it in the microwave, it failed to pack the same punch as before. This is completely normal due to oxidization and the coffee beans already achieving their optimal flavor, which is impossible to get back again.
How Heat Affects the Bitterness of Coffee
The soluble substances in coffee work with specific temperatures to get the best effect and deliver us with the best tasting coffee.
When dissolved between 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit, coffee will be at its most flavorsome and full-bodied, so this is the ideal time to enjoy it.
The oxidization process doesn’t just stop after this, as it continues to brew. The result is a bitter cup of coffee that has continued to have this reaction between the hydrogen and oxygen, and now has a higher pH level than before. You’ll notice the coffee tastes more bitter and probably stale, even if you try to reheat it.
Cold brew coffee works on this same premise, but rather than reaching those higher temperatures to extract the aromas and oils quickly, it’s a slow process.
This slower brewing time means you’re left with a less bitter tasting cup of coffee, and also with a drink that will do a lot better in the fridge for up to a week, or even left out for a day after brewing, provided there have been no additives mixed with it.
Making Your Coffee Last Longer
If you’re a habitual forgetter of coffee, there are some things you can do to help yourself.
Follow these tips to make sure your coffee lasts longer and you get the most enjoyable aroma and all of the benefits that the drink has to offer.
- Refrigerate your coffee
As soon as your coffee has been brewed, put it in the fridge in an airtight bottle and store it for future use. Heat it before adding any milk or sweeteners to it.
- Use a thermos
A thermos has been insulated to keep temperatures just as they are, which means your coffee stays hot for hours. If you always leave it laying around to get cold, make the switch to a thermos so it’s good all morning.
- Make cold brew
Cold brew coffee can be made in a big batch and stored in the fridge without relying on the heat for the oxidization process. When you want a glass, you simply pour over ice and enjoy.
Although one might assume coffee is a drink that would be good for days, there are lots of problems with trying to drink an old cup.
We’ve answered some more questions about the best way to enjoy your morning cup of coffee to get the most out of it, so check out these FAQs.
Can You Get Sick From Old Coffee?
Although you probably won’t get ill from drinking black coffee that’s been left out, it won’t taste as good.
Unless there’s mold evident on your coffee, it’s safe to drink, but it will be without most of its full-bodied flavor and the caffeine content that people use to get the stimulating effects this drink has.
Does Ground Coffee Go Bad?
If you brew your coffee with fresh whole or ground beans, there are rules to follow regarding when they should be used.
An unopened bag of pre-ground coffee is good for up to five months depending on when it was roasted, and if you leave it in the freezer during this time unopened, it can last up to two years.
How Long Should Cold Brew Steep For?
Cold brew was intended to be left for at least 12 hours for the brewing process to complete, and around 16 hours for the best results.
However, you should never leave it to brew for more than 18 hours otherwise the coffee will be bitter and its flavor will likely be unpleasant.