The Reason Trader Joe's Packages Whole Bean Coffee In Cans

There's little doubt Trader Joe's is a quirky place to shop; that's all part of the eclectic grocery chain's appeal. Some of those idiosyncrasies — creative products offered at relatively low prices — are enticing. Others — like the brand's inexplicable tendency to suddenly discontinue fan favorites — are puzzling. And then there are those differences that turn out to be so practical, you can't help but wonder why they aren't more universal. Trader Joe's practice of packaging whole-bean coffee in metal cans falls into the last category.

It turns out clunky old coffee cans are way better at keeping coffee beans fresh than fancy gourmet bags. In fact, a good old-fashioned coffee can bests even those specially engineered coffee bags fitted with one-way valves to release carbon dioxide (a byproduct of the coffee-making process) without letting flavor-destroying oxygen inside.

During a 2020 episode of Trader Joe's podcast titled "The Coffee Cuppers Guide to Trader Joe's," hosts Matt Sloan and Tara Miller interviewed Mike and Lauren, representatives from one of the brand's longtime coffee suppliers. When the conversation turned to coffee packaging — what works, what doesn't, sustainability, and cost versus function — coffee expert Lauren didn't skip a beat, chiming in, "Nothing beats the can." The reason? It all comes down to ensuring roasted coffee beans are packaged and sealed as quickly as possible. Here's why.

Timing is everything

It can take as long as six years before a coffee bush produces its first harvestable crop. Then there's processing, drying, milling, cupping, and the roast. And the goal is to package beans quickly because exposure to oxygen can negatively impact their flavor. In the early 1980s, Mike told the podcast hosts that TJ's realized, "Packing the coffee right out of the roaster [gets] the coffee fresher to the Trader Joe's customers." 

You're probably thinking, "Wait a minute. I know Trader Joe's sells coffee in bags, too." You're right. We're not saying packaging whole roasted coffee beans in a metal can is the only way to go, but according to Mike, it is the most efficient way to get fresh beans into consumers' shopping carts. So what's the deal with the bags (and even pods) of coffee that, increasingly, are sharing shelf space with canned whole beans at Trader Joe's? 

Podcast hosts Sloan and Miller turned to another Trader Joe's expert to answer that question, bringing in Lauren Wallace, a TJ's manager in charge of shelf-stable beverages. According to Wallace, the reasoning is twofold — the grocery chain is accommodating customers' buying patterns while incorporating new, compost-friendly packaging. Will this herald the end of days for Trader Joe's whole beans in a can, you ask? Absolutely not. As Wallace told the podcasters, "There are some coffees that are better left whole bean until you're ready to grind and brew."