I have never posted a review of an item that I found totally unsuitable or that I would not recommend on some level to someone. There has only been one previous item I used that I choose not to review. I figure that there is someone out there who can make use of just about anything on the market when it comes to coffee and I try to give all items a fair chance based on that, even if I do not personally find it valuable or useful. This is the first item I have seen that I have chosen to review without testing the item (up to the time of the writing of this article). My reasoning is that while this item may have some value, my research indicates that the company's claims of its function and benefits appear unfounded. -RG
Occasionally I get E-mail messages from companies or from their advertising agencies announcing new products related to coffee. From cupping spoons to commercial packing equipment there seems to be no pattern other than they are all usually related in some way to the coffee industry. Some of the offers are well out of my Venn-diagram's circle of inclusion, while others are useful and may be of interest to my readers. And then there is a small number that leave me scratching my head. Usually these are ignored by me, but this one seemed worth investigating; for the time involved and the return on investment in that time, I wish I had not.
Coffee storage solutions are not at all unique. Some are just decorative, some use a vacuum system to remove some of the air in the container. Some have a venting system of some sort. A small number depend upon the use of advertising hyperbole, slick photography, and questionable facts to sell their products. Guess where this is going.
On May 9, 2012 I received the following E-Mail from "Avalon Communications:"
The chilly weather is just around the corner and there's no better way to keep warm than with a fresh tasting cup of coffee! The Friis Coffee Vault. It's a one-of-a-kind storage coffee canister that eliminates the four elements that break down and destroy the original flavor and taste of coffee.*1 The Friis Coffee Vault makes a great gift since 4 in 5 adults drink coffee everyday! Its' patented design Freshness Valve guarantees coffee lovers will Taste The Difference Within One Week! We are happy to get you any further information you may need and would love for you to keep the Friis Coffee Vault in mind for your Fall gift guides or Beverage and household editorials you may be working on. I look forward to hearing from you!
The temperature was in the 80's where I live on the day the message arrived, so "chilly weather" being "around the corner" sounded good, if inaccurate. The company is located in Texas (the southern U.S.A., not the Southern Hemisphere), so their unseasonal weather forecast had me wondering right off. I read the E-mail, the included press release, and then went off to investigate the product's website.
The Friis "Flavor Vault" is a purpose-designed container for storing coffee. The containers have a snap-clasp closure and gasket-sealed lid. The lid is attached with a hinge on the opposite side from the latch. Up to that point it is the modern equivalent of the bail-style canning jar. Nice looking container, though. They come in two sizes, one of which also comes in a black, "BPA free, FDA safe polymer finish," which is $7.00 less than its $24.95 stainless-steel counterpart, and to my eyes, doesn't look as nice.
The difference between the "Flavor Vaults" and look-alike containers found in retail outlets all over the world is that these vaults have a one-way valve in the lid (illustrated above, from the Friis website). The company states, "The valve is constructed with a unique filter that allows carbon dioxide gas to pass through without allowing oxygen or other gases back in."
We know what a valve does, but I found no details as to the function of the filter nor its location in the valve. The wording would lead one to believe that the filter allows the larger, CO2 molecules out while not allowing the smaller O2 molecules in. They state, "a unique filter that allows carbon dioxide gas to pass through without allowing oxygen or other gases back in." That would, indeed, be a unique filter. I do not know of any permeable membrane which could accomplish that. I assume that the filter keeps foreign matter (dust, insects, etc.) out of the canister, and it is the valve which allows the escape of carbon dioxide, but assumption is all I have at this point concerning the filter's function.
Valved coffee-packing is not at all new either. Anyone who home roasts and has sealed their fresh coffee in a mason jar after roasting has heard the "whoosh" of escaping gases when they open the jar the next day. For the most part, that is carbon dioxide gas escaping under a slight pressure (about 2ATM). The gas is a natural by-product of the roasting process. If you place freshly-roasted coffee in a sealed bag, the escaping gas is sufficient to inflate the bag, and in extreme cases can even cause the bag to burst. So shipping bags often have a one-way valve to allow the gas to escape the bag.
