Diatribe Against Big Coffee Business and Mass-Packaging

Coffee roasters are unabashedly opinionated, and we are no exception. Sometimes we may sound bitter, but our coffee is always sweet. Anyway…

Specialty coffee<coffee roasting by a neighborhood shop was revived in response to the poor quality, factory-roasted, pre-ground (stale), instant coffees that were swilled in offices by the gallon. Unfortunately, former “mom and pop” roasters expanded into franchised operations with centralized roasting facilities, and venture capitalists mined the specialty coffee market for potential profits, distorting some of the facts to fit their product descriptions. The Millstone and Brothers brand coffees at a nearby supermarket claim to fresh. And you can buy Cappuccino in a little foil packet, or gurgling out of a machine at a truck stop.

Packaging technology has made possible the return of the corporate coffee empire in new clothing. There’s a whole hierarchy of the different foil-wrapped gas packing techniques, but I’m not very knowledgeable in this area. Our opinion is that vacuum-packed whole bean coffees are not fresh. Period!

If anything, vacuum packaging allows big businesses who can afford the equipment (it is very expensive) to treat coffee as any other type of inventory. Packaging prevents financial loss by preventing inventory from becoming unsalable, and allows big roasting plants to keep a large supply of roasted stock on hand to cover any surge in demand.

Of course there are chains who have capped their growth to maintain the quality of their product and respect the integrity of their customers. And there are chains that roast coffee in every location. While false varietal claims have caused recent scandals in the market, we think its scandalous that businesses who make high claims to quality aren’t more forward about the freshness of their roasts.

Now the caveat: some vacuum packed coffees are very, very good. Illycafe is wonderfully blended and results in an outstanding cup of coffee. Bad roasting, blending and poor storage conditions can ruin even the freshest roast.  I roasted coffee in a shop that did half their roasting in the morning and half at night. The guy who roasted at night couldn’t judge the degree of roast accurately under the dim incandescent lights, but he didn’t care much about roasting. (Incidentally, I was the guy who roasted during the day, and I quit soon after.) And among small shop roasters you may encounter a place that offers 15 flavored coffees, 20 varietals, ten blends and 8 decaf; it really can’t all be fresh.

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