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Fresh Cup Magazine; Roasters Realm, August 2004

Taking Back the Can

By Trish R. Skeie

It's strange how, with a change of scenery, the average becomes exciting. Just back from two coffee-saturated weeks in Northern Italy, the World Barista Championships, the breathtaking views of Venice, all of that amazing gelato, and my memory keeps coming to rest on one thing: touring the illycaffe canning and packaging facility. It may not have been Italy's most romantic or popular tourist attraction, but I loved every second of it. Roughly twice the size of its roasting plant, illycaffe's packaging facility houses an impressive array of rollercoaster-like conveyers, state of the art vacuum packers, inert gas flushers, patented canisters in every shape and size, and large capacity weigh/fillers that feed into clean, sleek steel cans. All of this humming and buzzing, clanking and churning away as I weaved my way through what seemed like endless permutations of the illycaffe coffee can.

The can is such a pedestrian package for fine coffee, and yet I felt like I had a backstage pass to illy's success. What was it that has so convinced the specialty coffee business that bulk bins and craft paper bags are the best ways to present our product? Could it be that we remember all too horribly our father's idea of "good" coffee? He would crank open a can of pre-ground, low-quality sawdust and brew up insipid stuff we wouldn't—by any stretch—classify as coffee. Perhaps we have collectively condemned-by-association any coffee packed in a can. But besides the Italian set, there are some of us (large and small) out to set the record straight.

Conversion To The Can
A few years ago, during my time at a boutique retail/roastery, I managed to forge a lasting friendship with the roastmaster at a large, established commercial coffee company in my area. We met at an industry event where we instantly became interested in one another's operations. We had many conversations about cupping for nuance, the definition of specialty and processing as it related to our respective businesses. This is actually where I first became a can convert. She managed to convince me, that if I were truly to walk my talk about quality, I had to pay more attention to the packaging of my ultra exclusive coffees. Almost on a lark, we took her up on her offer to can some of our best sellers. They were able to process our coffee through their canning line effortlessly because of our small volumes. It was quick, and they only charged us a nominal fee. Sales of these novelty cans immediately matched, and eventually exceeded, the bulk sales in our tiny shop.

When I later joined Taylor Maid Farms Organic Coffee & Tea, I was overjoyed to find a can line in full swing. Taylor Maid has been vacuum canning coffee in-house for 10 years. Not an easy decision for a small wholesaler that began in 1993 with only four organic specialty grade coffees to their name. The initial motivation was purely ecological since sustainability is a major cornerstone of the Taylor Maid mission. Canning in steel outperforms every other package when it comes to sustainability. Consequently, Taylor Maid has only ever looked for ways to increase customer demand and make canning more manageable for the production crew. As a bonus, we have found that the visual impact of the can has proven successful in mainstreaming the earthy/niche image associated with organics purveyors. Increases in sales can be directly traced to improvements in design (three label modifications since the can's inception).

So it has worked for the Europeans, and it's working for a few of us here, but the steel can of coffee remains misunderstood and underutilized by the specialty trade. Why and how should we take back the can?

Why The Can?
Without question, flavor and freshness is key to setting specialty coffee apart from the rest. The rigid steel can undeniably protects freshly roasted coffee better than any other packaging option. Each of us has had a tinge of guilt when we ship out a bag of our best—as if we had set a baby on a doorstep with just a thin blanket for protection—hoping someone picks it up before the elements do their worst to our pride and joy. It's a natural reaction. There are countless variables to master on the road to the perfect cup of coffee. The final variable roasters can control is the package's environment, at least until it reaches the hands of the consumer.

Mané Alves of Coffee Lab International and Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea, gives the can high marks, "It is the only material that protects the coffee completely. I have been testing materials for eight years and nothing gets even close to the can performance-wise. We cupped six-month-old [canned] coffee against a just roasted coffee. The canned coffee tasted exactly like the fresh roast for at least five days, the time that we assume it would take a consumer to go through a 12-ounce can."

The purported "best-before" shelf life of a vacuum-packed can of coffee ranges between six months to a year. Vermont Artisan and Taylor Maid both use small vacuum canning machines (or "seamers") to fill orders, one can at a time. For us, there is no such thing as backstock. Chances are that our cans don't exceed three weeks on a shelf, let alone six months. In a lot of ways, a vacuum-sealed can is just an exceptional version of the foil bag.

Illy documents the best possible coffee packaging option as a rigid canister with an internal pressure higher than the atmospheric pressure. This not only preserves the coffee for as much as 18 months, but the pressurization will actually improve coffee after about a week in the can. The idea is that the oils in the bean become evenly distributed under pressure, creating a natural barrier to oxygen. Good news for a company that ships worldwide.

Similarly, the can can't be beat when it comes to sustainability. Katie Norton, sales representative at Independent Can Co., reports that steel, besides being America's number one most recycled material, is also the most easily reclaimed metal from landfills due to its magnetic tinplating. Eighty-two percent of all steel products already contain recycled steel, so canning makes perfect sense to the environmentally conscious.

For Taylor Maid (and certainly for illycaffe), the can has proven an effective branding and marketing tool. Rob Daly, sales manager at Taylor Maid points out, "With the right design, you have a collector's item, a reusable container, a message carrier. The steel can is great because there is more solid space for text."

The stackable nature and visual impact of rigid steel packaging opens up new avenues in specialty grocery. With a line of smart-looking, freshly packed coffee, you are instantly able to compete with the other shelf-friendly products at your local grocer. It ultimately creates a professional image for both large and small specialty roasters.

The Down Side?
The main obstacle to beginning a line of canned coffee seems to be space. Both full and empty cans will take quite a lot of square footage for storage. For any roaster, extra space is hard to come by.

The cost of equipment is also a consideration. Still, the cost of machinery (can seamer) has not proven to be a real deterrent according to Norton, "After all the benefits of the can have been laid out for [a potential customer], the seamer just becomes an afterthought. We had very positive feedback after exhibiting our cans at this last SCAA show in Atlanta. Very few of the attendees' questions concerned the machines. We were very happy with the feedback we got there, it was our best show all year!"

To be fair, I should also mention the extra costs due to: the weight the can will add to shipments, increased labor time, and the initial investments on the cans as well as the seamer. Regardless, Alves is still a believer, "Cans are not as expensive as people think. Yes, the cans are costly for us because we are buying very small quantities, but the results warrant the cost."

If these last points seem daunting or have dampened your enthusiasm, there is another angle—which you'll remember I used in my first canning endeavor.

Outsource your canning. With one painless (indeed pleasant!) networking contact, I managed to save myself the cost of machines, storage, labor, and a host of other headaches a small roaster comes up against. By the same token, if you happen to be a large roaster with canning equipment collecting dust in your factory, why not expand and update your private labeling enterprise?

The simple and undisputed benefits of the can make it a natural choice for packaging quality coffee. With time, we will hopefully overcome our preconceived ideas about what comes in a can and take it back in the name of specialty.

Trish R. Skeie is roastmaster at Taylor Maid Farms Organic Coffee & Tea in Sepastopol, CA.

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