Treating the symptoms not the disease

24 Sep

Coffee cherries

Lately there have been an increasing focus on how the coffee is packed at origin and at the roastery. Numerous blogposts and comments on forums have glorified the advantages of new methods of packing green beans and at the same time complaining about the shortcomings of the jute bag. Which gas should be used when flushing the coffee? What kind of metal/plastic material is to be used when vac-pacing? What about grain pro?

I’ve been one of these people singing the praise of vac-pac and nitro flushing at origin. Recently however I started asking myself the question if this might be shooting ourselves in our collective feet.

Firstly. There can be little doubt of the eco-unfriendlyness of all this plastic wrapping being used. Tons and tons of thick plastic or metal-like bags being thrown away. In most cases this is in addition to the jute bags. (It’s still often covered in jute as well).

Secondly. The extra costs of getting the machinery to pack these coffees. Is this where we want mils/farmers/exporters to be spending their cash? What if this money where spent in the field or in the nurseries or on wages to farmers and pickers?

Thirldy. What do we actually know of the advantages of packing greens this way? Is it actually hurting the coffee? There are still many answers to be found out. Is this just another fad of the 3rd wave specialty coffee business?

Ok, so this is what I’m getting at: To me the real problem, the disease if you will, is that the beans don’t get to the roaster soon enough. They stay in the producing countries, often in giant warehouses on the docks in high humidity and heat for a long time. Combatting this with new packing is not treating the disease only the symptom: the coffee fades to fast after arriving at it’s destination.

I think our focus should be on what can be done to improve the logisitcs, the mindset of the people in origin and to get the coffee transported much more quickly to the roastery. This is where the problem lies. Beans are being picked in February and arrives at the roastery in September. This is not only happening because of dirt roads and old lorries. It is also in the mindset of the producers and middle men. Sometimes one gets the feeling that once the samples have been approved and the contracts signed a lot of people at origin lean back and relax and then the months fly by.

If this is actually the thruth, are we being to naive at our end? Should we be demanding the coffee be delivered in a certain amount of weeks and paying for the extra cost this might induce instead of paying for grainpro bags or vac-packing and so on?

I don’t think this is the only and absolute solution. It just surprises me that so many discussions on the fading of coffees and how to keep the greens fresh only revolves around packaging, not where the actual problem lies.

I’m deliberately painting things black and white here to start a discussion. The solution may probably be a bit of both for all I know. What are your thoughts on this?

The picture on top of the post lifted from this page.

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6 Responses to “Treating the symptoms not the disease”

  1. Rich Westerfield Friday, September 25, 2009 at 16:38 #

    Excellent points. The extra packaging dampened our enthusiasm for non-jute, although in the one taste test I was part of, there was a difference (which, as you point out, might be due to time in a warehouse).

    With Intelligentsia now its own importer, their speed to market has increased 2-3 months. Have to assume other roasters large enough to do so will follow suit. That’ll mean there’s opportunity for some enterprising folks who want to aggregate services to smaller roasters. Hope to see progress there.

  2. dirtycupcoffee Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 19:44 #

    I can’t believe there are no comments on this yet. Personally, my experience with vac sealed nitro flushed greens are limited to my last shipment of coffee. Two of the origins were packaged thusly and I have to say that honestly, I have never smelled more of the character of the finished roast in the greens more than in those vac/flush bags. One of those origins was from a rather large farm that can clearly cover the cost of the packaging and equipment, as they already provide school, medical care, wages well above average, and housing for its working families. The second was from a rather small farm that, while small, has a strong following among high-end roasters, and gets a premium price form its greens. They also provide school, meds, etc. for their workers. So I’m not sure how much of their operations budget is being displaced by the whole process.

    Being a very small roastery, again, I am limited in my personal experience with the process of shipping from origin, but I understand, at least conceptually, that even the best companies have trouble getting their crops shipped in a reasonable time – Thompson Owen had a container that was in an accident in the shipyard and had to be send all the way back to origin to be re-packed. Elapsed time: something like 2-3 months!! So I see what you mean about the nature of the disease itself being the shipping, not the packaging.

    One more reason I prefer vac/flushed greens is that I, ironically, am very allergic to green coffee and the jute bags full of green will send me into anaphylactic shock in a matter of minutes – vac sealed bags save me from having to suit up and wear a mask when dealing with large amounts of green. ~ Hunt Slade

  3. Olings Monday, September 28, 2009 at 12:21 #

    Sorry about the misunderstanding about comments. I was away for the weekend and have for various reasons chosen to approve all comments individually. There were one comment, but I was also hoping for more on this issue.

    I agree that having the choice between a late delivery packed in jute bags or vac packed I’d go for the latter. But my point was that this might be the wrong focus when what we are trying to combat is that the greens fade to quickly. As for jute bags they are still used if you choose grain pro bags, which is simply lining the jute bags to provide a shield for the greens against the surroundings.

    I welcome the discussion however. I think it’s healthy to once in a while take a step back from the hype, be it this one, machine related or other, that often engulfs our end of the business. I think it’s an effect coming from the extremely experimentation willing attitude that is an important part of the specialty coffee business.

  4. Nick Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 23:36 #

    Thanks for the post – interesting information here. Doesn’t really apply to me directly as a consumer but it’s interesting to get an inside perspective of how this all works.
    Keep up the good work,
    Nick

  5. Fras Def Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 4:02 #

    You raise some interesting points in your post that I am sure many coffee roasters can empathize with. You are correct in saying that grain pro is a bit of a band aid solution, however I think that the logistical exportation issues facing many producers are anything but black and white as you have put it to get this debate going. Port infrastructure in many exporting countries is ill equipped to handle the volume and time deadlines expected by importers often resulting as you have pointed out with coffee sitting around in less than desirable conditions. A recent container that we imported from Africa for example was packed and unpacked several times due to heavy port congestion and when it finally arrived much to our displeasure the few bags of auction coffee that we had put in with the rest of the shipment had significantly deteriorated in comparison to the pre ship which we signed the contract on. How do we resolve this problem lobby foreign governments to improve port conditions? avoid particular ports/origins? neither of these seem particularly practical to me. Another example is in Honduras where some of the highest scoring Cup Of Excellence coffee comes from is under resourced in milling and processing facilitates leading coffee hanging around or being mechanically dried to fast to try and speed up things in the mill, both of these are severely detrimental to the coffees shelf life and flavor profile. What do we do here invest that spare million you have stashed under the mattress ? not buy from this origin leading to poorer returns for farmers and perpetuating the problem of under investment? not an east one to solve. Another situation that comes to mind is in Colombia where the FNC (Colombia’s national coffee federation) works to control the price of the coffee by buying up 30% of the export grade produced in turn driving up the price and then releasing this coffee to the market once a sustainable price point has been reached. This does allow for better returns but in turn it is damaging the reputation of the very product they are trying to protect. I am sure that more than a few of you out there are aware of the 6 month crash that seems to happen to your Colombian, flat, woody, cardboard anyone? We as the importers are stuck between a rock and a hard place we want to stock this delicious and popular origin but we don’t want to buy coffee that isn’t going last long enough for us to sell it… While grain pro may help in this situation it does nothing to address the core cause of the problem. So there are more than just a few problems to try and solve and no real answers apart form the band aid solutions discussed. Clear and open dialog between importer and exporter is crtical in my experience to speeding up shipping time sending back contracts ASAP and responding to queries relating to the shipment in timely manner is a must but this will do little to your box bumped up the cue in a heavily congested port. Understanding some of the issues relating to the origin that you are buying from will help you feel less victimized by the situation so I guess in summation you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

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