Freezing Coffee: Why We Do It And What It Involves

By Evan Howe

Jan 30, 2023

Green coffee preservation through freezing is perhaps our most important area of focus in support of the sourcing philosophy, roasting style, and standard of quality consistency that we are committed to pursuing at Passenger. Freezing coffee has been a core element of our approach since the beginning, and currently 100% of our green coffee inventory, including microlots, Foundational Coffees, all blend components, and decaf are stored in an off-site freezer facility. We are certainly not the first roasting company to freeze green coffee,1 and a growing number of roasting companies have begun to employ similar strategies—but to our knowledge, very few of our peers currently freeze coffee on the scale that we do.

Why Freeze Coffee?

All green (unroasted) coffee has a shelf life from a quality standpoint, meaning that no green coffee will retain its desirable cup characteristics indefinitely without intentional preservation. While the qualities of sweetness, acidity, flavor complexity, and cup clarity that we cherish in the coffees we buy often remain intact for at least a few months following import, there inevitably comes a point in the life of any coffee when desirable cup qualities begin to be masked by flat, drying flavors that are reminiscent of wood and paper. Coffee professionals often describe a coffee that is exhibiting these flat, woody qualities as “faded” or “showing age”, and there is essentially nothing a roasting company can do with faded coffee other than roast it darker, in the hope that aged flavors will be less apparent. Many variables—and often variables that are not the fault of any specific actor in the value chain—can contribute to a green coffee “falling off” sooner than hoped or expected. And once a coffee begins to show age, these unpleasant qualities often worsen rapidly over time. It is always a great shame when a beautiful coffee, representing incredible effort and achievement on the part of the producer, fails to reach its full potential in the cup due to aged qualities.

In over eight years of experimentation, we have found freezing to be an incredibly effective way to indefinitely preserve the freshness and desirable qualities of our green coffees. Freezing coffee has become central to every aspect of Passenger’s approach: from our sourcing philosophy, to roasting and quality control,2 to the year-round menus and unique archival releases that we are able to offer our wholesale partners, online subscribers, and retail guests.

Broader Annual Buying from Foundational Partners

Returning to our earlier discussion of partnership and Passenger’s sourcing philosophy, freezing coffee can immediately be recognized as a key strategy that enables us to pursue the type of investment we are committed to making within the Foundational Partnerships. Freezing coffee dramatically reduces the extent to which we have to factor the risk of green coffee age into our contract decisions: if we can get the coffee from the producing country into the freezer efficiently, that investment will remain an asset indefinitely. This means that instead of buying a few months’ worth of coffee from our partners each harvest, we can confidently contract more than a year’s worth of coffee each harvest. Buying more coffee from our partners each year is better business for them, and it's obviously good for us as we can embrace the strategic benefits of maintaining a longer position— benefits that have been particularly clear amidst the unpredictable international shipping landscape of the last few years.

High Standards of Roast Consistency

In addition to preserving the fresh and pleasing qualities of our green coffees, freezing is also a key contributing factor to Passenger’s highly consistent roasting program. While a common challenge for many roasting companies is the necessity of adjusting roast profiles to green coffees that are evolving as they age, our coffees are picked up from the freezer on the same day every week, thawed for the same short interval of approximately two days, and roasted very shortly thereafter. This means that our roast profiles require very little adjustment— especially in the case of coffees that are purchased from the same producers year after year.

Unique Opportunities for Menu Curation, Wholesale, Partnership, and Retail Experience

Freezing our green inventory for a number of years running and pursuing broader buying from our core sourcing relationships also supports us in curating our coffee menus in unique and strategic ways. In contrast to many roasting companies that present coffees with a highly seasonal focus (so as to maintain a tight position and keep their menus tasting as fresh as possible), Passenger pursues more of an archival focus: sharing an expansive menu of offerings—some available year-round, some with highly limited availability—that we select from a large inventory of green coffees which are kept indefinitely preserved in the freezer.

Freezing coffee makes it possible for us to maintain a Foundational menu of six beautiful, single-origin coffees that are always available and always tasting fresh. Freezing coffee also makes it possible for us to share an expansive and evolving selection of Reserve and Education Lots, representing recent arrivals and notable harvests from the past3 that offer memorable coffee experiences to Passenger’s wholesale partners and retail customers, whether their time on the menu lasts for two years or two weeks.

How do we Freeze Coffee?

Kreider Foods Inc.,a family owned operation specializing in vegetable processing and cold storage warehousing, is located in Lancaster County, PA, a short 15 minute drive from Passenger’s roastery. Given the importance of freezing coffee to Passenger’s operations, it is hard to overstate the importance of the Kreider freezer facility and the hardworking team that supports us in maintaining our green coffee inventory on the premises.

The majority of Passenger’s green coffee inventory is frozen more or less as it arrives. After arrival samples are analyzed and cupped, full bags of coffee, sealed in grainpro liner bags, are frozen, stacked on the same pallets that they were shipped on.

For smaller lots that Passenger’s green buying team has earmarked for the Reserve and Education Lot menus, the process is slightly different. Since these microlots will eventually be roasted in much smaller batches, the coffees are painstakingly weighed out into 10 lb. plastic pails and palletized at the roastery prior to being stored in the freezer with the rest of Passenger’s archived reserves.

Once a week, Passenger’s roasting team drives to Kreider Foods and builds multiple mixed pallets of coffee to be transported back to the roastery and roasted during the following week. In addition to these pallets stacked with full bags of green coffee, the team also builds a pallet of pails to cover Reserve and Education Lot roasting needs for the same time period.

What are some of the extra costs associated with freezing coffee?

Passenger’s green coffee preservation program is, to put it bluntly, labor intensive and expensive. Our roasting team dedicates long hours of each production week making trips to the freezer to collect green coffee, prepping incoming microlots for storage in the freezer, and keeping Passenger’s frozen coffee inventories updated and organized. The work is physically demanding, and the stakes are high: meeting partner and customer expectations depends on the weekly Kreider run, no matter the weather or the road conditions.

In addition to labor costs associated with freezing coffee, Passenger pays monthly storage fees for every pallet of coffee that we store at Kreider Foods as well as freight, palletizing, and unloading charges to transfer incoming lots from the relevant port of arrival to the freezer. For coffees that have been financed in the freezer rather than bought outright at time of arrival, additional “carry” costs are added to the base price and paid to the relevant import partner at time of “release” from the freezer.

Passenger has been freezing green coffee long enough to fully appreciate the fact that this is certainly not the easiest, or the cheapest, way to do things. But despite the challenges and the costs, we see green coffee preservation in the freezer as perhaps the most important strategy that we have adopted in the interest of adding value for our partners at both ends of the supply chain. Freezing coffee changes the “quality timeline” of traditional green-buying in a dramatic way, enabling us to focus more of our buying on the Foundational Partnerships every year. Freezing coffee also makes it possible for us to offer a truly expansive menu while maintaining the incredibly high standard of quality consistency that our wholesale partners and retail customers can count on year-round.

  1. George Howell pioneered many of the approaches to freezing coffee that we have adopted more than 20 years ago!
  2. Passenger’s roasting team also cups/scores our roasts every week, measures the TDS of our production roasts as an indicator of solubility, and checks the success and consistency of each roast with the help of Cropster roast data and ColorTrack color measurement. A key QC benefit of freezing coffee is that the question of green coffee integrity/consistency is largely removed as a variable of concern (assuming that the coffees are in good shape when they go into the freezer).
  3. There are usually 20-30 Reserve and Education Lots available on our menu at any given time.