Metropolis Coffee: reconciling sustainability and convenience in specialty coffee

As a roaster that sells its own coffee and roasters for hundreds of other businesses, Metropolis Coffee believes specialty single serve coffee should be accessible as well as sustainable. As such, it has brought the filling and packing of its own compostable capsules in-house and will co-pack for others. By Kathryn Brand.

Capsules ‘democratise’ specialty coffee, said Tony Dreyfuss, co-founder and president of Metropolis Coffee, but how accessible can they really be unless they are sustainable? Which is why Metropolis has invested to become the first coffee company to fill and pack its own compostable capsules in the United States.

“It is turning out to be one of the biggest investments in our company’s history,” revealed Dreyfuss, but “one of the reasons we invested in this capacity is because it felt like the right thing to do.”

Market research firm, Future Market Insights, projects the global capsule market to surpass USD $9.8 billion by 2032. As capsule coffee is yet to become as popular and widespread as it is in places like Europe and the United Kingdom, the company felt like it had a unique opportunity.

“[The capsule market] is already growing 25 per cent a year in the US,” said Dreyfuss, “With compostable we really do have the opportunity to kind of set the market on a good path toward compostable. In the US, we have a chance to actually start this out with compostable capsules and get people thinking that compostable are the market standard rather than aluminium.”

Bringing the packing in-house

Chicago-based Metropolis Coffee was founded in 2003 by father and son, Jeff and Tony Dreyfuss. It sources and roasts ethically grown and traded specialty coffee for over 650 shops, cafés, hotels, and restaurants across the US, Europe and the Middle East, as well as serving it in its own coffee shop in Chicago. It partners with specialty coffee companies and co-packs for them, which allows them to create more value across the coffee chain, explained Dreyfuss. “We’re unique in that we have tremendous roasting capacity, and we have packing capacity. So, we’re vertically integrated in that way.”

Image: Paul Hansen

Metropolis is particularly able to co-pack coffee, “because you might find coffee that’s a higher level of value in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect it.” And this applies even more so with capsule coffee, as Dreyfuss remembered seeing a Nespresso machine in a toll booth; and realised that it is just that much easier to have quality coffee anywhere and on-the-go with capsules, harkening back to the company mission to democratise specialty coffee.

Whilst there were companies in Europe that were able to fill capsules for Metropolis, this didn’t seem like the right choice for the company. “The cost of transportation, the time delays, the logistics, also the MOQs (minimum order requirements) are enormous with these things.” Being able to fill its own capsules as well as co-packing gives the company control of its own fate, explained Dreyfuss.

Compostable challenges

It also gave the company the opportunity to set the standard with compostable capsules. Metropolis sources its pods from Smile Beverage Werks, a packaging company that specialises in compostable materials, an industry which is rapidly growing as laws change and materials, certification bodies and the consumer lean further towards compostable in a bid to combat microplastics in the environment, said Frankie Schuster, COO and co-founder, Smile Beverage Werks.

The capsules from Smile Beverage Works are made from a plant-based material that is petroleum free and has been tested and BPI-certified for compostability, however, it is only commercially compostable since this is currently the only legal standard in the US, as there is not yet a home compostable standard, revealed Schuster. “We will be offering TUV certified pods in 2023 and are constantly monitoring the ASTM guidelines for updates to the standards,” he said. “Metropolis will offer home compostable pods this year but wanted to launch with the commercial pod to start.”

Image: Paul Hansen

Whilst they are better for the environment, compostable capsules may pose challenges in the form of freshness; “There’s a big challenge ahead of us in making sure that we seal the capsules correctly with the filter — I’ve learned that is the most critical step for manufacturing capsules,” said Dreyfuss. “If the seal isn’t good, the [coffee doesn’t] stay fresh. And particularly with compostable capsules, it is a bigger deal,” he noted, adding this is especially true between home and commercially compostable options, as commercial certified pods have a two year shelf life, versus just one year for home compostable.

“One of the reasons we chose Smile Beverage Werks is because their capsules are incredibly well known for holding up freshness, compared to other compostable capsules that are on the market.” Despite this challenge with compostable capsules, Dreyfuss does not anticipate it to be an issue they will face, as he believes Metropolis has achieved on par freshness with its compostable capsules, compared to aluminium ones. “It’s guaranteed to hold the oxygen barrier for that period of time.” Metropolis uses a machine from Spreafico, IMA Coffee Packaging, to fill the capsules, which produces up to four capsules per second.

Sustainability focused

Compostable capsules are another arrow in Metropolis Coffee’s sustainability quiver, which is something Dreyfuss asserted was a real focus for the company. “We can prove it with awards that we’ve won, like Roaster of the Year, which are not only for quality, but for sustainability.”

Third party certifications are something Dreyfuss feels is important for both a company’s future and of course the future of the planet; “Especially when we get into scale, it’s going to be more and more important to have those [certifications] not only to do the right thing, but also so that other people feel like they can trust it.”

Image: Metropolis Coffee

But Dreyfuss admits that there are inherent sustainability issues within the coffee industry itself. “Coffee is grown in areas where, in a lot of cases, they strip out the rainforests to grow it. It requires a lot of water, and so many farms out there use chemicals.” However, there is more sustainable and less sustainable, he explained, “Specialty coffee is typically more sustainable than the commercially grown coffee. Commercially grown coffee is mechanised, which means there’s an awful lot of chemicals and the picking and the actual working of the lands is done by machines,” he said. “With specialty coffee, it’s typically picked by hand.” Metropolis has been working with family farms for nearly 20 years and pride themselves in paying attention to the details that make a difference.

Impact of the Pandemic

Like many other companies, Metropolis also found itself looking inwards when the pandemic hit and paying more attention to itself and its values. Dreyfuss said that on the first day of the pandemic, something like 70 percent of its business stopped in one day. “So, we looked around and asked what are we good at? What are we?” The answer they came to was the ability to place products into areas where other specialty roasters aren’t currently saturating.

The availability of specialty coffee at home quickly became a priority for so many consumers when the world went into lockdown. “All these people that are used to getting espresso and coffee at their local cafés can’t do it anymore. But they still want the coffee. And they’re faced with this moment where they’re standing in the fluorescent lighting of a grocery store looking at coffee equipment, thinking, Do I need to do this? And then capsules are like a beam of light coming through the skylight, and hey, it’s easy.” Capsules enable consumers to have barista quality coffee at home without the investment of barista equipment.

Image: Metropolis Coffee

Consumers are seeking out better quality but are not prepared to give up on convenience. “If there’s one thing I have learned in coffee, it’s to never underestimate how much people want convenience,” said Dreyfuss. “It’s not that they’re lazy, it’s just that they have other stuff that they’re doing, that they care about more, which makes perfect sense to me. If we as a specialty industry demand that people put all this extra effort into preparing a cup of coffee, we will never grow specialty coffee — capsules are just perfect for that.”

The pandemic jumpstarted the capsule coffee industry in the US, and enlarged it in the UK and Europe, as consumers reassessed their priorities, particularly in relation to time, and convenience won out. However, premiumisation and specialty coffee is on the rise, and companies must also reconcile these factors with the need for sustainability. All of which leave a tidy place in the market for the compostable coffee capsule.

  • Kathryn Brand is an associate editor on T&CTJ, while still writing for several of Bell’s other magazines. She joined Bell Publishing as an editorial assistant at the beginning of 2022 after graduating from the University of East Anglia with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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