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Life in a
Vacuum?

By Timothy J. Castle


Throughout the history of coffee as a commercial product there has existed the struggle between the obvious and noble goal of selling coffee as fresh as possible and the equally strong desire to arrest the effects of time on just roasted coffee. The consumer has profited from both drives and, while these two philosophies seem necessarily opposed, they can actually co-exist to the benefit of both the coffee industry and the consumer.

There are some romantics in the coffee business who insist that packaging systems in general are not only unnecessary but undesirable in that they encourage roasters to focus less on freshness - these people assert that coffee should only be purchased from small local roasters on a weekly basis. These people have a point. But larger roasters have a question: “If my customers refuse to buy coffee from a small local roaster and they will only buy coffee where they can do so as inexpensively and as conveniently as possible, why shouldn’t our company try and provide them the freshest tasting product possible?” The realities of the marketplace certainly can chill or stifle the most romantic notions. It’s true, most people are not going to buy coffee from anywhere but their grocery store and they will probably even buy it ground or grind it in the store. For them, the issue is not whether to provide them with an Ethiopian Harrar and a Yemen Mocha that are fresh enough so that the difference between these two great coffees can be appreciated. Rather, the challenge is to get whatever coffee this customer wants to buy (and it will probably be a Colombian coffee, flavored coffee or the generic “house blend” of yore) and try to deliver that coffee as freshly as is possible to that customer.

Part of this same ongoing and constructive debate is the issue of variety and freshness. Coffee roasters are usually torn between wanting to offer as many exciting coffee types and blends as they do flavored coffee products as possible. But they are also wary of increasing their variety to the point where any one member of the product family is not turning over within a reasonable amount of time. Packaging again plays a key role as the variety/turnover drama unfolds - because if there were a perfect packaging system, there could be a much wider array of coffees which could be kept on hand and there would be no risk of any of it going stale.

In less than 20 years, the flexible film valve bag has become the gold standard of coffee packaging. It has actually reached the point where some consumers will not accept a specialty coffee unless it is packaged in one of these bags. When it was introduced, almost 20 years ago, nearly all coffee available in the U.S. was sold in cans. Today, while valve bags have not eclipsed the can’s hegemony, they certainly have made great inroads.

When the vacuum-sealed can was introduced, it made it possible for people to buy coffee and know that it would taste O.K. Yes, the coffee had to be degassed and given that, why then blend with coffees which are too fine and delicate to be appreciated or even recognizable in this state? The valve bag, when it was introduced, was just as much a watershed even in the coffee packaging arena, but like the vacuum can, a way of making better coffee available to more people.

Perhaps, however, it is a disservice to the valve bag system, and those who sell the various versions available, to expect as much as we do or would like to from this well-respected packaging scheme. In fact, it seems that the users of the system have greater confidence in it than those who sell and manufacture it - perhaps because they don’t want to consider the impact of a few bags with failed or defective valves, and film that has either been accidentally torn, imperfectly sealed, or improperly handled or manufactured.

Consumers and roasters would certainly benefit if they knew that valve bags were not perfect and could occasionally, for one reason or another, fail. The problem here is that the more people who know about the valve bag system, the more its weaknesses on two levels are exacerbated. Firstly, the bag itself can become wrinkled, misshapen and unappealing to consumers if it is handled too much. Yet, handling the bag, by squeezing air out through the one way valve, is about the only way you can tell if the coffee inside it is going to taste fresh before you buy it. Once even one consumer has gone through a shelf full of bags trying to find the freshest one, the entire display is a mess, and another weakness of the valve bag becomes apparent - these things don’t stack well and are hard to merchandise on a shelf.

Consumers can’t be told to squeeze every bag of coffee in the aisle before purchasing it. Obviously, if those one way bags work at all and the coffee itself is not still degassing, then there is only so much sniffing a consumer can do - not to mention the fact that such practices, conducted in the aisles of supermarkets, only serve to exacerbate several weaknesses of the valve bag packing system.

Consumers can be told that the valve bag systems is not infallible, and that if they do come across a package that does not have the freshest coffee in the world in it, then they may return their coffee to the roaster, and replace it free - as was suggested by one of the people interviewed for this article.

Tim McCormack, co-owner of Zoka Coffee Roaster, summarizes the way Zoka straddles the packaging/freshness dialectic this way: “We did not set out to wholesale coffee beyond this region - we want to remain an unpretentious, but very good, local roaster. We use polypropylene lined, tin tie five-pound bags for our wholesale accounts. We make no apologies for this. When people from outside our region call to inquire about wholesale coffee, I tell them we could ship it but we have no vacuum packaging or valve bags, so they might be better off with a local supplier. We are very happy with the local market. My partner and I agree that coffee is a lot like fresh bread, the best things about its flavor are the most fleeting.

