How Does The Humble Coffee Bean Get From Costa Rica to Your Cup?

The bedside alarm goes off and you head to the kitchen to start the coffee brewing. Minutes later, you drink from your favorite mug—your senses coming to life. While this popular morning routine is happening in homes across America, you may never realize just how far your coffee has traveled to get to your cup. 

Coffee is grown mainly in Central and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, then imported to the United States, undergoing strict packaging and shipping guidelines along the way. Transporting coffee is an enormous undertaking—it is the second-most traded commodity in the world, with worldwide green coffee production around seven million tons a year.

Once picked, the coffee cherry (the fruit that contains the seed) begins to deteriorate, so the coffee farmer immediately begins the process of separating the pulp from the seed (more commonly called the “coffee bean”) in an effort to prevent spoilage. The beans are then dried, either in the sun or in large machines, and milled, during which the husks are removed and the beans are polished and sorted by size and weight. At last, the resulting beans, now green in color, are ready to be packaged and shipped.


Humidity, Temperature and Aroma—Enemies of Coffee Shipping

Shipping green coffee is a complicated and involved process. The beans are sensitive to moisture, and because they are a plant, can spoil or develop mold. Coffee is almost always ocean freighted to the importer. Moisture can result from varying degrees of seepage or poor storage, but most often the culprit is simply humidity. Coffee beans leave the processing mill with a 12% moisture content, and ideally reaches the roaster with that same content. Shipping environments with high levels of humidity will eventually over-moisten the beans, while those with low levels can suck moisture right out of them. And geography is perhaps most important; coffee beans packed in the Far East, for example, undergo such a drastic shift in humidity from place of origin to final destination that they are known to lose 1.5% of their weight after arrival.

Coffee beans can also be affected by the strong aromas of other goods being shipped alongside them—in fact, the beans (especially once ground) are a well-known odor absorber, and are often used in kitchens and refrigerators as a deodorizer. For this reason, coffee is often segregated from other products. Air quality is another crucial factor, as the beans can take on the scent of any strong-smelling characteristic nearby.

Beyond simply downgrading the quality of the green coffee bean, excessive swings in temperature and humidity can also lead to increased levels of Ochratoxin A, a carcinogenic agent that negatively affects the bean’s flavor.


The Solution—Natural Shipping Bags

Woven bags made from a natural fiber such as jute or sisal are the tried-and-true method for shipping green coffee for two reasons: 1) the nature of the weave allows for good air circulation, which benefits the beans, and 2) the fibers of the bags can absorb comparatively large quantities of moisture and thus prevent water damage to all but the outer layer of beans within.

Given the average conditions onboard shipping vessels and the often-considerable length of the journey, coffee companies typically anticipate losing a small amount of their product to various transit damage.