While perusing their webpages I learned that the Friis valved storage containers won the "Most Innovative New Product Award" at Coffee Fest Seattle. I am a bit perplexed as to how a sealed storage container with an added (and presumably) one-way valve in the lid was found to be the most innovative item at Coffee Fest. George Carlin's comment about putting two things together came to mind, and in this case, the vault only barely meets his requirement of, "never having been put together before."
But let's ignore how the valve and the filter function and just accept that it works to let CO2 out and keep oxygen from entering the canister, whether it is the valve or the filter that allows this. Based on that, some questions to be answered would have to be, "Is it necessary or even beneficial to allow the CO2 to escape from a container designed for storing coffee at home?" and, "What is the purpose or benefit of allowing the gas to escape?" Finally, "Is the valve's function and the release of CO2 directly responsible for maintaining the quality or life of the coffee?
I searched for answers to those questions on the Friis website. In various places in the Friis literature and on their website I found the following quotes (all copied-and-pasted here) related to the intended function and benefits of the product. Together they paint a picture of the company's claims:
- "The patented Freshness Valve is the key to eliminating trapped CO2 gas."
- "The Friis Freshness Valve vents away flavor destroying CO2 gas." *2
- "This one-way valve removes the trapped gas that breaks down and destroys coffee flavor over time."
- "The valve is constructed with a unique filter that allows carbon dioxide gas to pass through without allowing oxygen or other gases back in."
- "When you trap CO2 in with your coffee, it breaks down the flavor you love."
- "It is this roasting process that creates the flavor degrading gas. Coffee is perishable much like fruit, milk or bread -- keeping coffee fresh is very important. Without a freshness valve coffee can not be kept fresh." *3
So they base the benefit of this product on their statements that CO2 gas in a storage container of coffee is harmful to the flavor of the coffee. In over eleven years of roasting my own coffee and spending countless hours reading about coffee, I have never read anything concerning CO2 acting upon the coffee to degrade its flavor. I did some research, excerpts of which are offered below. When considered together, they would seem to indicate that CO2 is not the harmful gas as stated by Friis
From a Sivietz Newsletter
"It has been only since about l980, when there occurred a large growth in the specialty coffee business, where hundreds of local roasting operations came into being, that the consumer was able to buy and taste 'just' roasted coffee beans, and a new yard stick in coffee freshness started to be established.
This local roasting was accompanied by the use of “valve” bags, which allowed the CO2 gas to leave the bag (with aromatics) while not allowing oxygen into the bag.
Although in principle, this appeared to offer an extension in roaster freshness, it’s value was far less than claimed, because of two factors: l) It did not take into account the amount of oxidation occurring before packaging, and 2) It did not take into account the level of oxygen left in the bag when it was sealed."
So applied here, a valve which releases CO2 only does just that, while doing nothing to preserve freshness. In terms of coffee storage, it is quite clear that the valve merely keeps the bags from inflating and possibly bursting. The valve does limit further intrusion of oxygen until the bag is opened the first time. In that article, Sivietz explained that it is already too late to worry about that.
Even if we assume that by some amazing process the roaster was able to get the beans from the roaster and into the sealed bag with no oxygen exposure. Once the bag is opened and poured into the storage vessel, any storage vessel, they have been exposed to oxygen in great quantity.
From Illy we get the following information:
"Carbon dioxide is a friend of coffee: part of its Abel side [referring to 'Cain and Abel' of Biblical history. -ED], since it preserves and even enhances quality. Carbon dioxide that escapes from beans forms a barrier against coffee's biggest enemy, its main Cain: oxygen, and the oxidation process it fuels. Oxidation is part of staling, and it degrades quality by altering coffee's essential oils and aromatic components, ultimately creating a rancid taste akin to butter left out too long."
According to Illy, the CO2 does not degrade coffee as stated by Friis, but quite the opposite. CO2 "preserves and enhances" quality by isolating the beans from oxygen. Simply put, bathing the coffee beans in an atmosphere rich in CO2 and lacking oxygen is good.
