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Freshness: a quality essential.

Freshness: A Quality Essential

The primary aim of jute, grass, or burlap sacks and wooden barrels (coffee's historic packaging) was to facilitate movement of a conveniently large portion of the commodity from place to place. There was little or no thought given to other potential uses of packaging. Today protecting the coffee's quality from oxygen, moisture, and alien aromas, have joined portion control as major considerations of packaging designers. Creating a package with a barrier preventing the introduction of moisture, oxygen and foreign aroma and then filling and sealing it while reducing the oxygen already mixing with the coffee and preventing the oxygen from being sealed inside the package with the beans has proven to be a hard nut to crack. It is harder still to prevent oxygen from being introduced to the coffee later when it might be undetected as it attacks the fresh bean's aromatic aldehydes.

In the first half of the 19th Century, Americans purchased coffee from shopkeepers who roasted their own on premises. The purchase made by city folk was most likely only a few days supply. Some country folk still roasted their own at home. The city merchant or country store proprietor roasted only a day or two ahead. Staling was not a consideration in this idyllic world. All the coffee was fresh. The understanding of staleness and the need to protect coffee from oxygen, moisture and warmth only became obvious toward the end of that century.

The post Civil War era and its industrial revolution produced the elements required for development of roasting coffee as big business. The invention of the self emptying roaster by Jabez Burns, the steamship and Brazil's emergence as a coffee giant, the supermarket, the availability of natural gas, electric power, railroads, telephone and telegraph and the introduction of the commercially economic paper bag contrived to make large scale coffee production possible as never before. The opening of the West and the growth of cities in the age of open immigration provided the potential profits of an enormous market.

The economies of scale were not unnoticed in this environment, and soon a consolidation of manufacturers began. As roaster output was concentrated in fewer, stronger hands, the time between roasting and brewing became quite extended as the distribution chain grew more complex. The economy of mass produced and mass merchandised and advertised goods pushed out the local retailer and the local wholesale roaster as well. The sanitary paper bag replaced the open barrel and counter tin. Packages of preground beans replaced the old red store mill. The glassine lined bag was oil and grease resistant. Foil lined bags and later a hermetically sealed can helped too.

The practice of glazing coffee beans, as exemplified by Arbucle's Ariosa, was intended to help retain freshness. The sugar glaze helped to obscure the off-taste of staleness in coffee sitting for extended periods as the coffee "Went west" in a paper bag.

The packaging of coffee in vacuum was first successfully attempted by Edward Norton, a Chicago can maker, in about 1899. He secured patents for his technology and organized the Automatic Vacuum Canning Co. to further develop and exploit the idea in the marketplace. The difference in freshness between the new vacuum canned coffee and other packaged coffee was dramatic. Introduced during the Yukon gold rush by the Hills brothers of San Francisco, the new package became widely used in the western United States where the distribution networks were the longest. During the post World War II era it became the preferred vehicle for coffee throughout most of the country. The South continued to cling to its paper bag packed coffee until the recent introduction of the vacuum brick package.

In the post World War II United States there was a significant gap in understanding about the qualities of freshness and the vacuum can (Then considered the ultimate coffee package). In December of 1973, for instance, the president of the National Coffee Association stated in World Coffee and Tea magazine that vacuum packed coffee stays fresh for years. The NCA spokesman substantially overstated the case for the vacuum can. Degassed ground coffee is passed peak freshness and already on the wane even before it enters the can. Within months the vacuum within a metal can is lost and the coffee within stales. The roasters conducting research knew this them, but the vacuum can with all its faults was the best technology they had to offer.

With time and the general retreat of fresh roasted coffee the consumer settled into the convenience of relying upon coffee that said "Roaster Fresh" on the package instead of being roaster fresh. Consumer expectations lessened with the years adjusting downward to fit the quality and limited variety of what was offered. Relative freshness became the accepted norm. Eventually almost no one remembered what really fresh coffee should taste like. The poor consumer had been effectively desensitized to the taste of fresh roasted Arabica coffee. Their coffee world had largely become that of products already partially degraded in aroma and taste. This was true even though much of the consumer coffee was packaged in vacuum cans. It also may explain, in part, how in the 1950s instant coffee was able to make such a remarkable showing against fresh brewed coffees. Neither product tasted good, and one was more convenient. It is hard to believe today that this is what passed for progress in the age of our fathers.

During this same post-war period, cost became the single most important factor in the sale and manufacture of U.S. coffee products (see May, 1973 WC&T). There was money too to be made in the introduction of Robusta blends after the war. Their flat-oatmeal-like character blended well with prevailing marketing conditions, and the old pump percolator in most American homes. Stale, flat tasting coffee was settling in as the accepted taste of coffee in the U.S.

Gas chromatographic and mass spectrometer measurements can relate the loss of aromatics and their simultaneous oxidation to changes in aroma and taste. Mass consumer taste testing can determine consumer taste awareness, and taste preferences. Unfortunately most of the consumer taste research conducted in the last generation has been concentrated on discovering how insensitive the consumer palate is to changes in coffee quality and freshness. The result of this type of testing taught the roaster what level of degraded taste was acceptable to the consumer. Another type of testing done regularly was to determine whether the consumer prefers the flat stale taste of X Brand or the oaty stale taste of Y Brand. By not giving a choice of a fresh product the results are skewed away from quality. Nobody has learned anything. Nothing has been affirmed except the great American pastime of providing fodder to the advertising copy writer. The consumer loses again.

The consumer's low standards of expectations are met admirably by the general run of coffees which have been designed to fit the perceived consumer taste profile. Additionally, many consumers (particularly in the South and Western United States) are purchasing 3 lb. cans of Roast/Ground coffee (Though that may be a months supply) for a small savings in pennies and a large price in freshness when they get around to the second pound in the can that was opened over a week ago. Don't even ask about the quality of the beverage brewed from pound number three.

Mixed Blessing

The move from the "Tomato" can for coffee, with its plastic cover (Which surplanted the squat "Key" can in 1963) to bricks in the late 1980's has been a mixed blessing for freshness. The soft opened brick requires the transfer of its contents out of the original package into something better suited (like an old coffee can). In pouring from one container into another, the entire coffee surface is introduced to the deliterious effects of oxygen and moisture in the air. Other weaknesses aside, keeping coffee grounds largely undisturbed in the old can helped keep them fresher longer. The economies of the brick over the can in packaging material, shipping weight and case size would be lost to the roaster who did not offer the brick. It is also true that the brick, as introduced to the U.S. in 1966 by Stewart Coffee Co., Chicago, replaced millions of pounds of roast/ground coffee formerly packaged in wholly inadequate paper bags. In this case the coffee is fresher than in previous times.
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Title Annotation:coffee
Author:Schoenholt, Donald N.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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