Judging a bean by its cover: What coffee drinkers really want from their packaging

When you’re staring at a shelf full of options and trying to make a purchase decision, a product’s packaging is almost as important as the product itself. But when it comes to coffee, most roasters don’t put much thought into the bags their beans are bundled in. Here’s why that needs to change – and what coffee drinkers are really looking for when they stare at that shelf.

Joel Farrell is the Director of Coffee Bags Direct, a company that provides both stock and custom-made packaging solutions for leading coffee roasters and food producers across Australia and New Zealand. He’s also a proud member of The Coffee Commune, and on a recent episode of The Coffee Commune Podcast, he spoke about why packaging is more important than many roasters realise.

“A lot of people come to me and say, ‘I just need a bag for these beans’, or ‘I just want to get my beans on the shelf and sell them’,” Joel said. “They’ve got all these grand ideas for scaling up their product – they want to get into supermarkets, they want to go out to cafés and have 100 accounts – but they have zero excitement about the packaging. But half the time, that packaging is what we go for on the shelf.

“Yes, you know a coffee by one of the big roasters might be a nice, smooth coffee. But when you’re looking for something different, and you’re scanning the supermarket shelf, or you go to get a nice coffee at a café and you’re looking at the bags of beans there… what pushes the customer to buy that bag of beans is most likely going to be the packaging.”

Story comes first

In Joel’s experience, the first thing customers will respond to about a bag of beans is the story – the story of the brand, and of the product itself.

“The story behind the beans, that’s the big one,” he said. “And that isn’t just, ‘This is a Colombian coffee bean’. It should be something like, ‘This is a Colombian coffee bean, and we sponsor the farm, or we give back directly to the farm, and we know we’re helping to advance the farm’s utilities and the workers are being well paid’. If there’s an ethical side to the coffee, the Australian consumer likes to know that.”

A fresh approach

Joel said that consumers are increasingly looking for a unique, hand-crafted experience, as opposed to a more traditional brand.

“The industry is driving forward, and there’s been a big shift in relation to what your consumer wants,” Joel said. “Do they want coffee from that roaster who’s got 400 accounts across Australia, or do they want a ‘craft’ coffee? It’s like the craft beer industry. You’ve seen consumers shift from big gold tin drinkers into drinkers who want fruiter, more complex notes… that’s flowing into the coffee industry as well, and you’re seeing the bigger guys recognise that and act.

“You’re seeing the bigger guys go, ‘Hey, we either need to acquire a brand that has niche appeal for the younger, sweeter coffee drinkers on the Australian market, or we need to look at white labelling’. White labelling [coffee created by one company but packaged and sold under another brand] is quite big at the moment. You’ve got roasters who have a great facility, setting themselves up to be able to roast for other brands.”

Joel said that desire for ‘different’ is driving demand for custom packaging.

“We’ve had roasters come in that wanted to package their beans in test tubes,” he said. “We’ve had people that wanted to recreate the look of ancient scrolls… these are full bespoke packaging options. There’s a lot of movement in the coffee industry, because 99 per cent of coffee is bagged, and people want a point of difference.

“Onyx Coffee are doing [packaging] really well at the moment. They’re paying for it, but it’s that whole iPhone unboxing experience… somebody told me the other day that Apple spend a fortune ensuring that when you slide the phone out of the box, it takes the perfect amount of time between, ‘This is exciting, this is exciting, this is exciting’, and ‘This is becoming an issue, I’m over it’. They spent a fortune on getting that timing right, because the experience matters.”

Sustainability sells

Not only is it important that the product itself be ethically and sustainably sourced, but Joel said consumers expect the packaging itself to be environmentally friendly.

“There are huge pushes towards 100 per cent compostable cups, lids, bags, boxes and so on,” he said.

“You’ve got certain customers out there who want to pay 20 cents per bag, and they don’t care too much if that bag’s going into landfill. But then you have your growing craft market, who are doing 100 to 300 kilos a week, and they’re happy to spend 90 cents on a compostable bag. They work it into their margin, and that flows through to the customer – it becomes a way of marketing their brand/ethos.”

Of course, it’s one thing to say your packaging is compostable, and another thing for it to actually be true.

“I’m pretty passionate about this,” Joel said. “I see a lot of people say things are ‘compostable’, and then I do my research and I find they’re only biodegradable, which means they’re only compostable in an industrial facility. In my eyes, that’s not where we want to be, because unless you’re a big [business] who can afford to truck that packaging to a composting facility, it’s going to go to landfill, and there are not the conditions in landfill to break that product down. It could be thousands of years before that bioplastic breaks down.

“True compostability is… I can put this wrapper in my home compost bin, and within about 30 to 60 days, maybe even six months on the longer side, that wrapper will be eaten up by worms, converted to dirt, and I can use that, without any toxins, on my vegetable garden.

“So it’s a really tough one, because the packaging industry is a marketer’s delight. Compostable, compostable, compostable… you see it everywhere, but do your research and look to see if it meets Australian standards. If it doesn’t meet Australian standards, it might meet China’s standards, which are very different, and you need to be aware of that.

“At the same time, you’ve got to weigh it up, because coffee needs really strong barrier technology for resistance to oxygen. Do you want your coffee to go stale in two weeks? No? Okay, well, then we can’t look at compostable packaging for you. What we’ve got as a middle ground right now is a 100 per cent recyclable bag. We can do that in the coffee industry right now.

“There are guys out there that will let people come into their café or roastery and fill up a tub, and that’s probably the closest you’re going to get to a full-circle sustainable option right now. We’ve also seen, over the last five years, huge amounts of growth in the reusable 10kg drum. You’ll see roasters saying, ‘Okay, if you’re within 100km of us, our guys will come out, drop off your new drums, and take the old drums back to the roastery to be wiped down and re-used’. That’s a more economical and environmentally friendly option, but outside that 100km radius, it’s difficult, because Australia’s so vast and you’ve got freight charges to consider.

“I think, in the future, drones are going to be involved somehow… you won’t have to worry about getting the drums back because the drone will bring them back. You’ve seen Amazon doing it. They’re drone-dropping purchases now. So it will happen.”

Listen to this article on The Coffee Commune podcast.  If you’re perplexed about your product’s packaging, Joel might be able to help you – and if you’re a Coffee Commune member, you’ll get an additional 5 per cent discount at Coffee Bags Direct. You can also follow them on Instagram.

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