PACKAGING: Compromising, Not Sacrificing

Almost a year ago, I began roasting and packaging. It was an exciting time. I was prepping for a summer of brewing pourovers at the Waitsfield Farmer’s Market, and creating an online store, and finally getting my product out into the world. The packaging was far from perfect. To me it looked amateur, yet resounded with craftmanship and authenticity. My packaging required more time than actual roasting, with hand torn linen paper labels, stamped roast dates, hand written batch numbers and roast development numbers, not to mention I was weighing, filling, vacuum sealing AND heat sealing each package individually. I took pride in the packaging because it was my design, and I thought the information I was providing gave the consumer a learning opportunity and a genuine experience connecting them to both myself and the farmer that grew the coffee.

The original packaging KS Coffee entered the market with, while appealing, lacked a refined look, was labor intensive, and didn’t adhere to our sustainability ideals.

The original packaging KS Coffee entered the market with, while appealing, lacked a refined look, was labor intensive, and didn’t adhere to our sustainability ideals.

If you’ve spoken to me lately about my business, you know I’ve been struggling with the element of packaging. Packaging is a critical, yet all too often overlooked piece of bringing a product to market.

Like many food products, coffee requires high oxygen barrier packaging. Coffee is extremely susceptible to oxidation, and not just over the course of weeks. Oxygen damage to coffee freshness starts immediately after roasting. It’s pretty interesting because many roasters allow their freshly roasted coffee to rest for a period exposed to ambient air prior to packaging. This allows the coffee to off-gas carbon dioxide so it won’t puff up the package after sealing, but this practice begins the oxidation process, exposes the coffee to other potential ambient contaminants, not to mention some of the off-gassing that occurs also takes some of the desirable volatile aromatics with it. This makes me sad because I just love the smell of freshly ground coffee, but if it has been ground for a while even in a sealed package, or allowed to rest too long between roasting and packaging, it lacks that fragrance upon grinding.

Photo of coffee resting at a roasting company that will go unnamed. Photo credit: Bryce Fortran

Photo of coffee resting at a roasting company that will go unnamed. Photo credit: Bryce Fortran

As many Vermonters and other environmentally conservative minded folks have, I’ve grown weary of single use plastics, and plastic in general. Our household has made significant moves to limit the amount of plastic or direct to landfill consumer products that enter our home. As a former environmental chemist, I’ve seen firsthand all types and concentrations of contaminants we all unknowingly (and knowingly) surround ourselves with and pump into the planet. After witnessing and working with contaminated soils/waters/air/food, and can’t unsee such things. Mundane things liked paved roads, stormwater drains, packaged foods, fish, cheese, and livestock feed, hold dirty little secrets. When I started KS Coffee, I vowed to try to make every part of my company constantly improve toward sustainability and positive impact. I refuse to allow these words to become meaningless in a world of marketing terms and prized economic growth. I have been told that I am missing out on opportunities because of my standpoint, that in order to make any difference, I need to become financially successful first, and use my money and influence to bring about change. I staunchly refuse to accept this, mainly because I’ve seen company after company with brilliant vision grow very quickly using the money first, valued change later approach, gradually allowing their moral compass to fall away in the interest of meeting financial or performance goals. Anyway……..back to packaging.

Appearance, of course, holds trident value when choosing a product’s packaging. This could be the first intro a potential customer has to the product. The image, tactileness, and usability presented inherently sets forth expectations as to what lies inside. Not only will the potential buyer gather (hopefully) factual information about the contents (quantity, whole bean vs. ground, roast development, origin, certifications, etc.), but they will make inferences about quality, taste, and the type of experience they will have based on the package, sometimes even the kind of person it makes them if they purchase that product or what others who see them with the product will think of them. I’m not gonna lie. The remarkable amount of psychology that goes into this shit is beyond me. I just know it’s important.

This accounts for 3 primary components I wanted to pay close attention to when choosing packaging: coffee preservation functionality, appearance, and end of life use/destination. Mind you, this is not a small decision. Smaller minimum bag orders start around 2500 bags. I’ve seen minimum order quantities of 10,000 and even 25,000 for custom printed bags. At a price of anywhere from 20 cents to $2.00 per bag depending on the custom printing, bag material, shape, etc. I was looking at a significant investment. Side note: I am shifting origin inventory frequently for the best quality, so creating one print or even four to five prints to cover my inventory just isn’t practical. I looked at every bag company in the US, and several internationally from the EU, China, and New Zealand. I got so many samples and tested them, with varying degrees of success/failure for oxygen, heat sealing, aroma and flavor leaching, valve functionality, etc. I looked into other formats, like boxes, tins, and jars. I just couldn’t find one package system that fulfilled my criteria, so decisions had to be made.

Some of the packaging KS Coffee has put through oxygen, heat sealing, and composting testing.

Some of the packaging KS Coffee has put through oxygen, heat sealing, and composting testing.

After banging my head against the wall for what seemed like an eternity (a year, so not nothing), I am pushing forward. I have decided to compromise on my ideal aesthetic, but not sacrifice my ideals or coffee quality. It’s an evolution of sorts as far as I’m concerned. I plan to release the new packaging and look early summer, when we go retail (more on that later).

The new packaging will be fairly minimalist. It will be fully compostable in your backyard compost. It will have compostable labels with food grade ink, so there is nothing for consumers to pull apart or separate prior to throwing in the compost bin.  100% compostable is not something commonly offered. I feel very confident that the other bags sitting on the shelf next to KS Coffee bags will not be able to tout a sustainable end of life strategy for their packaging. I don’t fault them in that I have realized the challenges of providing that myself.

The producers of consumer packaging are behind the curve. This is my challenge to the coffee industry to make this a priority. It can be done. It’s not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. With so many far-reaching efforts across the specialty coffee industry to increase standards for improved coffee quality, working conditions, and available opportunities at origin, it only makes sense to demand the packaging industry catch up with the rest of the coffee industry.

-Your Friendly VT Flamekeeper, K