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Sanka: the fall of a great US consumer brand.

The second of T&CTJ's two-part series on Sanka, examines how a poor-quality cup, new natural decaf methods, and perceived bad consumer perception led to Sanka's decline into relative obscurity


The American coffee scene of 1980 was significantly changed from what it had been 15 years earlier. Specialty coffee had begun to emerge as the coffee of choice for the sought-after Baby Boomer demographic group, then in their 30s, and the varieties and types of decaffeinated coffee were also changing radically.

The original method of using benzene as a solvent for removing caffeine from coffee passed into history, and was replaced through the years with other interesting solvents such as acetic hydrochloric, acetone, alcohol, benzol, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, electric current, ethylene chloride, ethyl ether, petrolic ether, and sodium salicylate, various sulfurous substances. Eventually the process settled into the use of trichloroethylene, and methylene chloride (dichloromethane) as the most widely used chemical solvent for decaffeinating coffee in the post-World War II decades, though other solvents were also in use.

With the specialty coffee revolution came Arabica decaffeinated blends. These were often methylene chloride products which was on the US FDA "GRAS" (generally recognized as safe) list. The converter of choice among the high line US roasters was German manufacturer, KVW (Kaffee Veredelungs Werke) but there were other contenders including Coffex (a Jacobs company), Coffein Compagnie and Hermsen vying for a piece of the US specialty coffee market.

In the 1970s, it was discovered that trichloroethylene caused liver cancer in laboratory mice. In 1975, The Old House Journal, a magazine about home restoration, reported on the dangers of using methylene chloride-based paint remover, pointing out, "When inhaled, methylene chloride is broken down in the body to form carbon monoxide --a toxic substance." In 1981, a study pointed to methylene chloride, in the same broad chemical family as trichloroethylene, causing liver cancer in laboratory mice. American decaf coffee consumers panicked.

The industry tried to stem the tide of negative media and public opinion. A registered dietician, was quoted as saying, "To consume that much (methylene chloride), a person would have to drink 12 million cups a day," US consumers were not convinced. General Foods (and Proctor & Gamble's Folgers brand) switched to using ethyl acetate to process decaffeination.

A New Decaf Method

By the dawn of the 1980s, there were several ways to decaffeinate beans known that did not use harsh chemical solvents, but due to cost considerations they were not in production until there was a pent-up market created by the health concerns of US consumers. Triglycerides derived from spent coffee grounds began to be used as a "natural" decaffeinating solvent. Ethyl acetate, an ester that is found naturally in minute quantities in fruits and vegetables such as bananas, apples, berries, and coffee, also found its way to being used as a "natural" decaffeinating solvent.

Kaffe HAG patented a CO, process for decaffeination in the 70s. It is called by various names such as CO, Process Liquid Carbon Dioxide Method, and Supercritical CO, type, but is technically, supercritical fluid extraction. It may be the process developed by Dr Kurt Zosel for and patented by The Max Planck Institute as Das Verfahren zur Entkoffeinierung von Rohkaffee (DBP 2005293) wird zum Patent angemeldet, or this may be a parallel patent.

Klaus Johann Jacobs' Coffex SA, in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, had been working on a pure water decaffeination system in 1933, but the process was considered economically impractical. With consumers becoming more health conscious, Jacobs introduced it to the market in 1979 under the brand name Secoffex. The name was unfortunate, but once US roasters struck on the idea of marketing it as a "Pure Water" product it became a hit. As the Swiss Water method, it used solely water and osmosis to decaffeinate beans. In 1988, Swiss Water production was moved to a new facility in North America, and continues today as a product of The Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Company of Burnaby. BC Canada. Swiss Water, now a registered trademark, has the distinction of being the only decaffeinated processor that has a US consumer-recognized brand presence in the trade.

The Writing Was on the Wall

On 7 February 1979, Mimi Sheraton, The New York Times food critic, wrote, "Decaffeinated Coffee May Fool Experts," an article that slammed the taste of Sanka by name, and lauded fresh roasted whole decaffeinated beans fresh ground and brewed. She cautioned, "I found no decaffeinated coffee that surpassed or even equalled a really fine caffeinated blend. But the possibilities for enjoying fairly convincing coffee are more promising then you might guess after trying only the leading national brands." Toward the end of the piece Sheraton wrote, "The best news in the decaffeinated field to come along in years was announced by Coffex Ltd in Switzerland where, since 1 January, a pure water process using no chemical solvents is said to have been perfected."

The guys at General Foods (GF) headquarters in White Plains, New York, may not have realized it, but the handwriting was on the wall.

In 1984, specialty coffee had been around 15 years, the Specialty Coffee Association of America was already up and running, and the Summer Fancy Food and Confection Show was at the New York Coliseum, where many GF people attended, and specialty coffee was blossoming everywhere. Speaking about coffee marketing and advertising to The Journal News (White Plains, New York) in 1984, GF's evp, Donald Keller said, "We see a trend toward gourmet coffees as a part of a larger trend toward upscale gourmet foods. It's a big enough market to warrant attention, but it's hard to measure." Big coffee still believed that specialty coffee could be just a fad, and large established successful businesses don't invest in fads.

