Sustainable coffee bags: Exploring their impact on coffee beans’ sensory quality

Esther Gibbs
December 28, 2023
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Each cup of coffee represents around three years of a farmer’s hard work. Depending on the variety, it can take 3 to 4 years for a coffee plant to produce cherries. Beyond this, green coffee must be packaged in sustainable coffee bags and stored at a cool temperature throughout shipping to preserve its sensory qualities. 

The wrong packaging materials or incorrect storage temperature can have a huge impact on the sensory quality that customers experience. More so, it is a disservice to the effort farmers have invested in cultivating and harvesting high quality coffees.

So, what factors affect the sensory quality of green and roasted coffee? And are sustainable coffee bags meeting expectations? I spoke to Alex Dantes-Smith, Head of European Retail at Fellow

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The importance of storing green coffee correctly

“Freshness is key when it comes to coffee,” Alex says–a statement the majority of coffee enthusiasts would agree with. “We always talk about having fresh coffee to get the best flavour, so it’s important to make sure it’s packaged or stored in the right way to maximise this.”

Both green and roasted coffee are affected by storage temperature, moisture, and oxidation. Before delivery, green coffee pre-shipment samples will be sent and assessed. If the coffee does not meet the same quality on arrival, it falls outside contracted standards. This could lead to the shipment being rejected by the roastery and costing the coffee producers a lot of money. 

Green coffee beans are often dry and dense. Therefore, on arrival in the UK, for instance, green coffee should have a moisture content of around 10-12%. Incorrect storage of green coffee can lead to increased moisture and mould or the growth of fungal bacteria. 

It can also lead to the coffee overdrying, which may cause it to roast differently. Beyond this, incorrect storage can lead to the beans developing baggy or straw-like flavours in the cup. Coffee that has been stored incorrectly will likely taste flat and muted once roasted. The bright acidity tasted in the sample will be dull, and it may lack complex and appealing aromas. 

In turn, this reduces the score and grade of the coffee, which means it will not sell for the expected amount. Therefore, coffee farmers need to invest in hermetic coffee bags, preferably made from recyclable materials such as high-strength PE. This green coffee packaging is strong enough to be reused while offering maximum protection to maintain moisture content and preserve quality and flavour.

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The keys to preserving roasted coffee

Once roasted, the chemical compounds in coffee become extremely volatile. This is why many specialty coffee consumers are encouraged to buy whole beans and grind only what they require for a cup. 

Grinding increases the surface area of the coffee bean. While this is great for extraction, it exposes more of the coffee to oxygen, increasing the risk of oxidation and staling. “Roasted coffee should always be stored at room temperature in a sealed container to maximise the taste and freshness,” Alex explains. “Ideally it should also be placed away from sunlight.”

Barrier protection is essential in preventing the coffee from exposure to moisture, oxygen, and odours. As roasted coffee is extremely porous, it is highly susceptible to strong smells and moisture. Keeping coffee in the fridge, for example, would cause it to take on strong odours, such as onion or garlic. 

When coffee is stored incorrectly, the volatile aromas will dissipate quickly, leaving consumers with an ‘average’ cup. Specialty coffee roasters need to remember that the combination of smell and taste enhances flavour. While the coffee may still taste acidic or sweet, the aromas will be considerably reduced, leading to a muted or ‘stale’ flavour. 

Therefore, to maintain maximum freshness, roasted coffee must be packaged in non-porous materials, or have an interior lining. Beyond this, the coffee bags must be sealed and contain a degassing valve. Resealable and recyclable zippers in coffee bags allow customers to keep their coffee fresh once it is open. 

Additionally, the option of vacuum sealing reduces the amount of oxygen in the coffee bag and can be an extra step in preventing oxidation.

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Sustainable coffee bags: Which materials preserve coffee quality?

“Most coffee packaging doesn’t do much to keep the coffee fresh,” Alex says. For instance, a paper bag will not provide an effective barrier, as it is a porous material. This is why many coffee roasters invest in plastic packaging or multilayer coffee bags

Multilayer packaging comprises composite materials that provide additional barrier properties, strength, and storage stability. The majority of multilayer coffee bags combine low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or polyethylene (PE) with ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH), aluminium foil, or a lining made of polylactic acid (PLA). 

The outer layer is usually chosen for its mechanical stability, structural integrity, and its printability. Furthermore, it must be able to withstand punctures and scratching that may occur during transit. The inner layers are chosen for their ability to absorb UV rays and keep out moisture and oxygen.

Notably, multilayer coffee packaging may be more challenging to recycle, but it is not an impossible task. That said, waiting for governments to make the recycling facilities more accessible may not be feasible. It is up to coffee shops and roasters to manage what happens to coffee packaging after use before it becomes mandated. This will help avoid penalties and fines, and also impress customers who are looking to support brands that share their concern for the planet. 

One way to start is by moving away from petroleum-based plastics and investing in sustainable coffee bags made from compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable materials. For example, kraft or rice paper coffee bags can be lined with polylactic acid (PLA) or LDPE, which are easy to recycle. 

At MTPak Coffee, we want to help keep your coffee fresh, from green beans to the final product. Our hermetic green coffee bags offer specialised storage and packaging solutions that seal in freshness and maintain the sensory attributes of your product. Multiple layers of high-barrier packaging mean these airtight bags extend shelf life significantly, preserving natural oils and flavours for richer, nuanced profiles.

For more information on coffee bags for green coffee or roasted coffee, contact our team

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