The demand for coffee capsules has never been as high as it is today. According to Fior Markets, the global capsule industry will be worth US $29.2 billion by 2025 – making it a lucrative market for many roasters and coffee businesses.
However, it can be easy to underestimate the infrastructure, knowledge, and equipment you need to manufacture and fill coffee capsules. There are a number of key factors to consider, including the ultra fine grind size and specialist sealing methods to preserve freshness.
This has led many specialty coffee roasters to partner with dedicated companies who manufacture or fill high-quality capsules for them, rather than taking this on themselves.
I spoke with two professionals from AFPAK to further explain the capsule manufacturing process. Read on to find out what they had to say.
You may also like our article on whether coffee capsules can be sustainable.
Why are coffee capsules so popular?
Coffee capsules were first introduced to the market in the late 1980s when Swiss multinational Nestlé released its first Nespresso machine.
Since the growth of Nespresso in the 1990s, capsules have only become more and more popular with consumers. It’s estimated that Nespresso alone manufactures some 14 billion capsules every year.
Allen Cao is the machine designer at AFPAK, which produces filling and packaging machines for coffee capsules. He says these coffee products are popular among consumers because of convenience.
“[Capsules provide people with] the ability to drink high-quality coffee anytime and anywhere,” he tells me.
Jeffree Fang is the CEO of AFPAK. He agrees, highlighting the reduced extraction time and an easier cleaning process.
“Coffee capsules are a convenient way for consumers to prepare delicious coffee in a short period of time with minimal cleaning involved,” he says.
Furthermore, with Covid-19 lockdowns throughout 2020 and 2021 forcing the majority of the global population to remain at home, many consumers chose to invest in capsule machines when upgrading their home setup.
Naturally, the exponential growth of the capsule market has led many specialty roasters and coffee businesses to start selling their own.
The coffee capsule manufacturing process, however, can be difficult for roasters to navigate. Specialised equipment and high-level expertise are required to produce, fill, and package capsules, which some roasters may not have access to.
The manufacturing process
Manufacturing coffee pods is a thorough and complex process which requires specialist commercial equipment.
Allen tells me it takes between 30 and 60 days to fully manufacture, fill, and package capsules. But how does the process work?
First and foremost, private label capsule companies need to start by understanding the needs of the roaster they are working with.
“[AFPAK’s process begins by understanding] the customer’s requirements, such as the capsule material and the coffee being used.”
Most coffee pods are usually made from either aluminium or plastic. A roaster’s choice of material depends on several factors, such as durability, thickness, and sealability.
Ideally, roasters need to choose a material that preserves the aromas and flavours in their coffee as much as possible. According to a 2014 research paper, aluminium has the best barrier properties for preserving freshness. Plastic, meanwhile, is a more durable material than aluminium.
After a roaster has chosen their preferred capsule material and shape, as well as the coffee they want to use (which they usually will roast themselves), manufacture can begin.
“[After working with the roaster] AFPAK handles the programming of the machines, parts production and assembly, installation, testing, and shipping,” Allen says.
Once the filling and packaging machine is set up, Jeffree tells me that thorough cleaning and sterilisation are essential to produce food-safe coffee pods.
“[To clean each capsule], the empty pod is passed with an air gun to remove any contaminants from inside it,” he explains. “After cleaning is complete, the capsules then pass through a UV steriliser.”
How are capsules filled?
Jeffree tells me: “Once capsules are cleaned and sterilised, they can be filled.”
A specialist filling machine known as an auger filler is used to fill capsules, dosing straight into the empty capsules before they’re sealed. However, the coffee must first be ground.
Grinding for capsules, however, is not as simple as it might seem. This is because the grind size for capsules needs to be very fine – even finer than for espresso.
This is mainly because of the smaller dose size: most pods contain around 7g of coffee. With such a small volume of coffee, capsule machines need to extract as much as they can from each pod.
In order to reach this extremely fine grind size, capsule manufacturers use sets of industrial-sized roller mills. In AFPAK’s case, Jeffree explains that the first set of mills break the beans, before the second set breaks them into smaller pieces. After that, a third and final set of mills is used to grind the coffee to the required size.
Commercial-grade roller mills are rarely found in roasteries and coffee shops as they are large and expensive, and much more suitable for a factory setting. They produce an incredibly fine and consistent grind size which is ideal for capsule extraction.
