Coffee Bag Design Series explores the specialty coffee brands with unique packaging designs that stand out and fire the imagination. This week, we spoke to the London-based roaster Mission Coffee Works about how they use illustrations to capture the “feeling” of each coffee.
Establishing a firm foothold in London’s specialty coffee scene isn’t easy.
Home to some of the industry’s biggest names, from Monmouth to Square Mile, it is fiercely competitive and the days when good coffee alone could grab attention are all but a distant memory.
Now, specialty roasters must offer not only high-quality, traceable coffee, but also a strong brand that resonates.
To reach this point, Mission Coffee Works has been on a long journey, undergoing several evolutions along the way.
Located in Hackney in London’s East End, the company started life as a modest street van in Peckham nine years ago.
Its simple philosophy (to get the best beans to people and ensure they knew what to do with them) soon translated into the form of a roastery, from which they focused on wholesale distribution.
They now distribute coffee through several wholesale clients in London, while also selling online via their webshop and subscription service.
“It started as a tiny little roastery,” says Jake Holmes, Mission’s managing director. Since joining in 2019 as part of plans to scale the company, he has already seen it double in size.
“It had about four wholesale customers and the guy who owned it literally used to sleep in the warehouse where they roasted the coffee. It has steadily grown from there, mainly through word of mouth.”
If you step into one of Mission’s coffee shops, it’s impossible to miss their bags. The bright, colourful illustrations on the front, somewhat reminiscent of Matisse’s cut-outs, practically leap off the shelves in the characteristically minimalist interiors of their coffee shops.
Jake explains that they found the agency after searching for someone who they felt understood Mission and what they wanted to achieve.
“The brief was essentially, ‘We love specialty coffee, but we hate a lot of the things that go with being in specialty,’” he explains. “We always felt we wanted to be accessible, while providing enough information about the coffee for people who are really interested in it.”
This is where the two-tone design comes in. In addition to the illustrations, each one of Mission’s bags is half white and half black: the white side features flavour notes and origin, while the black side offers details on everything from varieties to processing methods.
“One side of the bag gives you all the information you could possibly want if you’re really into specialty coffee,” Jake says, “and the other gives you enough information so you kind of know what the coffee is about, like ‘Your easy going brew’ or ‘Your fruity wake up call’.”
Despite initial reservations, the two-tone design ended up being a resounding success. Often, Jake says, wholesale clients will even choose which side of the bag to display depending on their level of specialty.
“A lot of the stuff we get really excited about in coffee is what a lot of people don’t get,” he explains. “So it isn’t relevant. You kind of forget when you work in specialty coffee that you exist in this bubble.
“But then when you start talking to your friends about specialty coffee you realise that none of that information makes much sense to them. They want to get into it, but very few people want to sit there for hours to understand processing methods.
“A lot of people just want to put really good coffee into a cafetiere or an AeroPress – and know that it’s going to taste great.”
Capturing a feeling
In the specialty market, minimalist coffee bag designs have become increasingly widespread.
Pouches with single-colour logos or plain kraft paper bags with little more than a label crowd the shelves of cafés and grocery stores around the world.
However, like any new trend, once it catches on in a significant way, the novelty tends to wear off and its impact starts to wane.
Recognising this, Jake says that, at Mission, they decided to go in the opposite direction.
“I absolutely love the modern, minimal approach to branding,” he says. “But the problem is that everyone’s doing it. And the ones who do it very well already have a well established brand, so when other companies copy them they kind of just get lost.”
Instead, Mission’s illustrations are intended to capture a sense of the coffee and give consumers a subtle idea of what to expect.
“We wanted the illustrations to represent the different feelings of the coffees,” Jake tells me.
“For example, ‘Pivot’, which is our rotating, single origin espresso, invokes an adventurous feeling because it’s got someone walking through mountains. ‘Bells’, on the other hand, is more for just everyday drinking, so it’s an illustration of someone at home.”
This plays into Mission’s idea of accessibility – the approach that specialty coffee is for everyone – but that, ultimately it’s up to the customer to decide the extent to which they engage with it.
There is also a more overarching philosophy to Mission’s coffee bags, which Jake sums up nicely.
“We wanted something that was accessible and fun,” he says. “I guess the best way to describe it is easy going.”
Did you enjoy this edition of Coffee Bag Design Series? Next week, we’ll be speaking to South Carolina roasters Methodical Coffee about packaging that recreates an experience.