Sea vs. Air: What’s The Best Way To Ship Your Coffee?

Kahwei Yoong
March 5, 2021
shipping coffee

For specialty coffee roasters, the transport of coffee to and from the roastery is a vital part of running a business. Green coffee beans must arrive in good condition with plenty of time to spare for roasting and packaging, while roasted coffee needs to be able to survive the journey to customers and maintain freshness up until the moment of consumption.

Two of the most common methods of shipping coffee are by sea and by air. While sea freight is significantly cheaper than air freight due to its larger onboard capacity, it can often take weeks, if not months, for the coffee to reach its destination. On the other hand, air freight tends to be more reliable and is far less likely to experience delays, but it demands considerable planning to accommodate the effects of cabin pressure.

To explore the pros and cons of sea and air freight, I spoke with former marketing manager for ONA Coffee, Jordan Montgomery.

See also: Developing Coffee Subscription Packaging

air vs sea coffee

Transporting Coffee: What To Consider

Like all organic products, coffee is sensitive to its surroundings. It can be affected by everything from light and moisture, to oxygen and heat.

As a result, it’s important to ensure that when coffee is in transit, it’s protected from any external factors that could affect its quality. If coffee cannot survive the journey from farm to roaster, or roaster to consumer, then all the hard work that goes into producing coffee will have been wasted.

One of the main challenges is preventing green coffee from exposure to moisture. In his pioneering book on coffee, Jean Nicolas Wintgens explains that the moisture content for a healthy bean should be between 11% and 14%. Anything above that, he says, and it becomes susceptible to pests and mould.

Because coffee is hygroscopic, which means it readily takes up water from its surroundings, the humid conditions typical of transit pose a risk to green beans. According to Wintgens, a relative humidity level of 75% is enough to increase the moisture content of green beans beyond the optimum. To prevent this, coffee must be transported in conditions of no more than 60% humidity.

Another challenge to consider is the impact of temperature fluctuations. Similar to when coffee is moved in and out of a refrigerator, changes in temperatures during transit can cause the buildup of condensation within the coffee bags. As highlighted, this causes moisture content to rise, resulting in a loss of flavour and aroma.

Furthermore, a warmer environment increases the metabolic activity and respiration rate of coffee. The release of carbon dioxide (CO2) accelerates, leading to a deterioration in quality as well as the loss of chemical compounds that contribute to the aroma.

“Even if the moisture content of coffee remains as low as 11%, coffee will lose its quality very quickly if it is exposed to high temperatures for a long period of time,” Wintgens writes.

However, preventing exposure to external factors isn’t the only consideration when transporting coffee. Specialty roasters also need to factor in cost, particularly when first starting out. A common problem for those who have recently opened a roastery is opting for the most expensive means of transport for their coffee, perhaps because it’s faster or more reliable. 

While this may seem like a sensible decision, it can put undue pressure on your business to consistently hit a high number of sales simply to cover costs. As a result, specialty coffee roasters will often only use air freight for transporting small quantities of roasted coffee beans, as it is around four to six times more expensive than sea freight.

shipping coffee

Sea Freight: Transporting Coffee By Sea

The transport of goods by sea, known as maritime transport, has been widely used throughout recorded history. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that containerisation (using large containers to stack goods) became the most common method adopted on freight ships. Today, maritime transport accounts for some 80% of all international trade and is used to transport everything, from oil to grain.

Transporting coffee by sea, both for green and roasted coffee, is the most common method used in the industry. It’s cheap, readily available, and allows for the transport of vast quantities of coffee in a single journey. For specialty roasters, it represents the most economical way of getting their coffee from A to B.

Jordan tells me that when green coffee is transported by ship, roasters tend to pay by the container whether it’s filled or not. Therefore an effective way of reducing costs even further is through collaboration with others.

