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The dangers of shipping coffee

Of all the components that make up a hearty breakfast, the coffee bean is probably the most well travelled. Thanks to the geography of the coffee belt and our own northerly latitude, each bean has travelled at least 4,000 miles (and probably more) to get to our cup. Said by some to be the second most traded commodity in the world (after oil), coffee is probably the most journeyed foodstuff on the planet.

So how does it get here? Let us consider Kenya and the tale of two beans; the string bean and the coffee bean. Once the string bean gets plucked from its vine, it becomes a race against time to get it on to a supermarket shelf in the UK. A Kenyan string bean will, therefore, be packed and loaded onto an aeroplane, potentially arriving on shelves little more than twenty-four hours after being picked. A Kenyan coffee bean, however, enjoys a much more leisurely journey.

 Like the majority of the UK’s imported consumables into this country, from cars to chemicals to corkscrews, coffee travels by ship. However, the nature of the caffeinated bean is such that shipping it is no easy business, in fact, it is the time that the coffee beans spend in a shipping container that represents one of the biggest danger to the quality of the harvested product.

Heavy metal box

Let’s start with the container. There are more than 20 million intermodal shipping containers in the world, but you need to make sure that yours is fit to ship coffee. The first issue is whether the container itself is sound, i.e. not riddled with rusty holes. Second is what was previously transported in the container. Anything with a chemical component is likely to leave a residual odour that will taint the coffee while in transit. Similarly, any attempts to clean the container may also result in a residual ‘disinfectant’ type smell that will again spoil the beans – we call these containers ‘food grade’. 

Even if a container is cleaned without strong disinfectant, it must be left to dry thoroughly before being loaded, as moisture is the biggest enemy of the coffee bean in transit.

Coffee is hygroscopic – it absorbs and stores water from its environment. The dramatic changes in temperature and humidity that a cargo container experiences on its journey across the ocean can have a serious impact on the viability of the coffee. The coffee is generally loaded in warm or tropical climates and heads north, cooling as it goes. As the moist air cools, condensation can form on the metallic inside walls of the container.

Wet, wet, wet

If the moisture level in a coffee bean reaches more than 12.5%, it becomes prone to fungus growth, which has the potential to render an entire container full of coffee beans unfit for consumption.

There are methods that can be adopted when ‘stuffing’ (i.e. filling) a container to ensure that the effects of condensation and excess moisture are minimised. Before any coffee is ‘stuffed’, the container should be lined with cardboard or a double layer of brown paper. The bags of coffee should then be stacked in overlapping layers, like house bricks (known as a ‘saddle stow’), rather than stacked one on top of the other. This reduces the air gaps between the bags, limiting the opportunities for moisture to circulate.

The bags themselves should be of suitable strength and thickness to avoid damage and spillage during loading and unloading, ideally something more than the traditional hessian – Grainpro bags or even vacuum packing.

The position of the container on the ship must also be considered. Containers at the top of the heap on the deck are more likely to be exposed to extremes of temperature, either with the sun beating down on them in the summer, or snow falling on them in the winter. Stowage below the waterline is what most shippers will request, with further specifications that storage be as far from the engine room as possible to reduce heat radiation.

Travel time

One way to reduce these risks is to ensure that the coffee is in the container and on the ship for as little time as possible. Containers sitting on the dock after stuffing are a recipe for disaster and delays on arrival (due to everything from customs issues to congestion to industrial action) can leave your coffee in less than ideal conditions for extended periods.

In general, shippers will have little interest in the contents of the containers and will just focus on getting them from A to B. As a result, theft is possible. In the past, we’ve seen coffee replaced with bags of salt, sand and even dirt while in transit. We even got the offending sand tested to prove it didn’t originate in Kenya but was in fact added in Salalah – a major transhipment port. Skilled thieves have an uncanny knack for removing container doors, unloading coffee, and replacing the doors without actually breaking the seals. As such, shippers are unaware the contents have been replaced. 

Shipping insurance protects against this. For the rest, it’s up to the coffee experts to make sure they pick trusted shippers with proven methods for getting the coffee from port to port in the best condition possible. The right paperwork and the right labelling on the container can make all the difference.

While the coffee you choose may have been in perfect condition at origin, the way in which it’s shipped can change things dramatically before it reaches you.

At DRW, we pay close attention to how all of our beans are shipped, ensuring they arrive in perfect condition. Take a look at our current coffees.