Folger’s (owned by Procter & Gamble*) is introducing a new roasting method that they say is “the biggest innovation since the launch of decaf” according to an article in the New York Times. The article says
P.& G. has overhauled its main roasting plant in east New Orleans — which employs more than 400 people — to include a step it calls “predry” or “preroast.” Each bean is fully dried before roasting, ensuring a more evenly cooked bean, which makes it less bitter…Jim Trout, innovation leader for research and development, at P.& G., said: “It’s like thawing a turkey before you cook it. If you don’t, the outside will be burnt and the inside will still be raw. This way it cooks evenly all the way through.”
P&G makes it sound as if they’ve come up with some necessary innovation that will improve the taste of coffee. The truth is, it’s only necessary for corporations like P&G, Kraft, Nestle, or Sara Lee that deal is millions of tons of coffee to utilize multiple post-harvest steps to make their product drinkable.
Green coffee beans do contain water. The drying process, which takes place shortly after harvest at the farm or mill, brings this down to 11 to 12 percent (further drying makes the beans brittle and the flavor bland). Skilled coffee roasters take the unique characteristics of a particular crop into account (including water content) in order to transform the raw, tasteless bean into a the flavorful roasted product that will highlight the best features of the crop in the cup. They also roast in small batches, from 7 to 25 or perhaps 50 pounds, in order to best control the roasting process and the delicate transformations taking place.
I repeated the word “crop” to remind us all that coffee is an agricultural product, not a bolt or a fan blade. Coffee beans vary from year to year, region to region, farm to farm, and even tree to tree depending on microclimate variables.
That’s the first problem big companies like P&G face. They get tons of beans from multiple sources. Some are wetter than others, and some are drier. They roast them in 300-pound batches. If they are to get any consistency, they have to start off with a uniform product — something closer to a bolt than to an agricultural product. Pre-drying/pre-roasting would indeed even out the beans so that they can “cook evenly all the way through.”
Actually, pre-drying is not a new procedure for P&G. In 1989, P&G used it to make beans more porous in order to impregnate them with compounds that would enhance the flavor while simultaneously treating them with enzymes to extract bitter compounds (found in cheap robusta beans). The following year, P&G applied for a patent using pre-roasting for creating dark roasts. They come right out and state in the application that
Low grade coffee beans with many defects will burn and scorch more readily than wholesome beans, causing non-uniform roasted bean colors and tastes … It is an object of the present invention to dark roast poor quality beans with less tipping and burning when compared to present dark roast processing.
Pre-drying and fast roasting also results in roasted beans that are less dense. In 1991, P&G worked out the method, incorporating pre-drying, that produced reduced density (lighter by weight) high yield (same number of cups from fewer beans) coffee. P&G’s “new” roasting method saves P&G lots of money in shipping costs.
According to the data provided by P&G to the Enquirer, what was once a 13 oz. can will now weigh 11.3 oz. but still produce 90 cups of coffee. Tens of thousands of lighter cans of coffee will add up to significant cost savings in shipping with today’s high fuel prices. If the consumer pays the same price for each can of coffee, it will generate even more profit.
Technically, it’s true that this method improves the taste of Folger’s coffee — because they use low-quality beans to begin with, as is stated in each of their patent applications. In their application “Process for making reduced density coffee,” P&G notes that robustas are the preferred bean (it also states that even moldy beans “show a slight improvement”!).
Do not support these technological “advances” that allow the big multinationals to continue to purchase, and encourage the farming of, low-quality cheap coffee beans. It pushes farmers into poverty and destroys the environment.
*Smuckers purchased the Folger’s brand earlier this year, and the deal is expected to be completed within a few months.