green coffee has been shipped via the same method: bagged in jute and ocean freighted to the importer. Some schemes that improve efficiency and quality have been adopted in some cases, but these have primarily revolved around bulk handling methods once the coffee has arrived at the port of importation (silo storage of imported coffee, for example). Such methods are not, obviously, scalable downward to benefit small and medium-sized roasters interested in identifying, roasting and marketing smaller lots of particular coffees.
Some coffee zealots however, have taken matters into their own hands, removing their precious green coffee from its jute jacket and vacuum packing it on the spot once it has arrived. Others still, have opted to pay the high price of having their green coffee vacuum packed at origin and even, in rare cases, airfreighted. And still others have had their coffee packed at origin in re-usable bulk bags made with alternative materials less likely to impart to or allow the coffee to acquire undesirable taints.
Still, these coffees for the most part are left at port up to one week while each origin country’s customs agency closely scrutinizes the coffee before it is loaded in its container. And still the coffee must sail the open seas for up to a month before it again hits its destination port and once again sits there while various paperwork is filed and inspections are completed. Finally, once cleared, the newly arrived coffee is loaded onto a truck and transported to whichever warehouse was stipulated on it’s contract. After that, it is “de-vanned” into the warehouse where it remains until the buyer orders its “release,” bag by bag, or for the entire container if the buyer has warehousing facilities that can store full containers.
Any variance from the tried and true method of jute bags and sea freight will incur expensive repercussions at multiple junctions in the supply line. If you are looking for ways to get your coffee delivered to your roastery in the same condition as your air freighted pre-ship sample, you are indeed facing an expensive battle, but one, that with the right support network, and a willingness to add a few to several cents a pound in cost, is entirely winnable.
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be known that we work closely with some of the following sources on alternative green coffee packaging, transport and storage.
After coffee is harvested and processed it is usually stored in a warehouse somewhere awaiting sale and shipment. The costlier alternative is to leave the coffee in its parchment until shipping arrangements are made, and then to mill the coffee and shortly thereafter to vacuum pack it and box it before taking it to port to ship. Each stage of movement generally requires a few days to complete.
The length of time at port a coffee may stay is also longer in some countries due to anti-narcotics/contraband police procedures as the coffee clears customs both at export (and this is most obviously the case in Colombia, but not exclusively, as many other coffee exporting countries actively monitor their exports for everything from cash, to narcotics, as well as illegal weapon exports, endangered species, artifacts of national heritage, transplant organs and, of course, even people!) and in the country of importation. Delays in the exportation and importation of coffee due to law enforcement procedures are not likely to decrease.
Coffee traveling by maritime freight is subject to great swings in temperature and humidity. These swings can degrade the quality of green coffee in and of themselves - but they also promote the growth of Ochratoxin A, a carcinogenic agent that also affects the taste of coffee in a negative manner. Green coffee in jute is unprotected from humidity changes, thus the coffee will take on and give off moisture during transport, resulting in a loss of flavor, or “fading.” Much can be said about this process, as there are many variables to consider; where on the ship the subject container is placed, the placement of the coffee inside the container (coffee in the center of the container is insulated by the coffee surrounding it, which in turn is subjected to more extreme temperature and humidity swings). Further, several strategies for stabilizing and limiting humidity have been devised, including gel packs provided by various manufacturers. The shipment of frozen or refrigerated green coffee may also be attempted in the near future (the writers are not aware of any initiatives yet attempted but that is not to say that this has already been tried).
One wholly different alternative to sea-freight is the extremely costly and red tape wrapped process of air freighting vac-packed boxes - but this can add dollars, not cents, to the cost of a green coffee and has been tried only in the case of extremely expensive coffees.
