Bags: Does size matter?

In my highly unscientific observations over the past couple of years, I have observed a trend of coffee companies packaging their coffee into smaller and smaller bag sizes. What gives? Well, I think there are probably a number of reasons why companies might choose to go for certain bag sizes over others. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each, as well as possible rationale.

16 oz (1 lb) bags: The standard (at least, at one point in time). As a Californian transplanted to Texas, when I first started mail-ordering coffee, it was through Peet’s, and their standard size when purchasing through their website is 1 lb. Based on a recommendation on the Coffee Geek forum, I tried Red Bird roasters and their standard size is also 1 lb. Granted, two roasters is a rather small sample size, but I got used to the idea that coffee would come in 1 lb bags. I would drink 1 lb in about 2 weeks, so my consumption rate was about right for drinking the coffee at its freshness peak.

12 oz bags: Most coffee at the grocery store is packaged in 12 oz bags, including companies like Peet’s, who sell by the pound on their website. Why?? Who knows. Perhaps it has to do with shelf space. Perhaps retailers think that people that buy coffee from the grocery store won’t want to spend above a certain price point, so they package the coffee into smaller bags to keep the cost under whatever this price point might be ($10?). Most importantly, coffee roasters started selling their mail-order coffee in 12 oz bags. This prompted a rather heated discussion I spotted online about if the change in bag sizing was a good thing, and more than a little speculation about if coffee companies were packaging their coffee into smaller bags but charging customers the same as the 1 lb bag price (or at least, not discounting proportionally). Some people really liked the smaller bags, because it better suited their own coffee consumption habits, whereas others complained because they had to purchase coffee more often, and shipping gets expensive.

One rationale I saw for 12 oz coffee from a mail-order standpoint is that shipping services charge by the pound, and they round up if you are over 1 pound. If you have 1 lb of coffee and you add the weight of the shipping box, the delivery service will charge you the shipping rate for 2 lbs, even though you’re only getting 1 lb worth of beans. So, by making the bags only 12 oz, companies can keep the shipped weight at or under 1 lb and thereby save the customer from paying extra for shipping on beans they aren’t receiving.

Another rationale I saw for 12 oz coffee bags comes from Hedgehog and Owl Coffee Roasters, where basically the roaster says 1 lb of unroasted coffee nets around 12 oz of roasted coffee, so it makes sense to package the coffee this way.

10 oz bags: This is something I’m seeing more often lately, notably from Huckleberry and Sterling Roasters. I have no real rationale on this.

8.8 oz bags: To date, the only roaster I’m seeing selling this size is Coava, and they package their coffee into 250 g bags (which is 8.8 oz) because they roast by the kilogram rather than the pound. By sticking with the metric system, they claim it reduces waste and promotes freshness as well as divides evenly with most brew methods.

8 oz bags: Blue Bottle sells their coffee in this size in their retail stores, though you can find it in 12 oz sizes online. I remember buying their Hayes Valley Espresso and thinking, “Wow, what a deal!” because it was only $9. Of course, $18/lb is not an uncommon price for specialty coffee, but somehow it seemed cheaper because I was buying it in an 8 oz bag. I will often see Geisha coffees packaged this way as well, presumably to make the high price tag more palatable. The Oak Cliff Geisha I bought recently would have been a hard sell at $72/lb, but I could talk myself into swinging $36/8 oz.

Because I was interested in the math behind all this, I decided to do some research to see on average what a pound of coffee costs. I decided to compare Guatemalan coffees from a variety of roasters, and to figure out what the actual price per pound of the coffee would come out to. This could not ever be a complete apples-to-apples comparison, as different roasters source their coffee from different farms, and some will charge more because their coffee is organic or fair trade, but I thought it would be the easiest way to compare by choosing one country. I chose roasters somewhat randomly, based on whoever came to mind. Most of the roasters are ones I’ve reviewed on this blog, but there were some others I have not experienced yet (like PT’s, Madcap, and Cafe Grumpy).

Least expensive: Coal Creek Guatemala Huehuetenango, $15.68/lb ($11.70/12 oz)
Most expensive: Case Guatemala Bella Carmona Antigua, $27.36/lb ($18/10.5 oz)

HOWEVER – Case offers free shipping.

When you take the cost of shipping into account, the most expensive roaster was a tie between:
Coava Guatemala Ramon Pablo, $27.20/lb ($15/8.8 oz)
Huckleberry Guatemala Don Manuel, $27.20/lb ($17/10 oz)

Average price of a pound of Guatemalan coffee from these specialty roasters:
(median) $22.72
(mean) $22.78

Does free shipping save you money? Maybe. The roasters that offered free shipping with no minimum purchase were all over the map in the price range for this particular coffee. Rook and Sterling were among the cheapest, Verve was right at the median, and Case was the most expensive.

If anyone is interested in seeing the full breakdown, I’ve linked the Excel spreadsheet I made of the 30 coffees I compared.

Slightly more scientific comparison of actual coffee costs

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