From a Barista Magazine article, "Defining Freshness,":
It is difficult to escape the claims we’re bombarded with on a daily basis about the benefits of fresh coffee: Never serve stale coffee again! the advertisements promise....
Keep in mind that the yardstick for measuring freshness of roast is the rate and time it takes for a coffee blend to degas. Degassing is a kinder way of saying ‘decomposing.’
Any material used to pack roasted coffee must block oxygen from permeating through its ‘skin.’ Vacuum sealing this type of packaging reduces oxygen in the package down to around two percent. (Oxygen in our environment is approximately 21 percent.) Nitrogen flushing can displace all but 0.2 percent of oxygen. Furthermore, nitrogen is an inert gas that promotes the ‘protective environment’ required for coffee beans to mature.
Since CO2 is also, for the most part, an inert gas, it too can promote the protective environment required.
Degassing is a normal part of the chemical process that coffee undergoes after roasting
Most of the released gas from coffee is CO2
Roasted coffee in the presence of oxygen will stale more quickly than if stored in an oxygen-free or oxygen-poor environment.
Putting all the above information together we can draw some general conclusions:
So the available information all seems to indicate that not only does CO2 NOT degrade the flavor of stored coffee, in sufficient quantities it can actually help maintain the flavor of coffee.
We could see the Friis statements as being marginally true if applied to very freshly-roasted beans, such as home-roast coffee right out of the cooling tray. These beans still hold a lot of CO2, and using them for espresso will result in a less-than-satisfying experience. The crema will be short-lived, and the excess gas reportedly interferes with the extraction itself, not allowing all the desired flavor elements to be extracted.
In drip coffee CO2 can cause excessive bloom and under-extraction. But the decrease in CO2 over a few days' rest comes in spite of the Friis Flavor Vault and not because of it. Still, that does not support the claim that the presence of CO2 degrades the coffee itself. In these two cases we are referring to the extraction process. Far from being degraded, the coffee is actually too fresh (something most coffee consumers never experience), not "flavor-damaged" by the CO2.
In regards to the Friis claim, "When you trap CO2 in with your coffee, it breaks down the flavor...," I could find nothing that would support that claim.
In order to allow them an opportunity to respond I sent an E-Mail message to "Avalon Communications," (the media agency for Friis), requesting further information and clarification as follows:
While I am always interested in new coffee-related items, I would like to see some proven data on the claims made concerning the CO2 affecting taste. In my 11+ years of roasting my own coffee I have found that CO2 release greatly diminishes in less then 48 hours. While the valve system in the Coffee Vault would allow the CO2 emission to displace the air in the container, after that time (and certainly after a week), once the container is opened to retrieve some of the coffee, air is allowed into the container and it is oxygen that is the enemy of coffee. At that point there is virtually no CO2 being emitted by the beans to displace the air so any benefit of the storage system is negated at that point. I have never read any information on the presence of CO2 being harmful, but there is data to indicate that the presence of inert gases to keep oxygen away from the beans being beneficial.
Wow, you certainly know a lot about coffee. I can say, that having used the storage container myself, the flavors in the Friis Coffee Vault do last longer and taste better than just leaving them in the can or bag in which they came. Sorry this was not a match for you, however we appreciate your knowledgeable feedback!
Color me flattered, but I was looking for some hard data, research, or even references by knowledgeable sources to back up the claims, not anecdotal evidence.
But there is an unspoken assumption. What percentage of coffee drinkers actually have ever had coffee beans in their possession that are noticeably outgassing? I do not know the answer to that, but with the massive amounts of coffee that are sold, particularly pre-ground, in the large red plastic jugs, and in blue cans, and the large, plastic bags of dark oily beans I see in shopping carts, I would think that the Friis valve will rarely open, if at all, for the majority of coffee drinkers. For most coffee drinkers, the valve will get more exercise just from the pressure of trapped air being released upon closing of the lid than from CO2 emissions.