Once coffee arrives at port in its destination country, it must again clear customs, be moved to a warehouse, devanned, weighed, stored and then shipped to a roasting facility (coffee can be transported directly to the purchasing roaster’s warehouse as well, but this is rare). If your coffee was vac-packed at origin, you need do nothing as it is safely contained in its bag and box awaiting to be shipped to you. If your coffee was shipped traditionally in jute, the race against time has already begun. The coffee has undoubtedly faded a bit from its transport. At this point there are a few options available; do nothing - this is the standard. The next best option after that, as practiced by George Howell for his wholesale accounts for the George Howell Coffee Company is to immediately re-package the jute-bagged coffee into the re-usable Grain-Pro brand “Super Grain Bags.” These bags are constructed from multi-layered polyethylene and are moisture-proof. The bags can be hermetically (airtight) sealed providing protection that jute alone cannot, thus helping to preserve the coffee inside. George Howell commented, “the coffee does age, but more gently and it prevents a lot of baggy flavors.” Coffees for “Terrior Coffee,” the mail order arm of the George Howell Coffee Company are vac-packed upon arrival and sent into deep-freeze. Howell explains, “The coffee is immediately repackaged into 20-lb vacuum-sealed, mylar bags. One or two people working together can do that. Then they get boxed to protect the bags, which will prevent any unwanted breakage and then they go straight into our freezers. These are gigantic freezers for the frozen food industry. Although we haven’t found the ideal freezing temperature yet, it’s safe to say the coffee is good for a year-and-a-half to two years.”
In addition to maintaining your supply of coffee on hand, vac-packing and freezing can serve another invaluable purpose; comparing the same coffee, crop-to-crop and year-to-year. Howell explains, “We also vac-pack several 100-g samples and freeze them.
It’s a great way to compare coffees crop-to-crop. Interestingly the moisture content before freezing and after freezing and thawing is exactly the same, the color is a little different though,” Howell mentions, noting a slight fading in color of the green coffee.
Alternative Packaging; The Past, Present and Future
The first exporter to vac-pack coffee commercially was Daterra, Howell offered, “They are state of the art. They did the packing on the Cup of Excellence. Immediately thereafter, Virmax Café in Colombia started doing it and since then, exporter after exporter has responded. Trabocca in Ethiopia, C. Dorman in Kenya. In Brazil, Gabrielle Carvalho is also doing it and now several sources in El Salvador. I understand it will be available in Nicaragua, at least for Cup of Excellence.”
Is every coffee a candidate for vac-pack at origin? We asked Howell, “I have not seen vac-packing as necessary with Costa Rican coffees because they are so fast at shipping, and its relatively close as well. When the coffee is further away the problem really surfaces, anything from Africa should be sealed,” Howell opined, adding, “Sumatra is one country that isn’t doing it, because the humidity is so high, who knows what could happen during transport? That is a frontier that needs to be researched, as any defect such as phenol or rioy could spread in that. So the coffee should really be tip-top to be a candidate for this type of specialized shipping. I wouldn’t do it for blender coffee at this stage.”
Coffee warehouse facilities are slow to adopt new practices. One new facility stands out. After being ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, Dupuy Storage and Forwarding had to rebuild, and when they did, they added new services. Dupuy now operates over a million square feet at the Port of New Orleans. Janet Colley Morse, director of customer service for Dupuy told us, “In addition to jute bags, we operate a bulk facility for coffee processing, so we can run the coffee out of the containers either with an automated pneumatic system which lifts and opens the bags or alternatively the coffee can be filled in a polypropylene lined container and from there the coffee can be “super sacked” (a branded line of airtight bags), at 2,000 lbs per sack.” Said Morse, “After that, it can go into our storage facility or it can be shipped directly to the roaster.”
Alternative packaging, transport and storage of green coffee are facets of the specialty coffee business that are still in their infancies. As more and more exporters begin to offer these services, we expect to see a drop in the price of vac-packing in general. Right now, the pricing of vac-packing at origin can range from .05 to .50 cents/lb depending on exporting country and the quality of materials used. Prices are further inflated as warehouses in North America often charge premiums for the movement and storage of alternatively packaged green coffees. We can only hope that this practice changes in the (very) near future.
The methods used to store and transport green coffee are being re-evaluated at an increasingly rapid pace. Certainly, in the case of green coffee handling and storage we are learning that in many cases, there are good alternatives to the status quo worthy of our cnsideration!
Note: The 2008 SCAA convention in Minneapolis recently presented Green Coffee Quality: A Scientific Discussion of Emerging Transport and Storage Alternatives for the Preservation of Green Coffee. This intriguing presentation (and many others!) is available for a nominal fee from www.allstartapes.com.
Timothy J. Castle is a past president of the SCAA and is currently the head of Castle Communications, which specializes in marketing and publicity for the coffee and tea industries. He is a regular writer for Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. Joel Starr is a long time barista and currently a sample roaster and cupping assistant at Castle and Company in Los Angeles, California when he is not tending to his blog, www.thirdwavecoffee.com