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.
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
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
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
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,