The Best Third Wave Coffee Packaging: Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, Stumptown & More

If you’re an avid coffee drinker, graduating beyond the burnt, over-roasted Starbucks on the corner, you may have heard about the third wave of coffee. This is a trend or movement to produce the highest quality coffee, where coffee is seen as artisanal, like fine wine and cheese, rather than the commodity that makes it’s way into most cups around the world.

Third wave coffee is a complex world where roasters and brewers alike pay micro-attention to the details. Any one individual cup may be heavily influenced by amount of coffee, ground type, water temperature, brewing method, filter type and even where you pour the water into the grounds.

Along with this attention to detail comes packaging to match. Below, I break down the packaging for five third wave coffee companies and show who does it the best.

The reviewed companies are (in no particular order):

  1. Intelligentsia Coffee
  2. Stumptown Coffee
  3. Blue Bottle Coffee
  4. Portola Coffee Roasters
  5. Groundwork

Outside Packaging

All coffees ordered were 12 ounces / 340 grams. This is a standard size, so the boxes should ideally match, holding the coffee inside nice and snug for the journey from roaster to consumer. Outside-the-box branding is important too – the Amazon smile logo is a classic exercise in brand building.

Stumptown, Blue Bottle and Groundwork all had good fitting boxes. Intelligentsia and Portola were too big, particularly the former, with no packaging to prevent the bag from sliding all around inside.

Portola loses points for having no branding whatsoever on the outside of the box. Intelligentsia, Stumptown and Blue Bottle all have printed branding on the outside, while Groundwork uses a couple large stamps to brand the box.

Winners: Stumptown and Blue Bottle

Inside Packaging

What happens when you first open the box? How are you greeted? Does it set the stage for an epic coffee experience? Done right, this creates delight.

Intelligentsia was underwhelming – a bag floating around the box with a packing list, nothing else. Stumptown excelled – an inside box acting as a drawer, holding a bag with an inserted detail card. Blue Bottle also did it right, with an elegant box fold and inside printing, including the URL. Portola was similar to Intelligentsia – just a bag, and not even a packing slip.

Groundwork had the most unfortunate packaging – the seam of the box meets right at the heart of the bag – in my case, the scissors used to slice open the box also sliced right through the bag! My concern approached Matt-Damon-in-The-Martian level. Good thing I was able to immediately transfer that coffee into an airtight container, since the bag was immediately compromised with beans spilling out.

Winners: Stumptown and Blue Bottle

The Bag

The bag that actually holds the coffee is so personal to the coffee experience. It might contain information on the company, brewing methods and the coffee itself. Some of this is printed or augmented with stickers and detail cards.

First of all – the technical components of the bag:

Brand Roast Date Lot Number Resealable Degassing Valve
Intelligentsia Yes – 3/10/16 Yes Plastic Zip Seal Yes
Stumptown Yes – 3/9/16 No Folding Tabs No
Blue Bottle Yes – 3/10/16 No Plastic Zip Seal Yes
Portola Coffee Roasters Yes – 3/9/16 No Plastic Zip Seal Yes
Groundwork Yes – 3/9/16 Yes Folding Tabs Yes


Intelligentsia and Groundwork are clearly the most artful – well-aligned stickers, good supporting information, and a design that just works. Stumptown has a clever plastic lined pouch to hold a description card, but I’d like to see the specific coffee name on the actual bag itself, and without a good seal and degasser, it has to be transferred almost immediately. Blue Bottle lacked information but the accompanying card is an absolute joy. Portola doesn’t have much of anything on their bag.

Winner: Intelligentsia and Groundwork (although the latter needs to protect their bag)


Given that some of these coffees are single source and others are blends, we’re comparing apples and oranges with notes of bourbon, toffee and pomegranate. That said, good descriptions show passion for the product and help create a bond between consumer and brand. Following are the verbatim descriptions that accompanied each of the coffees.

I love Intelligentsia’s commitment to coffee all the way down to the individual grower – the guy that is actually picking beans at the finca. Blue Bottle’s description is whimsical and creative, while Groundwork is quite comprehensive given it’s a blend. Portola, again, could do much better.


Colombia – Tres Santos – Direct Trade
Whole Bean – 12oz / 340g – Roasted 3/10
Cultivated in Cauca by our good friends at Finca Santuario, this edition of Tres Santos is wonderfully fragrant and balanced. We taste flavors of sweet dates and cocoa throughout, along with a clean Navel orange and cranberry finish.
Harvested by Finca Santuario / Camilo Merizalde, July-September 2015


Holler Mountain Organic Coffee
Whole Bean – 12oz / 340g – Roasted 3/9
This popular organic offering rotates peak condition Latin American and East African coffees to maintain a balanced, elegant and consistent profile.
Tasting Notes: Citrus zest, hazelnut, caramel


Three Africans
Certified Organic
Whole Bean – 12oz / 340g – Roasted 3/10
Details: Three Africans is generally a blend of Ugandan and two different Ethiopian coffees, which rotate seasonally. It yields a fruity yet accessible drip coffee, with plenty of body and a clean aftertaste.
Digression: We like to think of Three Africans’ two Ethiopian components – one wet-processed, one dry-processed – as a pair of adventurous twins: rosy-cheeked, scrape-kneed, always a moment away from a romp in the mud. The ultra-balanced Ugandan, meanwhile, is a dutiful parent: loving but firm, ensuring nothing spirals out of control.
Deliciousness: Fruity, radiant, creamy


12oz / 340g – Roasted 3/9
This coffee is a rich, full-bodied blend of seasonal offerings.


Single Origin Limited Reserve
Rwanda Coolac Kabrizi Washing Station, Light Roast
Fair Trade, Certified Organic
Whole Bean – 12oz / 340g – Roasted 3/9
Bright and complex with a blood orange-like acidity and notes of grenadine, Darjeeling tea, and dark chocolate.

The Winner

Intelligentsia and Groundwork both need to box up their artful bags better. Stumptown could use a better sealed bag to protect freshness. Portola roasts and brews a great cup of coffee, but packaging trails far behind. Blue Bottle shows great thought in how they package up and ship their coffee, and this sets them apart.

Winner: Blue Bottle


This comparison was conducted in March, 2016. As companies frequently change packaging and presentation, the information contained above is subject to change. Specialty roasters are welcome to send a bag to us – address is on the contact page.


  1. As someone in the industry for some time, I have received my fair share of coffee orders. However, seeing a comprehensive collection of current packaging trends – curated by a narrator that’s obviously interested in coffee – was a delight filled with actionable intelligence 🙂
    We focus so much on the coffee flavor that the experience of receiving a gift(!) is often lost. As with a hand written letter, receiving a product that is packed with care and attention (but hey, good branding too, am I right) is also important. Good read.

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