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Looks
Aren’t the Only Thing that Matters

BY TIMOTHY J. CASTLE

Coffee Packaging has two basic functions. First, it should protect and preserve the coffee inside it. Second, it should provide the consumer with easily accessible information about the coffee…it should explain why the roaster thinks the coffee drinker looking at the bag should buy, take it home and make a pot of coffee with it. Obviously, or at least it should be obvious, one function cannot effectively be achieved without the other being very well executed.

No packaging which perfectly protects the coffee from heat, moisture, light and staling while preserving as much of the fresh-roasted flavor (aromatics) as possible can really be effective if the package itself is so hopelessly unappealing to the consumer that the coffee in it will never be purchased.

Likewise, no package that beautifully describes the coffee inside, in vibrant, consistent colors, and with crisp, perfectly registered text considered a quality package, if the coffee inside tastes like cardboard soaked in rancid oil. Someone might buy it once, but if they buy it twice they certainly deserve to be drinking it.

In response to our last article on packaging a few months ago, one of our industry’s experts on the technological side of the packaging equation voiced concern that we paid too much attention to the “look and feel” of recent packaging advances. His concern is that our industry does not focus enough concern on the proper application of the best available coffee packaging technology.

But if a roaster has taken the time, trouble and expense of perfectly packaging an exquisite coffee, he is also doing himself a disservice by not making sure that the package proves irresistible enough on the outside that the coffee inside gets consumed, at least once. Again, a package of coffee has to be both functional and informative. If a premium coffee is to sell well, the coffee inside must be delicious, exciting, even awe inspiring - the package outside better reflect that. One the other hand, if a “value-brand” coffee that’s formulated to satisfy an undiscriminating palate is packaged in a plain wrapped can with a one or two color label and priced accordingly, such a product might very well succeed - it certainly won’t disappoint.

So, while we are extremely appreciative of being reminded of the weak links in the packaging chain, we are unlikely to not encourage a forum on advancements being made in the look and feel of packaging as well as the advancements made in its improved function. The problem, for our industry, and perhaps for our aggrieved correspondent, is that fewer advancements in packaging function have been made than in packaging appearance. Further, many roasters work harder to ensure that their packages look good rather than ensure that the coffee inside them taste good by the proper use and application of the packaging system they are presently using.

Mike Sivetz, inventor of the Sivetz fluid bed roaster and president of Sivetz Coffee Co., the company that manufactures it, pointed out that many packaging companies do not place enough emphasis on the functional aspects of packaging - to keep the product fresh and wholesome, to protect it from oxygen, moisture other possible contaminants. “Your presentation … largely skirts the essential subject of preserving fresh roast aroma and taste and dwells largely on bag printing and appearance, which contribute nothing to fresh taste quality. Fresh taste is a subject that deserves wider and deeper presentation and publication.”

Sivetz went on to say, “If time, temperature and oxygen are not controlled, or are inadequately controlled, freshness will not be preserved. Most of the coffee industry is not doing a good job in taste preservation, and acts as if roasted coffee was a stable non-perishable product. The reasons for this go beyond tradition and ignorance. In many cases proper packaging is not being helped by the major bag manufacturers, which shows their lack of commitment.”

Sivetz approves of the valve bag, but points out that it’s no silver bullet, “…the valve does not help those who leave lots of oxygen in the bag at the time of sealing. The valve bag is only as good as the residual oxygen left in the bag when it is sealed. I’ll give you a rule of thumb - if less than 1% oxygen is sealed in the bag of ‘just’ roasted beans, the coffee quality therein will have been given noticeable protection, but is still being influenced by time and temperature. The time aspect or shelf life has been repeatedly exaggerated and compared to a stale standard. If one seals 0.l % oxygen in the bag of freshly roasted beans, then one has removed enough oxygen to be below the stoichiometric reaction level of the oxidizable coffee aromatics. No one is doing this commercially, even though this can be done economically. This is not being done, because back in the l930’s the canned coffee industry decided that 2 or 3 % oxygen in the sealed can left an acceptable taste. In fact many canning lines run at 4% oxygen. Consequently a whole nation had its freshness standard established by the roaster/canner.”

Sivetz points out that industry standards weren’t the only problem vis-à-vis pre-valve coffee packaging, “Further serious freshness damage was caused by the industry practice of overnight degassing carbon dioxide from the beans [with the aromatics], all the while oxidation was occurring. By the time the beans were ground, siloed and canned, even more oxidation occurred. The predominance of large mass production systems extended the storage and process times of the roasting/degassing, transport, grinding and canning. The degassing step was accepted as a necessary taste loss so as to not bulge or deform the steel can.”

Getting back to the valve bag, Sivetz points out that, “The valve bag, was a means of allowing sealing the bag before degassing was complete. However, aromatics are lost while degassing carbon dioxide.” In other words, aromatics continue to migrate out of the coffee, with the degassing carbon dioxide, even after the coffee is packaged in a valve bag.

Given the advance in freshness and product quality that the valve bag represented, and within that context, Sivetz then explored the limitations of the valve packaging systems as they exist in the reality of a coffee roasting and packaging facility. “The American consumer has a higher … coffee freshness standard today than decades ago, thanks to the many small roasters about the country, who can deliver to their customers freshly roasted beans within 24 hours. And whether the valve bag helps preserve freshness largely depends on the knowledge, ability and skills of the processor. Here we have serious human obstacles. Most roasters/packagers lack technical understanding of what staling is all about. This is well illustrated by the extensive use of bulk storage bins in super -markets, as well as the high incidence of high oxygen [percentage in] bulk packaging. Many consumers believe that whole roast beans are “fresh” tasting beans; a serious misunderstanding, that the coffee and allied trades do not care to explain. A clear example of this, is the wide spread use and sale of nozzle evacuation and inert gassing machines with prefabricated valve bags. These machines are being sold by some of the major bag suppliers, and although such sales may not be malicious, they actually do great harm to the roasted beans so packaged.” Sivetz, however, did not explain what this harm was before continuing, “Equal damage is incurred by other major bag manufacturers when they do not strongly recommend the attainment of the highest vacuums possible [lowest oxygen levels] in the use of their vacuum chamber style machines. It becomes the burden of the roaster/packager to learn what is right, as well as to know what kind of machines and at what performance levels he must be at. He also needs oxygen analyzing instruments to verify what kind of oxygen levels he is achieving, and very few roast coffee packagers own such analytical instruments.”

Sivetz went on to explore another weak link in what is seemingly a fragile chain indeed, that of the consumer’s handling of the coffee after it is purchased, “Even if a suitable low oxygen sealed bag of roast beans is produced, once the bag is opened to air, the coffee has lost its protection. If the consumer cannot highly evacuate and reseal the bag, coffee staling will occur rapidly. An easier way to protect the freshness of the coffee beans at this point, is to place them in an air tight jar in the freezer at -10F. Reclosure features on the bags give no protection against oxidation. Low storage temperatures will offer some protection from further oxidation and aromatics losses.”

Sivetz also referred to some of his own research in the area, “We have carried out some very informative tests on CO2 and aroma retention by ‘just’ roasted beans in an evacuated bag placed in freezers at below -10F. The result has been no degassing, and a very high retention of ‘just’ roasted tastes and aromas.”


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