Once again, whether the user's beans are giving off massive amounts of CO2 or very little, all this presumes that the presence of CO2 in the storage vessel is undesirable. As I have stated, I could find no information which would indicate that as fact. What is widely accepted is that the enemies of roasted coffee are air (oxygen), heat, moisture, light, and time, of course. With the exception of the Friis claims, CO2 is not mentioned as part of that list of the enemies of coffee.
In terms of the Friis container, the only benefit, and a negligible one at that, would be that the CO2 emission has the potential to force a bit of the oxygen out of the canister by displacement. But even that is a grand stretch because even if the coffee is freshly roasted and placed immediately in the Friis Flavor Vault, the first time the container is opened to retrieve some coffee, the amount of oxygen introduced would void any benefits in that regard. Sivitz indicated that the presence of oxygen as low as 3% has an effect on flavor. Since our planet's atmosphere is 21% oxygen, any efforts to preserve the coffee previously attempted, whether they be technical or otherwise, is negated by opening the Friis container to retrieve coffee. A storage solution low enough in oxygen to prevent staling is virtually unachievable in the home environment unless you keep a bottle of nitrogen or other inert gas handy to flush out your container each time it is opened. (Note that the use of vacuum will draw more of the preservative CO2 out and expose more of the volatile oils directly to the air. Open the vacuum-sealed container and the coffee can quickly be more stale than if you had just closed the lid without applying the vacuum.)
In college my minor was speech communications and I had a personal interest in persuasive speech. Later, as an elementary school teacher, I enjoyed teaching a language arts section concentrating on advertising and the use of semantics to influence consumers. As I read through the Friis website I found a number of examples of this:
"It is this roasting process that creates the flavor degrading gas. Coffee is perishable much like fruit, milk or bread -- keeping coffee fresh is very important. Without a freshness valve coffee can not be kept fresh."
In the above-quoted statement from Friis, it features the phrase, "much like." It is one of those advertising phrases (like "nothing works better than...") that is used to influence the consumer as well as protect against litigation. Coffee stales, but does not normally "perish" as fruit, bread, and milk. Anyone who has ever taken a good whiff of "perished" milk will attest to the difference between their reaction from that and the odor of staled coffee.
Friis also tells us in that statement that unless you have been using a "freshness valve" you have not been drinking coffee made from fresh beans. They are telling me that I have been drinking coffee that is not fresh because I don't have a freshness valve on my jars. Legally, this would come under the definition of Puffery: promotional statements and claims that express subjective rather than objective views, which no "reasonable person" would take literally.
Friis suggests that you replace the Freshness Valve every two months, and there is even a date wheel on the lid you can set to show when the valve should be replaced. Each canister comes with a one-year's supply of valves (4), and they sell a one-years' replacement supply of four for $4.99 plus shipping.
I had contacted the ad agency, but I now wanted to get a statement from Friis in writing before publishing this article, so on 5/10 I sent Friis Customer Service the following E-Mail message:
In conjunction with my coffee website I have been contacted by Avalon Communications in regards to receiving your product for review purposes. I asked some questions but received no specific answers. I thought I would ask you. I have been home roasting my own coffee for over a decade, doing extensive reading and research in the coffee industry, and even work in [the industry] for the manufacturer of a home coffee roaster, and yet I have never read anything about the presence of CO2 in the storage environment harming the taste of coffee. While I have heard that the human body reacts with a negative feeling when CO2 is present (presumably a survival instinct), I have read no evidence of CO2 damaging the flavor of beans themselves. Can you send me the identity of the sources which support the theory that CO2 damages coffee flavor.
On May 11 I received the following E-mail (with no signature file or personal contact attached. The source of the reply was unknown other than it came from their customer service according to the E-Mail return address "firstname.lastname@example.org"):
Let me talk to the engineer and get back to you.
It is something to do with the CO2 attacking the essential oils on the coffee.
My understanding is the essential oils are 99% of the flavor and the CO2 disrupts the oils if trapped next to the coffee.
