The price of packaging in specialty coffee

As you might already now, i’m working as a designer at Coffee Circle in Berlin. We source, direct trade, roast and sell great specialty coffee. Please take this as a disclaimer for this article ✌️

Coffee is a great product from a designer standpoint. It’s very obliging, because it looks good in every aspect of it’s existence. From crop to cup, there’s always something involved that just looks good. Even most of the common preparation methods are appealing. The obvious result is, that a lot of designers are circulating around coffee. There are video podcasts about the unpacking of beautiful packaging, where noone ever talks about the quality of the coffee itself. There are lovely posters and apparel about coffee and a lot of the design work is going into the packaging itself, as seen here and here, and i didn’t even started to look at pinterest.

Over the last couple of years, i’ve not seen much areas where sustainability and the ecological footprint is as valuable and narrowly associated to the product as in specialty coffee. Everyone tries to be more direct, more helpful for the farmers and surrounding territory and still produce an excellent coffee without compromises. This is noble and definitely worth the effort.

But… when it comes to packaging there are some strange behaviours and some kind of maladjustment which i can’t entirely understand.

Specialty coffee is a very fragile product from the moment it’s roasted. So the laminates and materials for coffee bags are rather expensive. You need a proper barrier protection and a functioning one-way degassing valve. The closures are mostly little tin-ties or reusable zippers that are added to the top of the bag. This all adds to the price of a single bag.

In Germany, i couldn’t find a single other roaster that still sells ±350g sized bags.

  • On the US market the most common used bag size is 350g (±12oz).
  • On the EU market the most common used bag size is 250g (±8.8oz).

The US market even had a larger standard bag size a couple of years ago of 14-16oz. Here are some current research results as a sexy spreadsheet.

To give you an estimate, on the german market the prices range between 0,32€ to a whopping 0,82€ per bag in my research of packaging options. The highest is one of the biggest competitors on the US market. This is not per se including full printed labels and / or sticker options, sometimes not even the closure or the valve.

You might have noticed it already, the prices for the bag don’t change much between the available sizes. So every time you buy your favorite 250g specialty coffee, you pay an estimate of 0,50€ (±5%) for a functional and well-designed bag. Money that doesn’t help the roaster, doesn’t help the farmer and in most cases even creates new worries for a rising waste problem. And i’m not even talking about the surrounding cardboard box and the delivery truck that comes to you, every time you buy a quarter of a kilogram online.

Don’t get me wrong, adding another 100g doesn’t solve the problem entirely. But having 40% more coffee per bag still is a good start to reduce costs and waste per purchase.

So what is the reason behind all this?

Explanation 01: Specialty coffee gets stale fast
A standard coffee/shot needs about 16-21g of ground coffee. Even if we take the lowest estimate of 16g per coffee, we still end up in 15 coffees at 250g. If you only drink one coffee a day, it’s still gone after about 2 weeks. Staling coffee is an issue, but i think not that fast if your bag provides a proper barrier. Also, most espresso guys will need about half of their bag to get their grinder properly calibrated 😬

Explanation 02: People tend to look at the price first.
I must agree, sadly. This absolutely counts for the german „Stinginess is cool!“ market. Still nibbling on the noble purposes i talked about earlier.

Explanation 03: Everyone does it, so it must be right.
I could fit some dead fish quotes in here. Although, a lot of bag manufacturers adopted this and other sizes are harder to get.

I’m not convinced that these are proper explanations and reasoning behind all this. There must be something i’m missing. Maybe I need another couple of years in the specialty coffee scene to understand this. I’m willing to learn, but not willing to pay pointless amounts on too small bags that end up in the trash sooner or later.
Let me finish with a quote of a well known roaster from Berlin who was my incentive to write this article:

The flat bottom is formed by hand in California before it is sent here—with a process I have never seen on any coffee bag anywhere. We actually looked for over a year for someone who could do this for us.