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Quality coffee on the rise

02 October 2015

After a £2.5 million investment in its Dartford site, UCC Coffee has doubled its roasting capacity and can now offer much more variety for their customers.

UCC Coffee UK & Ireland decided to make the investment in its Kent Roastery for two main reasons; capacity and for the long-term vision of the company. UCC Coffee had reached their maximum capacity and wanted to invest in technology that would serve the company and its long-term goals for the next twenty to thirty years. Originally, the company was processing around 7,000 tonnes of coffee annually with two roasters onsite. One of the roasters remains, but the second was replaced during the upgrade and the replacement roaster has opened many doors for the company since they went live with their investment on 1 April 2015.

“Traditionally, there are two big manufacturers for roasting equipment and we spoke to both German-based companies when we decided to make the investment,” says Rahul Ghosh, Director of Roastery Operations at UCC Coffee. “We also looked at an Italian company to gain insight into the latest technology available on the market so we could make an informed decision. As we were looking for equipment that will last us over the next 30 years, we decided to invest in a state-of-the-art Probat Neptune 1500 Drum roaster.”

The new roaster has capabilities that enable the company to produce coffee with darker roasts, match taste profiles for customers and longer roasts, for example. It widens the portfolio of UCC Coffee’s offerings as they source 18 different types of green coffee from different origins and with different certifications, such as Fairtrade, decaffeinated, organic and Rainforest Alliance. Those 18 types of coffee can make around 100 different blends, which creates about 400 different SKUs. UCC Coffee’s ground coffee makes up about 20% of their volume while whole beans make up the other 80%.

As part of the CAPEX plan, UCC Coffee has also upgraded their green bean transportation systems and silos to cope with the increased capacity. “The old system was designed to cater to two roasters roasting at 100k batches in 4 – 5 minutes,” explains Ghosh. “The new roaster can handle 320k batches at 10 – 11 minutes, so we had to upgrade the rate at which the beans were transferred into the roaster. Everything had to be upgraded to not only match the capacity, but also to handle a third machine, if we decide to invest in a third roaster.” 

The newly installed Probat Neptune 1500 Drum roaster uses traditional methods of a drum turning on a horizontal axis to slow roast the beans. It replaces an older roaster that used hot air at a very high volume to swirl the beans around, which is quick but tends to break the beans. The new Probat roaster comes with a catalyser built in which is highly energy efficient as it utilises thermal precleaning followed by catalytic afterburning of the exhaust air produced during roasting. The temperatures only rise to 320°C, reducing energy consumption and emissions.

“We’re making the savings because technology changes vastly over 20 – 30 years, which is the lifespan of these types of capital equipment,” explains Ghosh. “So the gains in technology since our last investment in roasting equipment have resulted in savings of both cost and efficiency.”

After the coffee is roasted, it’s sprayed immediately with around 30 litres of water to arrest the roasting process as quickly as possible. The beans reach temperatures of 220 - 230°C and if they’re not cooled immediately, they will continue to roast which will give a much darker roast profile than required. Spraying water on the coffee will also bring moisture back into the beans, before they transfer to the packing lines.

One of the biggest challenges that the company faced was the height of the roof to the existing factory. “There’s only a few millimetres between the highest point of the equipment and the roof, so we had to specify exactly how high to go, as we didn’t want to play around with the roof, or the height of the roof,” says Ghosh. “We worked closely with the manufacturer so that they were aware of the exact shape, design and dimensions of the roof, but it was still an engineering challenge to overcome. We have a good relationship with Probat because UCC Coffee has 28 manufacturing sites worldwide, and we have used their equipment in most of those sites. The service contract we have with them includes a 24 hour helpline and also allows the company to dial in from anywhere in the world because everything is computerised now and can be controlled from their headquarters in Germany if anything goes wrong. They can even start roasting themselves if they want to!”

The other major challenge the company faced was its foundations. Built on marshland, the site required the services of an architect and surveyor to fully audit the site and ensure it was reinforced to withstand the added weight of the new investments. Holes up to 10 feet deep were bored and concrete used to strengthen the foundations. 

The site used to be controlled by a Siemens 5 PLC, which is now outdated and isn’t supported anymore. “We upgraded to a Siemens 7 PLC, which controls the whole movement and flow of the plant and was upgraded along with the roaster,” says Ghosh. “The PLC controls everything from the green coffee coming into the roaster to leaving the roaster.”

Market trends
The coffee market is continuing to grow, especially in the out of home market. While tea remains the national drink, especially at home and when people are looking for comfort, the out of home coffee market is developing.

“The hot drinks market is expanding, so it’s not a case of choosing tea or coffee,” says Phil Smith, Head of Category and Insight at UCC Coffee. “People split their drinks throughout the day, alternating between tea and coffee on the whole. The sales for coffee are additional, rather than cutting into the tea market. Although sales for traditional teas are declining while specialist teas, like fruit tea, are in growth. But it’s the same for coffee. Instant coffee sales are in decline, while good quality coffee and retail coffee are showing growth. High quality roast and ground coffee are selling well.”

