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What should restaurants do with leftover coffee?

pouring coffee bottle
Sabri Tuzcu

Question:

I was dinged on a recent health department inspection for having prepared food out of time and temperature controls. The food was—wait for it—cold coffee. We try to brew a fresh pot every 20 minutes, even when it’s busy, and dump the extra in a Cambro. We let it cool and then at the end of the day freeze it in ice cube trays for coffee cubes or put it in the fridge for iced coffee for the next day. I think this was just a health inspector looking for a problem where there wasn't one. Is this right? How do I fight this? Can someone actually get sick from coffee sitting out at room temperature?

– Owner-Operator, Pennsylvania

Answer:

First, I want to congratulate you on two things:

  1. Your coffee program.
  2. Your food (and beverage) waste prevention.

 

Coffee loses its euphoric aromas after sitting around, so replacing it with freshly brewed coffee is a welcome practice. But discarding perfectly good coffee three times per hour is not good for the environment, or your bottom line. By capturing your surplus for another menu item (iced coffee), you are doing right from a food waste perspective. Thank you! My only other suggestion here is that if you are continually dumping leftover coffee, rather than getting to the bottom of the pot, then reconsider the size of the pots you are brewing.

To your food safety question: No, brewed coffee is not considered a particularly hazardous food. Coffee is somewhat acidic (though not high-acid), and has very little protein or carbohydrates, making it somewhat unattractive to most foodborne pathogens. So compared to other beverages such as juice and milk, you’re absolutely right that room-temperature coffee is not a major food safety concern.

That said, coffee can develop mold after some hours, and if left uncovered in the danger zone can present a problem if it were to be contaminated by a worker (sneezing, scab, dirty hands, sweat) or physical or chemical contaminant (twist tie, glass shard, bandage, cleaning supply). I can see why your inspector would have wanted to see your leftover coffee properly chilled and put away rather than dumped into a container on the counter, especially if uncovered.

While you may be able to appeal your inspection, and might even win, my advice is to chalk this up to a learning experience and use it to change your practice. It’s always best to err on the side of treating foods as potentially hazardous. Use proper two-stage cooling techniques for coffee (shallow pans, an ice paddle, etc.) and there will be little to question about your practices. I suspect that quick chilling will also yield a more flavorful iced coffee because raising the temperature of the mixture every time you add more coffee will be like leaving it warm for hours.

More on coffee safety here.

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