Does coffee packaging have an impact on flavour or freshness?
Working in a roastery and consuming lots of coffee privately, I am faced with a very ugly side of the coffee world - packaging waste. Recently, I have been trying to reuse a lot of the coffee bags I purchase and receive, but I know that there are more and more recyclable and even biodegradable options on the market.
As the effects of climate change become more apparent every day, businesses across the world are looking for sustainable or more environmentally-friendly alternatives to use. In the coffee industry, this means trying to reduce waste and emissions, with one of the most difficult challenges being packaging.
As part of an R&D test to experiment with sustainable packaging options, the team from MTPak has given me the opportunity to test a couple of different bags in different materials, shapes and sizes. The ones that I tested were (i) a fully recyclable bag, (ii) a biodegradable bag and (iii) a standard foil lining bag.
Before I dive into the details of the test itself, I thought it would be useful to go over the different kinds of packaging used, and why packaging is so important for coffee quality.
What are the most important features for coffee packaging?
Coffee bags are usually the best marketing canvas for a coffee company, but a bag is useless if it doesn’t maintain the quality of coffee. The most common bag on the market is typically a bag with a one-way pressure valve for releasing CO2 and an aluminium foil or plastic lining inside the bag.
The one-way pressure valve is essential. It is semi-permeable and can help the coffee to degas without the bag exploding. They allow the excess CO2 expelled by the roaster coffee out of the bag and doesn't let oxygen to enter, so that the coffee is kind of surrounded in a fresh keeping environment inside the bag. To learn more about why degassing is important, click here.
Many baristas would have had the experience of passing a customer a bag of coffee and watch them immediately squeeze the bag and smell the air (or CO2) coming out of the valve. More times than I can count, I have had to patiently explain that this is not a sniffing or aroma hole, but is in fact a pressure valve and all you smell is the CO2 from the degassing coffee. ‘CO2 hole’ doesn’t seem as great as ‘aroma hole’, but that’s the truth! A lot of the time, the valves used aren’t recyclable – however, there are some great new options on the market offering a more environmentally friendly alternative.
The aluminium foil lining is a little bit trickier, as this is usually the one item that is not recyclable. It does however provide an environment that is safe from light, exterior aromas and heat, all of which can influence and change the flavour of coffee. Heat is particularly bad for ageing coffee – if you have coffee beans in an environment that is too hot, it can make them oily and dry, rapidly speeding up the ageing process of the coffee.
The inner lining of a coffee bag works a little bit like a cooling chamber – not only does it keep the beans at a steady temperature, but compared with other options the heat damage is lower than other bags. Taste tests have proven that this kind of bag helps the coffee to age very consistently and this is exactly why so many roasteries order these kinds of bags.
Testing the bags
So, to repeat: the bags I tested were (i) a fully recyclable bag, (ii) a biodegradable bag and (iii) a standard foil lining bag. All three of these bags have similar shapes, sizes, pressure valves and zip locks; plus, I heat sealed all of them the same way.
For each bag, I used 250g of the same coffee, roasted in the same batch on the same day. From previous experience, I knew that this coffee tended to ‘peak’ around the 18th day after roast, if kept in ideal conditions. So, the idea for this test was to roast this coffee, place 250g into all three bags and then taste test 18 days after roast.
The coffee I used was a Colombian bourbon from El Zacatin. This coffee has a very bold profile, it is super fruity and sweet, has flavours of blood orange, red punch, cinnamon, red plum and cools down to a very juicy red tea flavour. The profile was super steady with high sweetness, medium acidity, medium to high body and medium to high aftertaste for a period of five days between 16 to 20 days after roast.
Farm: El Zacatin, Colombia
Varietal: Pink bourbon
Process: Anaerobic fermentation natural
On each day I taste tested, I used the same recipe for each coffee, from each bag. The taste testing was done blind, meaning a colleague of mine marked the bean samples without me knowing which coffee is which. In order to keep a record of my taste tests, I used my dial-in sheets (you can find a link to them at the end of this blog post). Brewing recipe:
300 ml water
92 degrees water temperature
29 clicks on a comandante hand grinder
30 seconds bloom
5 pours with full drainage ( 60g bloom - 60g - 60g - 60g - 60g)
3:30 brewing time (on average)
The results 1. Standard bag (brown paper, foil interior)
I am very familiar with this kind of bag as I have worked with these bags since I have worked in specialty coffee. They are extremely robust, easy to print on and because the outside is made out of paper, you can put additional stickers on those bags that will definitely hold.