There’s a difference between the perceptions of tea and coffee that determines how and when they are consumed as well. Coffee is often used for meetings and coffee shops are easy meeting places. Not to mention that the different styles of coffee determine when they are consumed. A latte lends itself to a mid-morning drink, but a milk-laden beverage doesn’t go down as well mid-afternoon post lunch. An Americano, on the other hand, tends to be consumed later in the day. 

“Initially, the trend definitely came over from the US with stores like Starbucks, and thanks to companies like Costa Coffee, the UK is well regarded as one of the leaders of world coffee for the out of home market,” explains Smith. “In the UK, we’re happy to adopt new trends in coffee whilst other countries in Europe are perhaps more traditional in their approach to coffee and don’t embrace new trends as easily. In Italy, for example, they won’t let you order a latte in a large size, whereas in the UK, the general population tends to trial new trends and either embrace it or discard it.”

Smith also points out that the growth in capsules for home coffee machines such as Tassimo or Nespresso has increased the at-home coffee market as consumers try to emulate the standard of coffee found on the High Street. Convenience is key, whether it comes in a capsule or a bag. 

The biggest trend in coffee, for Smith, is the move towards better quality. “Our investment in the new roaster means that we can move with this trend, as people are drinking lighter roast coffee as well as more Americano-style drinks, which are served without milk so bad coffee can’t be disguised,” says Smith. “People are exploring and enjoying the selection of their favourite coffee blends. For example with the Nespresso selection packs, consumers are learning to distinguish what flavours they like and what regions of coffee they prefer. Drinks are also getting smaller as part of this focus on quality. The old 20 ounce and 16 ounce size cups aren’t as popular now as they once were. The 12 ounce cup is much more popular – Pret A Manger only serves a 12 ounce coffee and its Costa Coffee’s biggest seller in terms of size. People are moving away from quantity and towards quality.” The old 20 ounce cup size is equivalent to a pint of milk that people were drinking, which is not only going to fill a consumer up but will also create an unhealthy diet. 

In many ways, the coffee sector is going through a similar journey as the wine industry. “Coffee is nowhere near as advanced as wine in terms of people’s knowledge – it’s probably about 10 years behind wine in terms of people’s understanding, but people are starting to learn about the origin of their coffee, seeking out a Colombian blend, for example, or a Kenyan blend,” explains Smith. “People will buy coffee if it’s on a promotion, but it’s not as prevalent as it is in the wine industry. People are discovering their favourite tastes and I think the coffee sector will probably continue to follow the wine model.”

Unlike the wine model, however, coffee only varies by a matter of a few pounds from top quality down to value, and per cup that doesn’t work out as much of a difference at all. And perhaps that has helped the out-of-home coffee market to remain resilient even when the credit crunch hit and out-of-home sales for food and drink were hit quite heavily. 

“Coffee from the High Street is seen as an affordable treat, as opposed to the out-of-home tea market, which is more of a luxury that could be given up,” Smith clarifies. “With tea, you probably make it better yourself, just the way you like it, at home. In the High Street, they might make it too milky or too strong. The High Street coffee brands are being driven to higher standards as the home coffee market is strengthening. While there are a few places that are trying to create tea shops that resemble coffee shops, they don’t seem to be taking off in the same way.”

Popular and future blends
There are blends that remain popular, such as Colombian and Brazilian. “A Colombian profile is citrus and sweet, and Brazilian coffee tastes the way coffee should,” Smith explains. “Anything associated with Italy tends to do well on the shelves because people see the romance of coffee. With blends, people tend to gravitate towards places they associate with coffee, whether that’s a country of origin across the coffee belt or a traditional coffee-drinking country. Then they might branch out to blends from El Salvador, for example.”

And what about regions that are upcoming in the coffee market for blends? “Anywhere in the Americas is still big business for coffee,” Smith muses. “Ethiopia is in vogue right now for coffee, but next year it’ll be somewhere else. Because it’s a natural product, it depends on the crops and the weather of regions. Ethiopia had an excellent crop this year but we don’t know how it will fare next year. India is also popular right now, but it has a distinctive taste because of the way the beans are grown and processed, so it might not be for everyone.”

The next big thing?
According to Smith, filter coffee will be making a serious comeback in the UK and is in fact already making great strides in the market. “Lighter roasted coffees tend to work better as a filter coffee, and with our new roaster, we can tailor our blends to a filter coffee profile,” Smith explains. “Filter coffee unfortunately has a bit of baggage historically with images of coffee sitting on a hotplate for hours, thickening until it’s almost undrinkable. But if filter coffee is made well, with high quality coffee, it can be delicious. You can get much more of a flavour profile through filter coffee. Plus it’s easier to replicate at home, without the need for expensive equipment. A lot of companies, particularly in London, are focusing and specialising in the filter coffee market now.”

It’s clear that the focus for the coffee market right now is quality above all else. UCC Coffee are focusing on producing high quality coffee with what may be a traditional process, but the technology continues to move on, improving energy efficiencies and cost efficiencies and doubling the Dartford site’s volume.

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