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Coffee industry begins shift to beans in bulk.

Coffee industry begins shift to beans in bulk

Coffee-producing nations are struggling with a vigorous free market, but new coffee products and an improved shipping technique hold new promise for the industry.

Shipping coffee in bulk, while studied for the past 20 years, is an idea whose time has come at the Port of New Orleans. Traditionally, green coffee beans are shipped from the producing nations in 60-kg burlap bags. In Third-World countries, where labor costs are low enough to make the number of jobs created more important than mechanical efficiency, handling individual bags is not a problem. But in the U.S., the largest coffee consuming nation in the world, handling large volumes of coffee efficiently calls for more advanced methods.

Like corn, coffee is easily moved in bulk. In fact, most coffee plants use pneumatic systems to move the beans from blending to roasting, grinding and packaging. Before it enters the plant, however, coffee is still handled the way it has been handled for more than a century; in brown jute bags. That is changing.

Fast Beans, Slow Beans

Shipping coffee in 2,000-pound supersacks and lined containers is a way of life at the Nestle-Hills Bros. Coffee Co., according to John Magnotta, manager of production planning in San Francisco. "We have a large decaffeination factory in Sunbury, Ohio, and we supply beans to all of our other coffee plants around the country." Besides its roasting plant at the Port of New Orleans, Nestle-Hills Bros. has plants in New Jersey and on the West Coast.

The company has been experimenting with lined containers, but moving the idea from research to routine is taking time. Oddly, the barrier is the most popular method for moving beans in bulk, the pneumatic conveyor.

In a pneumatic conveyor, Magnotta explains, beans are blown at high velocity through an empty tube. As the airborne beans race through the pipe, they hit the sides and break. Since broken beans degrade the quality of the coffee, another system had to be developed.

The dense-phase conveyor system nearly eliminates the problem. Instead of blowing loose beans through an empty pipe, a dense-phase system packs the pipe with beans, then pushes them down the pipe by injecting air behind them. Because the pipe is full, the same volume is moved in the same amount of time. Because the beans are moving slower, fewer of them break.

The drawback, says Magnotta, is that dense-phase systems are more expensive. "We don't have dense-phase systems everywhere We aren't really going full-bore on these lined containers, but it is still something we continue to work on."


Supersacks are another story. The company uses the four-foot by four-foot nylon bags extensively at its Sunbury factory. After decaffeinating the green coffee, the factory ships blended and unblended beans to its roasting plants across the nation by piggyback trailer. In New Orleans, 46,000 pounds of coffee arrive in the sacks aboard each trailer.

"The advantage of the sacks is that they eliminate a lot of manual handling," explains Andrew Moreau, commodity department manager in New Orleans. To get the same amount of coffee contained in a single supersack, 13 ordinary bags of beans would have to be slit and emptied.

In contrast, the supersacks are handled by forklift. Cloth spouts at the top and bottom simplify loading and dumping. When a load of beans is dumped, the sack is folded and returned to the Ohio plant, and that saves money too. "We've had sacks that make 30-40 trips," says Magnotta.

Disadvantages are few, but the most prominent is the impact the megabags have on storage space, notes Moreau. Ordinary pallets of coffee can be stacked six high under the rules of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In a particular space, for example, a roaster could stack 500 ordinary bags of coffee, or a total of 76,000 pounds.

Only 24 supersacks can be placed in the same area, for a total of 48,000 pounds. Supersacks are too tall to stack three high under OSHA rules, says Moreau.

New Bulk Facilities

The change to bulk shipment of beans is beginning to have an effect at the warehouse level. Dupuy Storage and Forwarding Corp. and Port Cargo Service Inc., two major New Orleans coffee warehousers, are already preparing for the change to bulk coffee.

Port Cargo has been experimentally receiving bulk coffee in lined containers at its warehouse, according to general manager Kevin Kelly. During the experiment, the coffee is being bagged at the warehouse for further transit. Kelly says that his company is exploring ways to store bulk coffee. Port Cargo has more than 400,000 sq. ft. of warehouse space.

Over at Dupuy Storage and Forwarding Corp., a new bulk coffee handling plant is under construction, says president Allen B. Colley.

"Initially," says Colley, "I think what we will be doing is debagging coffee from regular bags, then transforming it into some form of bulk, whether it be the large bags, or the trailer, or the railcar. Down the road, in the not-too-distant future, we should see some coffee arriving in a bulk form from source."

The main feature of the plant is a tall silo. Inside, the 25,000-bag silo will be divided into vertical cells, each holding a particular lot or type of coffee. Colley explains that the silo will feed a new 40,000-to 50,000-sq. ft. processing area backed up by a 200,000 sq. ft. warehouse that can hold 300,000 traditional bags of coffee. Scheduled to open in 1991, the new facility will offer blending, cleaning and bulk delivery services.

Although many similar products have been shipped in bulk for years, the coffee industry has been slow in warming up to the idea. Part of the reason, says Colley, is the difficulty in assessing the quality of coffee. The standards are subjective rather than objective.

"The time spent on quality in coffee is just incredible. Shippers take tremendous care to prepare it in a certain way. It's handled carefully by the steamship companies. We keep our warehouses very clean to make sure the coffee's fine."

"It goes to the roaster. His seller has tasted it and looked at it. He tastes it and looks at it. After it is roasted, it is tasted and looked at. Each step of the way, someone can say, "This isn't quite right. We're not going to use that.'"

That is why some people prefer traditional bags. It allows the buyer to choose between two specific lots of limited size. "That's going to be very difficult to do when they get into big, big bulk shipments," says Colley. "Our job is to assure our customers that the care we used for bagged coffee is the same care we will use with bulk coffee. I think that bulk will remain a fairly small part of the total coffee business in New Orleans simply because of this reluctance."

PHOTO : Nestle-Hills Bros. uses supersacks for intracompany transfers of decaffeinated beans.

PHOTO : The new Dupuy Storage and Forwarding Corp. bulk coffee handling plant on Jourdan Road will feature a cellularized silo that will hold a variety of coffees ready for blending or pouring directly into bulk containers.

PHOTO : Emptying the reusable supersacks is a completely mechanized process.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:McKelvey, Paul S.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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