“I have experimented with the valve bags - if you have to ship coffee or store it for months, the coffee will not go rancid, but you do lose delicate aromatics that are present at first.” He continues: “Sometimes it’s these aromas and flavor compounds that make a particular coffee especially different or interesting. We emphasize fresh roasting in our shop. We encourage small quantities and we even sell coffee out of the cooling tray! We encourage weekly orders and tell our customers to order as little as possible.”

McCormack concedes: “Valve bags are fine if you must store coffee for many weeks or months, if they are properly vacuum packed and flushed with nitrogen promptly after roasting. If coffee must be held before packing, it should be in an oxygen-free (nitrogen-flushed) environment. I have not only experimented with vacuum bags, but I have extensive experience with gas-flushed valve bag systems, from previous positions I’ve held with large wholesalers.”

McCormack clearly knows what he is missing out on by not being on the scale where he can pack his coffee in valve bags using a vacuum/nitrogen flush system. Still, he seems satisfied that his customers are getting a good deal because he and his partner emphasize freshness and prompt local delivery instead.

Sam Schank, quality control director of Hawaii Coffee Company based in Honolulu, has worked with several different versions of valve bag packaging over the years, and puts the equipment in realistic perspective. “A lot of companies are just sealing coffee in the bags. If you nitrogen flush only, there are mixed results after three of four months, whether due to valve failure, microscopic leaks in the bags, etc. But it is still the best way to package coffee, and it has widespread consumer acceptance - people are used to the valve bag and flexible packaging film. A can, at this point, would be much less susceptible to puncture. There are now companies that have developed vacuum cans with sachets of chemicals that can absorb the carbon dioxide released during degassing. But it also is important to not rely on or believe in your packaging line to any great degree. If you have, for example, a great company that will honor any consumer return, no questions asked, then that would go a long way toward mitigating any material failures.”

Schank continued by noting that much of what may be slowing the development of new coffee packaging is the inertia that the industry and consumers seem to have together adopted. Further, many companies have just grown to the size where they’ve been able to secure their own packaging equipment. These people will be reluctant to look into new packaging technologies. “But once you invent new packaging then you have to buy new equipment. Packaging systems go through cycles and the current age we’re in is the flexible package with the ‘belly button’ era.”

Schank, while believing in the valve bag, states its limitations starkly. “Even two weeks in a pantry is better than three weeks on the shelf in a valve bag. At two or three months old there are a lot of things that can go wrong with the current system. Maybe, if everything’s right after a year, the coffee might be tolerable. But if you’re used to really fresh coffee, it won’t be the same.

“A big advantage of the valve bag, to the consumer, is that if they know to squeeze the bag they can tell if the coffee is fresh or not. In fact, I encourage our customers to do this, even though I probably shouldn’t. If they find it doesn’t smell right, I tell them to bring it by for replacement. We’ve always stood behind our product. Now, once in a while, you get a customer that has kept coffee in their cupboard for ten years and they’re upset that the package hasn’t kept it fresh - but this is very rare and I think the PR benefits outweigh the associated cost. Statistically, you can’t eliminate failure, but what’s important is how the company deals with whatever unavoidable rate of failure exists. Most companies can’t market and merchandise their coffee products so that the coffee will turn over at an acceptable rate.

“Vacuum packaging is critical. Even nitrogen flushing, in my experience, doesn’t do the job if you want to have that bag of coffee stay fresh for three to four months. It’s almost an oxymoron to say that a ‘gourmet coffee’ is three or four months, but if the packaging is done properly you can get a very good cup of coffee after three or four months. This is no excuse, however, for improper merchandising that doesn’t maintain the goal of turning the coffee over so that the consumer is getting the coffee so fast that the packaging wasn’t even necessary. Popular, fast-moving items should turn over once a week and at most once a month for slower items. I would still recommend, to consumers, that they ask their roaster for the fastest-moving items. A lot of customers don’t realize that such things such as minimum runs and efficiencies of scale make it necessary to roast certain coffees less frequently than others.” The dynamic that exists in the coffee industry, then, is constantly one of balancing excitement with freshness.

