When it comes to geeking out over coffee stuff, there’s the totally cool (drone videos over coffee farms), really cool (processing experiments at micromills), and very nerdy but still pretty cool (heat transfer comparisons between a Loring and a Probat).
Every once in a while, though, we find ourselves completely geeked out over something that’s decidedly not cool—or at least not particularly sexy.
You know. Like…bags.
Yeah, we’re not even talking about the beautiful kind of bags, the ones roasters put on the cool shelves in their cool cafes. We’re talking about the definitely un-sexy kind of coffee bags: the big 60- or 70-kilo ones producers and exporters all over the world use to ship green coffee across many miles of ocean.
Worldwide, the most common material for coffee bags has long been jute, a rough fibrous material woven together into something resembling burlap. Before the invention of the modern shipping container in the 1950s, these unlined burlap sacks were stacked in the hull of breakbulk ships and sent slapping across the ocean, exposed to whatever elements might come their way during the months-long journey. While modern containerized shipping helps keep the water, salt, air, rain, and rats out, the majority of it isn’t climate-controlled for coffee: Refrigerated containers are considerably more expensive than standard ones, and let’s not even get in to the carbon footprint of those things.
Since the emergence of specialty coffee, however, bags have become a huge obsession, sexy or not. After all, the coffees going in them are some of the most exquisite in the world, which also makes them more vulnerable. As we continue to seek exceptional microlots and super special varieties—heck, even as we start buying better-quality bulk lots—we want to protect our investment and make sure that the coffee shows up at the warehouse just as delicious as it was when we met it on the cupping table.
A few years ago, plastic liners became the rage, and these days it’s relatively standard to package green coffee in GrainPro-lined jute. For really high-end lots, vacuum packing is an expensive (both financially and ecologically) option, but it remains impractical on a large scale. Other materials—paper, plastic, space-age synthetic stuff—have gained and lost traction, as we all scramble around to test and taste the results.
In short, we’re constantly asking ourselves: What makes the best bag? We don’t know that there’s a hard-and-fast answer, but we are definitely curious enough (and geeky enough) to do what it takes to find better solutions, especially as we see that certain coffees are more susceptible to quality loss in shipping than others.
Thankfully, we have a friend who’s one of the world’s foremost coffee geeks, and who isn’t afraid to study the un-sexy (but truly fascinating) stuff that helps make good coffee even better: Dr. Flávio Borém, professor of agricultural engineering at the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil.
Dr. Flávio Borém (second from left) and his research team during a 2015 visit to Cafe Imports.
In 2015, Dr. Borém approached Cafe Imports to participate in some cool/not-cool tests regarding coffee bags. Would we be willing to accept 256 bags of Brazilian green coffee—Natural and Pulped Natural—that was split up into eight different types of packaging? Would we keep the coffees in our warehouse and take samples of them periodically over 14 months to analyze and compare with a similar load that was held back in Brazil?
You bet we would!
The packages were all meticulously prepared and tracked from start to finish using thermohygrometers to record relative humidity every three hours; spectrometers for color-change analysis; and even electrical tests to see if there was any change to the beans’ conductivity. Weight, sugar migration, moisture content, and, of course, sensory analysis was also noted for each coffee in each different pack—an assortment ranging from simple paper bags, to jute, to vacuum-packed, to a brand-new high-barrier plastic liner designed and produced by one of Brazil’s largest flexible-plastic companies, Videplast.
Fast forward to September 2016, when Dr. Borém and his team released the results of the year-plus long bag-stravaganza—and we, the bag geeks, were stunned.
We’ll spare you the nitty-gritty sciency details and get right to the good stuff: It turns out there is a huge difference in the quality integrity of coffees based on their packaging material, and laid out all nice and pretty, it looks like the Videplast liners—christened “Specialty Coffee bags” or SC bags for short—were far and away the most effective in preserving quality and maintaining stability.
Among other findings, according to the paper, the Pulped Natural coffees in high-barrier-plastic SC bags showed less than a 1-point degradation in quality, compared with 1.55-point loss in vacuum packaging and a whopping 6.73-point loss when just placed in jute.
This is all good news for GrainPro fans, as the SC bags are comparable in design and material, and so should display similar results under similar conditions. However, it’s also potentially great news for bag innovation, as the bags that Videplast developed are less expensive than GrainPro, fully recyclable, and made in Brazil—making them a triple threat when it comes to preserving the quality of those coffees.
This year, we’ll be bringing our Mogiana coffees in SC bags, and will continue to track the quality and stability of the lots, as well as compare them with other Brazils that will be arriving in good ol’ GrainPro.
We hope you’ll geek out with us about this not-cool-but-actually-really-freaking-cool possible development in coffee bags, and let us know if you notice the difference.
To read the full report from Dr. Borém and his team, visit //bit.ly/2xSijMQ.