“If you’re not working directly with the exporter or cooperative, it’s a good idea to team up with other roasters to help fill the container and lower costs for everyone,” he says. “When the container is full, it can also regulate the temperature more effectively. If there were just a few bags of coffee, the container would become super hot; whereas if it were full, the temperature would be a bit more stable.”

Refrigerated containers are another option for controlling the temperature and moisture levels of coffee during transit. But, as Jordan points out, the high costs involved means that this is “not financially viable for the majority of specialty coffee roasters”.

For large orders of roasted coffee, sea freight is often preferred to other means of transport due to its low cost. However, while green coffee can last for months in the right environment, roasted coffee quickly loses its freshness and becomes stale whether it’s protected from external factors or not. This can become a problem when ships are held up during their journeys from one country to another.

“It can take months and months and months to transport coffee by sea,” Jordan says. “Coffee can be sat at a port for ages due to political problems or extreme weather conditions, while customs clearance and quarantines can also take time. This can compromise the quality of the coffee.”

He advises that for roasted coffee, it’s important to plan ahead and take into account these delays, ensuring only the freshest coffee is distributed to minimise the inevitable degradation of quality. 

Roasters can also opt for packaging that’s both airtight and durable to help extend the coffee’s freshness. Research shows that storing coffee beans in hermetic packaging is a good option for preserving the quality of beans, as moisture content is maintained at a stable level.

For green coffee beans, roasters can speak with the producers and exporters to make sure the coffee is transported in GrainPro bags. These hermetic bags are designed specifically for the transport of organic goods, protecting against mould growth and insect infestation.

“I’ve seen some incredible coffees ruined simply because they haven’t been packaged properly,” Jordan says. “If you can’t change the bags you use for transport, you can at least plan for variance.”

air freight

Air Freight: Transporting Coffee By Plane

A faster, albeit more costly, way of transporting coffee is by plane. Known as air freight, it provides specialty roasters with a quick, efficient, and largely uninterrupted means of distributing roasted coffee. 

Due to the speed it takes to fly from one country to the next, it’s seen as the most efficient way of preserving freshness when distributing coffee overseas. It is also far less likely to be affected by environmental or political problems, making it one of the most reliable methods of transporting coffee.

Because of the smaller capacity of planes compared to ships, air freight is typically used for transporting only low volume sales of coffee. However, even then, the high cost puts it out of reach for many specialty coffee roasters.

“I know some people who use air freight for very small quantities of coffee, between five and ten kilograms,” Jordan says. “Per shipment they pay around $2,000 USD. It’s very, very expensive.”

In addition to cost, another factor that needs to be considered when transporting coffee by plane is the change in air pressure. With GrainPro bags, there is usually still some air present in the bag, which may cause it to expand and rupture due to pressure changes in the cabin. As a result, Jordan says that some roasters may opt for vacuum-sealed packaging as an extra precaution.

For transporting roasted coffee beans, he suggests placing sticker over the coffee bags’ degassing valves because, “sharp changes in pressure might damage the valve and how it operates”. This could lead to oxidation, causing the coffee to lose freshness and become stale.

While covering the degassing valves will prevent CO2 from escaping, he says that letting the coffee beans sit in a buildup of CO2 during the flight is not a problem, so long as the stickers are removed soon after landing.

coffee packaging

For specialty coffee roasters, the transport of coffee beans to and from the roastery is a vital step in providing quality coffee to customers. It must be as smooth and efficient as possible to avoid any delays to orders, yet also keep the costs to a minimum. Sea freight and air freight both come with their own set of pros and cons, with the main differences between them time and cost.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable coffee packaging, whether transporting roasted coffee by sea or by air. Our multilayer pouches are sturdy, durable, and easy to pack, ensuring minimal transit costs and the safe arrival of your coffee to consumers. We also offer recyclable degassing valves that can fitted either during or after manufacture, preventing exposure to oxygen and moisture without the risk of the bags rupturing en route to their destination.

For more information on our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team here.

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Sea vs. Air: What’s The Best Way To Ship Your Coffee?

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