To illicit a specific answer I replied to that message with the three quoted excerpts from this article (the ones above from Barista Magazine, Illy, and Sivietz), with comments after each much as you have read above (I refrain from posting all that again).
While waiting for a response I researched CO2. One of the first facts that came up was that liquid carbon dioxide is a solvent used to remove caffeine from coffee. It is also sometimes used to top up wine bottles or other storage vessels such as barrels to prevent oxidation of the contents. Inert gases (and carbon dioxide was listed as one), do not generally react with other materials.
ILMO Products Company is a single-source provider of medical, industrial, and laboratory gases. On their Carbon Dioxide page they state, "Carbon dioxide has a low temperature (-109° F as a solid), is highly inert under most conditions, and although basically non-reactive, becomes chemically active when exposed to moisture or high heat."
The exceptions can include some percentage of it turning to carbonic acid in water such as when it is used to carbonate beverages, and when superheated it can react, such as when used as a shielding gas in arc welding.
The descriptive page goes on to further discuss CO2 by saying, "It is an inert gas that cannot usually be sensed by odor, color or taste although some people claim it has a slightly pungent odor. It is difficult to know when carbon dioxide is present." At higher concentrations it is said to have a sharp, acidic odor.
Probably more than you wanted to know about CO2, but there you go. So basically, being that the coffee should be kept in a sealed container to keep out moisture (and virtually all the water content of the beans is removed during roasting), we can rule out a reaction between liquid water and CO2 on the beans surface. Neither will the beans be subjected to high temperatures. Even in an overheated coffee machine, 210-215F. would be the maximum; well below the temperatures one finds in the welding environment. And if brewing temperatures could cause the reaction we would have heard a lot more about that from research facilities and corporations which specialize in studying the chemistry of coffee.
Based on all of that, I think at the very least we can state, with assurance, that CO2 does not react with coffee in any significant way which would damage its taste. Since the CO2 is coming from the bean itself, if the gas was prone to react negatively with components of the coffee bean, would it not have already done so on it's way out of the bean? What percentage of shipped, roasted coffee would be degraded between the time it leaves the roaster and the time it is consumed? If the degradation was quick, much of the roasted coffee today would never make it to the consumer before it was "damaged by CO2."
Friis states, "Freshness Valve guarantees coffee lovers will Taste The Difference Within One Week!" A "difference" between the Friis Vault and what? Another sealed container? Another container with a one-way valve but no filter? A paper bag? Is the degradation so slow that it only effects beans stored for weeks, or even months? In that case there are other factors to consider:
How long do coffee beans give off a significant volume of CO2 in terms of this discussion? Two days? Maybe three? After that, when the canister is opened and coffee is removed, oxygen is introduced. There will be no further significant amount of CO2 being produced to displace the oxygen which was just introduced. And it may happen that way numerous times a day. The lid will be opened to get out some more coffee. So over a week's time the beans are exposed to sufficient quantities of oxygen, but their emission of CO2 is negligible after the first two or three days. CO2 cannot cause degradation of coffee if it isn't present.
So, if CO2 reacts quickly with the coffee, we would have a difficult time finding any fresh coffee since all roasted coffee gives off CO2 in the short term. If CO2 is bad for coffee over a long term, where is the CO2 coming from?
On Thursday, May 17, I still had not received a response to my E-mail that was supposed to be referred to an engineer, so I re-sent that last E-Mail with the following (re)introduction:
Last week I had contacted you concerning the validity of your company's claims that CO2 degraded the flavor of coffee. I am awaiting some factual evidence from you supporting that claim. My research, some of which is in the message which I sent last week (included once again in this message, below), supports the opposite claim from yours, and beyond that, I found no evidence at all that in normal storage (that is, keeping moisture away from the beans as you also recommend) CO2 is at all detrimental to the flavor of coffee. I am about to publish an article based on the claimed merits of the Coffee Vault and have been awaiting a reply.
