The Future of Coffee Packaging

PMOctober 21, 2015 marked “Back to the Future” Day for fans of the “Back to the Future” movie franchise.  On October 21, 1985 when Doc Brown and Marty McFly travelled to 2015, it didn’t seem terribly farfetched to think that hover boards and flying cars might exist.  In 1985, thirty years seemed like such a long time, that surely anything was possible.  I don’t know about you, but my car isn’t flying anywhere. On the other hand, in 1985, who imagined we would have devices in our pockets today that connect us to the world and find our global position via satellite. If Back to the Future Day taught us anything, it’s that some things don’t change as fast as we imagine and other things change unexpectedly. 1985 also happens to mark the beginning of my career in specialty coffee packaging.  So, before we take a take a stab at the challenging question of what coffee packaging will be like 30 years from now, let’s consider where coffee and coffee packaging in the U.S. was 30 years ago.

• In 1985, the can was the predominate coffee package in North America.

• Decaf Coffee was still synonymous with instant Sanka.

• Most coffee was sold in 1 lbs. increments.

• Hanging at a coffee house didn’t exist unless you lived in select major cities and were super-cool.

• Coffee brewing at home was done with an electric percolator or a Mr. Coffee automatic drip machine (where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?).

• The Starbucks store at Pike’s Place Market served their first Caffè Latte and Starbucks was working towards an expansion to six total stores, all in the Seattle area.

• The stand-up pouch was called a Doypack and was quite rare.

• The flexible “foil” bag that was sold in the U.S. was the vacuum packed, “not-so-flexible” coffee brick pack for Folgers and Maxwell House.

• Coffee was just coffee and the only place for most Americans to get a hot coffee drink was at a restaurant or diner.  It cost about $0.75/cup.

• Cold coffee was old coffee.

• A handful of intrepid coffee roasters imagined a world where coffee wasn’t just coffee and U.S. coffee drinkers would choose to pay double for a better cup made from high quality green coffee beans.

• Some specialty roasters adopted the flexible foil bags with one-way degassing valves for roasted coffee.  Many others continued to distribute their product locally in paper bags with tin tie.

• If a foil bag was used, it was a shiny as possible to show off its space-age preservation capabilities.

• Most people accepted the mantra that green coffee could be stored for a year or more in burlap bags, fully exposed to the atmosphere, with no adverse effects.

Now, in 2015, it is not unusual for Americans to stop at a coffee house and pay more for good coffee.  The coffee they purchase might be cold.  Or they may purchase good quality coffee in foil bags with one-way degassing valves at the grocery store to brew at home in their French Press, AeroPress, or other brewing method.  Quality, specialty coffee is roasted and kept fresh in 12 oz. flexible foil, side gusseted bags or the now common stand up pouch (formerly the Doypack) with one-way degassing valve and distributed around the world.  In 2011, the flexible packaging industry launched the first really new packaging style for coffee bags since the Doypack – the Block Bottom Bag.  The favored look is no longer shiny, space age foil, but muted matte surfaces or even paper exteriors on a foil bag.  Some barrier bags are made from renewable materials that will break down in compost. And studies have shown that green coffee beans preserved in barrier bags such as foil or EVOH retain the high coffee grading better than those exposed to the atmosphere.  It is now relatively common for high quality coffee to be bagged in a plastic barrier bag inside the burlap sacks.

So where will coffee and coffee packaging be in another thirty years from now?  Good question.  Since humans have been drinking coffee for over 500 years, it’s safe to say we will be doing it then while we fly to work in our flying cars (Note – I’ll be 82 yrs old then, so I’ll be the guy wearing the hat and flying 45 mph in the fast lane).   Here are some other predictions:

• There’s a good chance that in the future coffee will be packaged in materials that are more sustainable and renewable as more bio-based materials are invented by industry and supported more and more by coffee roasters.

• The now common foil side gusseted bag will be on the wane for coffee if machines for in-house forming/filling/sealing of block bottom bags are popularized and adopted. I have a hunch the improved stability of the block bottom bag will prove a winner over the side-gusseted bags.

• Barrier packaging for green bean may become more and more viable as competition increases for high quality green coffee beans.

• Packaging will be printed using digital technology which will allow roasters to change package graphics on every bag, if they wish.  This will allow customization of packaging to a degree that is not possible today.

• A tall caffè latte will cost $8.

So, I say the heck with Back to the Future Day lessons.  Those are my predictions and I’m sticking with them.  Get ready to strap on your hover board, buy your $8 Latte, and enjoy the ride.

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