There were issues with the Sanka product, and its marketing, which should have been apparent to the product's brand managers, and marketing people that were not getting attention, but these apparently went unnoticed and unaddressed. Sanka had suffered as had other big brand coffees, with a decline in quality in the post-WWII years, as manufacturers relied more on distribution chain, packaging and massive consumer advertising, than they did on how their products tasted.

The actor, Robert Young, had done wonderful service for the brand, but as more youthful health conscious consumers moved toward decaffeinated coffee, Marcus Welby, MD was not the fellow who should have been making the pitch anymore.

It can almost be said that television was as much at fault for bringing down brands as it was in building them. The thing is, even great advertising will not save coffee whose competitors made better tasting brews. With bad press for chemically decaffeinated coffee flooding the consumer media, and specialty coffee kicking big coffee in the shins every day, General Foods' coffee division dropped Young in 1981. A later spokesperson was the youthful dancer/ actor, Gregory Hines, whose commercials were great, but the ads failed to move the sales needle up because they were not supported by a meritorious product.

Losing the Battle Against Low Quality Perception

In 1984, John Whiteman, public affairs manager for GF, was quoted by Florence Fabricant in the The New York Times as saying, "We never promoted Sanka as an appealing cup of coffee." Whiteman may have been speaking from recent personal experience, but he was misspeaking historically. The statement does offer an idea to what depths the GF corporate mindset had sunk concerning Sanka.

Though the US Food and Drug Administration (USDA) had quieted fears about methylene chloride decaffeinated coffee by 1985, from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, Sanka slumped in sales while better tasting beverages aimed at a younger clientele burst forward in dynamic growth led by Swiss Water decaffeinated, originally made by Coffex, a Jacobs company, and now manufactured in Barnaby BC by Swiss Water Decaffeinated Coffee Co.

Philip Morris purchased GF in 1985, and Kraft Inc in 1990. When the dust settled, General Foods USA was a subsidiary of Kraft General Foods Inc and Kraft decided that it owned too many brands to support independently of each other. It ordered some studies which conveniently or mistakenly told them what they expected/wanted/needed to

It was decided that a slew of GF brand sales had to be consolidated into fewer nameplates. GF's original product, the one that made the company, Postum, completely disappeared to be reincarnated in 2013, by Eliza's Quest Food, which offers it through a limited number of stores (and on its website). In the middle of the brand carnage at Kraft, someone had the notion that Sanka would do just fine being offered as Maxwell House Decaffeinated in a blue bag instead of as itself in an orange package.

In a 1994 The New York Times article, Nan Redmond, a GF spokesperson was quoted as saying, "Maxwell House has a huge, positive image," and, "Sanka users have indicated they consider the fact Sanka is made by Maxwell House to be a positive." If that's what Kraft thought the public was telling them, they should have visited an otolaryngologist (physicians trained in the medical and surgical management and treatment of patients with diseases and disorders of the ear, nose, throat, and related structures of the head and neck. They are commonly referred to as ENT physicians.)

Sanka cup quality was derided in print. A 2003 Chicago Tribune restaurant review, commenting on the coffee said. "And the decaf (no little packets of Sanka) is really good."

Sanka lost its status as a stand-alone brand, becoming just another Maxwell House blend. For a time it retained a small orange Sanka badge on the blue Maxwell House label. It retained its own orange label as an instant coffee (with a small blue MH badge on the label). Eventually, Sanka roast ground disappeared from the grocer's shelf, and ultimately from the foodservice pantry. It survives today only as a single serve and jarred instant product albeit with an orange label.

Brim, Sanka's sister brand, which had been there beside the stalwart orange label during the peak of the decaf market volume in the 1970s and 1980s, lost steam in the following years and was discontinued in the mid 1990s. There was an attempted Brim relaunch in 2008, by River West Brands, which re-purposed it as a brand of coffee with health benefits by adding flavours and nutraceuticals to the grounds. In 2014, there was a launch as a counter top appliance when Senseo Inc introduced a line of Brim automatic-drip coffeemakers, perhaps to be followed in the future by reintroduction of a Brim branded coffee beverage product as well.

The Kellogg Company bought Kaffe HAG from Gund in 1928, and sold it to General Foods 11 years later. GF acquired the original German HAG firm in 1979, bringing the two children of Roselius under the same roof. In 2015, HAG became a Jacobs Douwe Egberts brand.

The coffee whose brand colour and name once defined a category, is now unknown by many. Where Americans just asked for Sanka meaning decaffeinated coffee, now they ask for decaf.

T&CTJ Specialties Editor, Donald Schoenholt, is credited with having been first to roast Swiss Water Decaffeinated coffee in the US. He is also a proud long-time roaster of CR3 Kaffeeveredelung Hermsen decaffeinated beans. He may be reached at:

Caption: Today, Sanka exists only as a jarred instant coffee product and in single serve packets.

Caption: Sanka lost its status as a stand-alone brand but retained its well-known orange colour.

Caption: Sanka single serve is offered in foodservice only.

Caption: Decaffeinated coffee carafes bear orange handles and spouts because Sanka, and its signature orange packaging, once defined the decaf category.
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Title Annotation:DECAF PART II
Comment:Sanka: the fall of a great US consumer brand.(DECAF PART II)
Author:Schoenholt, Donald N.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:May 1, 2017
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