In keeping with his belief that packaging schemes go through long fads akin to fashion trends, Schank takes a look at some of the newer products on the market and puts them in perspective. “New stuff includes stackable, semi-flexible packages that can be easily and attractively merchandised. Stand-up pouches with the zip lock top, however, are not as easily merchandisable as the cathedral or gable topped, square bottomed bag with a tin tie. Previously experts said that this packaging was too expensive and would never be accepted by consumers. That sachet of chemicals that will absorb CO2 is not yet accepted by the FDA and a canned coffee cannot, at this point, be sold as ‘gourmet’ in the U.S. Now, everyone expects great coffee to come in that valve bag.

“Part of what makes our Lion Coffee and other brands so special is that we were committed to packing whatever we roasted the same day. Then you deliver fresh-roasted aroma to the consumer along with their fresh coffee. Of course, darker-roasted coffees produce less CO2 after roasting and you then get a different appearance because these bags fill up with CO2 less after roasting.” Then again, a lot of readers probably feel that darker roasts are less squeezable anyway.

If coffee packaging does go through its own boom and bust cycles, as it certainly seems that it does, then we are definitely going through a quiet patch rather than witnessing the dawn of packaging in a new era - at least according to most sources interviewed.

One seeming maverick, however, was Mark Gaffin, sales manager for Fres-co System USA. Before his more exuberant comments were made, however, he touched on less happy matters. In response to the question of the failure rate of valve bag packaging Gaffin stated, “It’s important that operators are trained and they take care and good training is key. Some roasters do a great job; there is no industry number for a rate of failure. The good operators do very well and get a failure rate very close to zero. The bad operators aren’t very interested in measuring their failure rate.”

In discussing other trends and developments in packaging, Gaffin had the following observations: “We see a trend toward nitrogen, not as much vacuum in the new equipment, for soft bag ground coffee. The gas flush gives oxygen rates well below one-and-a-half per cent. Most of our customers are going nitrogen only as opposed to gas flush.” Gaffin noted that gas flush is enough to meet the need most roasters perceive for freshness.

Gaffin also mentioned that Fres-co, the first to introduce the valve bag, has two new products it is currently rolling out. “One thing I have seen recently is a trend toward roasters wanting recently to differentiate their packaging. They still want the advantages of the valve bag but they want to noticeably improve on it. One option we are now offering is our corner seal bag. This gives you very defined shape and more room for graphics. Another thing roasters have asked for is a better way to re-close the bag once the consumer opens it - an alternative to the zip lock.”

Gaffin referred to a press release dated December 15, 2000, and quoted from it. “Last December, Fres-co System USA, Inc. was proud to introduce Fres-close, an innovative reclosure feature for gusseted bags. The application of Fres-close provides added convenience while locking in freshness. Unlike zipper reclosures, the patented Fres-close is applied to the outside of a sealed package to avoid contamination from product inside. To open, the profiles are pulled apart; to close they are securely snapped together.”

Gaffin concluded by taking a view that other leaders in the packaging industry had thus far not shared with us: “It’s an exciting time for packaging. Low green prices are giving roasters the resources to upgrade their packaging abilities and we’re glad that Fres-Co is around to help!”

Jim Hooper of Universal Packaging, agrees that the valve bag seems to be a veritable fixture on the coffee industry landscape, “We still package the same way...we put our coffee in bags.” He was “surprised that the coffee craze hasn’t died down at all. On the contrary, it seems to have increased with more and more interest in the ‘mom and pops’ cropping up everywhere.”

Robert C. Kelly of general packaging noted that the biggest recent trend he’s noticed is the growing use of “in room” packaging in hotel rooms and such. Tiny, rectangular filter packets of pre-ground coffee in a barrier package. His company makes these and seems to have experienced a surge in their popularity lately. These packages, of course, do not yet involve a valve, much less vacuum packing. Freshness, of course, is a problem as in room coffee service is highly unpredictable and managing such a program for freshness is virtually impossible.

Jim Hooper had, perhaps, the most alarming news of all, however. “The resurgence in popularity of tea has been another really interesting trend lately. There was a guy in the office here,” Hooper noted, “and he was a two pot of coffee a day type of guy, but he just up and switched over to tea recently. He seems pretty happy with the change.” Let’s hope that this factoid will not become its own trend. And we won’t even mention that several coffee packaging experts questioned for this article said that most of their efforts today were being focused on tea rather than developing the coffee packaging system of the next generation.

Timothy J. Castle is the president of Castle Communications, a company specializing in marketing and public relations for the coffee and tea industries. He is also the co-author (with Joan Nielsen) of The Great Coffee Book, recently published by Ten Speed Press, and the author of The Perfect Cup (Perseus Books). He may be reached at: (310) 479-7370 or via E-mail at: qahwah@aol.com


Tea & Coffee - April/May 2001
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