By May 21 I still had not received a response so I sent yet another E-Mail to their customer service:
On the 11th and again on the 17th I requested some information from you concerning the claims that CO2 damages the taste of coffee. I still have not received any such verification nor any links or sources to verify that claim. This is my last request before I publish my article. I contend, as does all the research I found, that CO2 next to the coffee helps keep out oxygen and is beneficial, and it is oxygen and NOT CO2 that damages the flavor of the coffee.
Once again I had included the three excerpts from the sources I had previously sent them.
It's Now Friday, May 25, a full two weeks since the customer service representative told me, "Let me talk to the engineer and get back to you," and I have not yet received a response. If they ever supply me with an answer I will post it here.
As the Barista Magazine article stated, "It is difficult to escape the claims we're bombarded with on a daily basis about the benefits of fresh coffee: Never serve stale coffee again! the advertisements promise." Unfortunately, the promises are often empty, and sometimes even unfounded.
UPDATE - May 27
On the Friis website there was a link for media contact, so I used it to send the following E-Mail message:
I have contacted the Friis company numerous times and they have not supplied me with the information I requested concerning their claims of keeping coffee fresh. Would you be able to supply me with the patent number on their valve system?
I received the following reply:
Hi Randy. I have not worked with Friis for the past 2 years so I'm sorry I can't be of help. Here is a name and number [included name and phone number].
So in an attempt to find the patent for their product, I then sent the following E-mail message to Friis Customer Service using a different E-Mail account: *4
Would you please send me the Patent number for the valve/filter system used in the Friis Flavor Vault?
While I was waiting for more information to arrive, I sent an E-Mail to David Heilbrunn, President and Show Manager of "Coffee Fest":
My name is Randy Glass. I own and operate the coffee website "Espresso! My Espresso.com." I was recently contacted by Friis, the makers of the "Coffee Vault." They state that they won "Most Innovative New Product" at Coffee Fest Seattle (year unknown). I have reviewed the product on my website (link to this article included). While I only have eleven years of experience in the field, I did some further research and found their claims not only wholly unsupported but wholly inaccurate when compared to all the knowledge in the field of coffee storage and aging. Intending no disrespect to you or your organization, my question to you (and you may feel free to redirect this message to whomever could possibly supply an answer), is how did this product win that award? I am perplexed as to how a sealed canister with a one-way valve could have been the most innovative new product at the show in light of their claims that it is CO2 that degrades the flavor of coffee.
Thank you for your time.
I quickly received a response from David that he was looking into it, and on May 31 received the following from him:
Randy it appears Friis exhibited at Coffee Fest Seattle 2009. Unable at this time to confirm which place they were awarded. I have come across the attached press packet that they distributed at that show.[That packet contained no new information that I have already shared or appears on their website as of the writing of this article. -RG] Judging criteria was retailer appeal (1-25) and innovation (1-25.) Two judges. Unable to pinpoint who the judges were. This was nearly ten shows and three years ago.
It is now June 11, 2012, and after 21 days (since May 11) of my waiting for a response from Friis, I have given up hope of receiving any evidence from them to support their claims.
*1 - As quoted from the Friis website, "...coffee loses flavor with exposure to light, air, moisture, and carbon dioxide released after the roasting process."
*2 - Their statement, ".. vents away flavor destroying CO2 gas .." is not grammatically correct. here are two variations on this sentence:
".. it vents away flavor, destroying [the] CO2 gas.."
That would be interpreted as meaning that the flavor is released from the canister, and the removal of the flavor damages the CO2 gas. Not a likely interpretation in context of this canister's valve.
Or more likely:
".. it vents away flavor-destroying gas .."
Meaning that the CO2 gas is what "destroys" the flavor, and that is why we vent it away from the coffee.
*3 - "It is this roasting process that creates the flavor degrading gas." As the above example, this would be more grammatically correct if it was written as, "... flavor-degrading gas."
*4 - I have chosen to make all my contacts with Friis by E-Mail and not by phone so that I would have a paper trail to backup the information in this article. Their claims made me sufficiently suspicious before I started out researching this article that I thought it would be best to do so.