“The final extraction depends on both the quality and quantity of the coffee used in the capsule,” Jeffree says.
Because pods require a very finely ground dose of coffee, the smallest of changes to grind size can have a massive impact on flavour – which means that extremely high consistency is an absolute necessity.
Once the coffee is ground, the high-speed, motor-controlled auger filler adds coffee to each capsule. An auger filler is a device often used for the volumetric measuring and dispensing of bulk materials, in the coffee industry and beyond.
Jeffree explains that the supply to the auger filler’s hopper must remain constant during the manufacturing process.
“This supply of ground coffee means that the machine can fill each capsule with the correct dose, which keeps the weight of each capsule within a high-precision range,” he says. “This ensures customers experience consistency in their coffee.”
After each capsule is filled, it must be cleaned for sealing.
“We clean the residual powder from the edge of the capsule in order to fully seal it,” Jeffree tells me.
From there, each capsule is immediately capped and hermetically sealed. Jeffree explains that this includes flushing the capsules with nitrogen “to ensure the maximum freshness of the coffee”.
Allen adds: “AFPAK uses food-grade 304 stainless steel as a contact material so the coffee won’t be contaminated during sealing. All of our machines include a nitrogen-flushing function.”
Sealing and flushing capsules in this way helps to minimise oxidation as much as possible. Because the grind size is so fine, the coffee is susceptible to staling after a matter of seconds.
To ensure that the pods are fully sealed, manufacturers usually test them. This can be done by submerging the capsules in water to see if any air escapes from the seal – which is measured as the oxygen transmission rate (OTR). A low OTR indicates that the capsule is correctly sealed.
“After filling and sealing, the capsules are arranged and packaged into boxes by the machine,” says Jeffree.
Challenges in the manufacturing process
Although the capsule market is certainly lucrative for many roasters and coffee brands, there are still some challenges for manufacturers who produce and package coffee pods.
The capsule industry has faced some criticism, mostly for the volumes of waste it produces.
Research included the Independent newspaper found more than 30,000 plastic capsules go to landfill every month in the UK alone. It can take hundreds of years for these pods to break down.
This has led some roasters to opt for aluminium rather than plastic. In theory, aluminium can be recycled an infinite number of times; it’s estimated that up to 75% of all aluminium ever produced is currently still in use.
As well as including less plastic, there is a growing number of compostable and biodegradable alternatives for capsule manufacture, too. Unfortunately, these options can be limited, costly, and difficult to correctly dispose of. They can also often be worse at preserving freshness, too.
Beyond sustainability with materials used, the manufacturing process itself can also benefit from being environmentally friendly. Allen explains that to help mitigate this, AFPAK uses a range of energy-efficient manufacturing equipment.
Equipment is one of the most challenging aspects of the capsule manufacturing process.
Roasters can choose to invest in a roller mill and auger filler, but this equipment is expensive and they may not have the space for such large machines.
Jeffree adds that health and safety is also an important consideration.
“[You need to] ensure that the capsule is food safe, as well as preserving the quality of the coffee,” he says.
As part of this, expert-level knowledge of capsule production is a necessity.
“Most capsule machines have more than 10,000 parts, some of which are individually designed according to the customer’s needs,” Allen tells me. “[You have to know how to] install these parts.”
Roasters and coffee businesses could theoretically train staff to use these machines, but partnering with a capsule manufacturer is likely to be much less time consuming.
Cost & investment
As well as the time cost of training on this equipment, there is also a financial cost to purchase and install it. Working with a capsule manufacturer can naturally help to reduce these costs.
“AFPAK’s machines can produce between 1,800 and 24,000 capsules per hour,” Allen says. “We can meet the production needs of small, medium, and large roasters.
“We can also produce different types of capsules with one machine,” he adds.
As more and more roasters enter the coffee capsule market, it’s important to remember that production can be complex and costly if you choose to tackle it yourself.
Without the right equipment and knowledge, roasters may struggle to produce high-quality coffee capsules, and could end up making a very expensive error. However, with plenty of growth in this market, it’s likely that we will see more and more roasters diversify in kind – whether they work with external partners or not.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how fresh is the coffee used in pods?
Perfect Daily Grind
Please note: AFPAK is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.
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