They are easy to stack and can hold 250g or even up to 500g. The zip lock-style seal is easy to use and helps maintain freshness at home.
As stated, I packed the freshly roasted coffee on the day of roasting and opened it on day 18 after roast. I brewed the coffee according to the above recipe and got a little bit of an alcoholic vibe from this coffee, which is quite common in anaerobic fermentation coffees. The acidity was a little bit sharp and I tasted some blood orange flavours.
The aroma was very present and definitely reminded me of red punch and wild strawberries. I would very happily drink this coffee and maybe just give it an extra 2 days to go down in acidity a little bit.
2. The recyclable bag
The first impression of this bag was that I absolutely love it! I love the shape, I love how the bag feels (the texture is a little bit rough), I love the print quality it provides and the colour spectrum that you can choose from. It also has a zip lock and I was able to heat-seal it without any problems (I’ve had issues in the past with recyclable bags).
I have again filled the bag with 250 g of freshly roasted El Zacatin filter coffee from the same batch and taste tested it 18 days after roasting with the same recipe. Compared to the previous bag, the acidity was way more structured in this coffee – it was bright and not quite as heavy as the other one in the standard bag.
I tasted all of the flavours of blood orange, red punch, cinnamon, red plum and red apple. It was crisp, fresh and sweet. This coffee blew me away and I would definitely buy this bag.
3. The biodegradable/compostable bag
The bag itself looks super modern and the print that you can apply is sharp and has a great contrast. It has a zip lock to keep the beans fresh and just like the other bags it heat sealed perfectly. The bag I used was white paper and unfortunately it wasn’t very light proof, which could impact the ageing of the coffee.
What I loved is that the bag is explicitly labeled as compostable, except for the zip lock and the valve. The customer just has to cut those out before placing it in the compost. This is a huge step in avoiding unnecessary waste. The bag has a little bit of an odd shape which could be good for brand recognition but I have to admit it was a bit tricky to get the beans out again.
After the 18 days I also tasted the El Zacatin out of this bag and the flavour of this brew was unfortunately a bit flat. It seemed like the coffee aged way faster than in the other bags and that reflected on the taste experience. Overall it was a little bit muted in flavour and not as bright – I think that this may have been from the additional exposure to light.
On a positive note, I do think though that if you have an espresso blend that usually needs an ageing period of about five weeks, this bag could help you sell this coffee faster and get great results within three to four weeks. So if you want your coffee to age faster, maybe this is the way to go.
Overall I am fascinated by the new opportunities that are becoming available to the coffee industry, which allow us to work together towards a sustainable future. It is great knowing that there are companies actively working on better alternatives to packaging that not only prioritise the environment, but are looking to maintain coffee quality as well.
My favourite bag in this test is, by far, the recyclable bag. However, this is just my test and you may have your own opinion - so, I encourage every single coffee enthusiast, barista and roaster to test and taste different packaging to find their perfect fit for storing our most loved beans. If you're interested in sharing your results, share them with me via my contact page, or share it on Instagram tagging @nbattefeld with the hashtag #packagingtest .
I feel very fortunate that in my hometown, Berlin there are a lot of shops that offer to refill bags or tins to reduce packaging waste. Even in the shop I work in, we have a lot of customers coming in with their empty bags to get them reused at least one more time. Dark brown glass jars have proven to be a great and decorative alternative as well.
I realise that not every roasting business is able to have brown glass jars, tins or reusable options. For this reasons, it's great that packaging businesses are investing in creating a range of sustainable options for coffee roasters, so that we can try to reduce the harm we cause to the planet. Thank you to the MTPak team for allowing to test out these bags!
I hope you found my packaging test helpful, if only to show you that packaging can have a huge affect on the flavour and quality of coffee. If you have more questions about this test or packaging options, don’t hesitate to ask me.
Happy taste testing! Nicole
p.s. the links to my dial in sheets are below. For a thorough explanation, visit my previous blog post here.