RTD coffee revolution

RTD coffee

From bottles to cans and cartons, the coffee industry is embracing ready to drink (RTD) coffee as more than a sugary caffeine hit.

The iced coffee carton is a supermarket and convenience store staple, and serves as many people’s first step into the wonderful world of coffee. The classic ready to drink (RTD) coffee is probably more notorious for its sugar content than the quality of its coffee. But that’s changing. 

Many Australian specialty coffee roasters – Seven Seeds, Code Black, and Industry Beans to name a few – have tossed their hat into the RTD ring, adding pre-made cans, bottles, or even casks, to their arsenals.

St Ali has also embraced RTD coffee, which Owner and Creative Director Salvatore Malatesta says gives the roaster full control over its coffee quality.

“Being able to offer a consistent flavour profile as we reach further afield is really important,” Salvatore says.

“RTD means we can have our coffee in a random petrol stop on the way from Port Macquarie to Byron Bay, with the customer still able to drink a delicious iced coffee or canned brew.”

St Ali has sold bottled ice lattes and filter at its South Melbourne café for years. In 2020, it started experimenting with other formats, including casks, cans, and cartons.

“We’ve done RTD at a cottage-industry scale in the [South Melbourne] café for about 10 years, but the cans and cartons are completely new. They’ve been years in the making,” Salvatore says.

The RTD cans come in two varieties, using the traditional, chocolate-caramel Wide Awake or fruitier Feels Good blends as their bases. Salvatore says the cans had an instant reaction from customers.

“We made 30,000 cold brew cans in the first batch and they sold out online in three days,” he says.

“It’s been interesting watching people buy them, because they’ll pick up two slabs – with 24 in each – then come back in a few weeks and buy two more. The good thing about cold brew you can buy a slab and put it in the pantry. All you need at home is shelf space.”

RTD coffee
Ciel in South Melbourne bottles its own RTD coffee recipe, the Neapolitan.

Cold brew can also serve as an alternative to other types of beverages, in occasions when someone wouldn’t typically go for a coffee.

“What’s cool is you could treat it as a pre- or post-workout, pre-exam energy drink replacement,” Salvatore says.

“Or, when you want to have a cocktail or something alcoholic, but it’s not the right time, you can knock back a cold brew with an ‘adult’ mouthfeel to it.”

The iced coffee cartons, on the other hand, harken back to classic styles of RTD coffee. Made with espresso coffee and milk from Riverina Fresh, Salvatore says it was important to use fresh milk for the best possible flavour, even if it meant a shorter shelf life.

“The iced coffee in a carton is nostalgic to the days of drinking a Big M on a hot day,” Salvatore says.

“The most important element for us was the right dairy partner, because we can’t do it without them. We’ve been working with Riverina for close to a decade and they believed in our idea.”

St Ali began sampling the iced coffee cartons in November, with a full launch across Australia planned for March. In future, the roaster plans to introduce an oat milk variant too.

“The cartons will start off in the independents, but we’re not hiding the fact we’d like to see them on major shelves. If you’re going into your Woollies to do your weekly groceries, we want you to be buying our iced coffee,” Salvatore says.

“Like Stumptown in the United States, we think we can roast great specialty coffee and have our iced coffee on shelves in supermarkets.”

Veneziano Coffee Roasters has also seen potential in the RTD space, revamping its cold brew cans with new formula and packaging ahead of summer 2020. Research and Development Consultant Pete Licata tells BeanScene it’s important these products combine quality with convenience.

“We want people to be able to have a great tasting coffee experience and to be able to take it with them,” Pete says.

“A lot of people might also walk into a café, be exposed to our coffee and want to take something home. But they might not necessarily want to buy beans or make the coffee at home. There’s definitely a demographic of people that want something easy like an RTD.”

Veneziano’s cold brew uses the Elevate blend as a base and was released in two flavours – Straight Up and Blood Orange. A third variant combined with oat milk was added to the roster in early 2021.

“We want something approachable – sweet, chocolatey, and strongly reminiscent of some of our coffees,” Pete says.

RTD coffee
Veneziano has developed different recipes for its Straight Up and Blood Orange cold brew cans.

“That kind of flavour profile works in general for RTD. It’s really hard to can and preserve the beautiful floral, berry, or citrus notes you might get from some single origins because the aromatics tend to change over time. It might taste like mandarin when we can it, but it may shift to grapefruit in a couple of months.”

Blood Orange uses additional citrus and tonic flavours to create that kind of experience instead. Pete says this bright and fresh profile works well for a flavoured drink. 

“You can pour the blood orange cold brew from the can, throw a shot of gin or vodka in it, and you’ve got a really tasty cocktail,” Pete says.

As well as selling these cans online and through its flagship venues, Veneziano is also encouraging some of its café partners to add the RTD offering to their menus.

Michael Taylor, National Sales Manager at Veneziano, says RTD options offer many benefits to a café, from speed of service to low barrier to entry to sell.

“If you have an RTD in your beverage range, it takes pressure off other aspects of your business with little to no extra input. You stick it in the fridge and it’s ready to go,” Michael says. 

“But you don’t have to stop with just serving the can. We’ve experimented with the product and how people can use it in their beverage range and bring it to life in something else, whether that be as a cocktail or signature drink.”

The Veneziano team see RTD as one of many new trends in the specialty coffee scene – joining instant coffee, single serve drippers and bags, and capsules – to make it more accessible and convenient to a wider range of drinkers.

“There are a lot of people out there who just want a cup of coffee and the word ‘specialty’ doesn’t resonate with them. A product like RTD gives those customers an introduction into the specialty space without taking them too far out of their comfort zone,” Michael says.

“There’s always been a compromise in RTD. You’ve got the convenience, the speed, but you’ve traded something for that, and generally in the past it’s been flavour. We’re moving to the point that specialty is getting that balance right.”

RTD is not only the domain of roasters, with some cafés bottling and selling their own cold coffee drinks. For Ciel in South Melbourne, Manager Glenn Low says the decision to start offering pre-made iced lattes and filter back in 2017 came down to workflow.

“As the weather warms up, people come in looking for a cold, but also quick beverage, so we needed to reduce the wait time for customers, without compromising the quality of the product” Glenn says.

“Serving the beverage is as simple as popping the lid and passing it to the customer, so you can really use your time better during peak hour and spend downtime preparing for the next day. This actually simplifies and improves the overall RTD coffee experience for the customer, with the side benefit of improved workflow.”

RTD coffee
St Ali’s new coffee cartons evoke the nostalgia and style of classic iced coffees.

The RTD bottles have been successful for Ciel, with demand usually lasting well into winter. Ciel orders the lids and bottles in bulk, with restocking its RTD supply a regular part of its routine. 

While Ciel has traditionally sold iced lattes and filters, in 2020, it replaced these with a new distinctive recipe of its own, the Neapolitan. 

“We taste our coffees every morning and train our baristas to relate their tasting notes to a particular experience they’ve had. Neapolitan ice cream is something that came about frequently as we came together and tasted the Raspberry Candy blend [from Ona Coffee],” Glenn says.

“That sparked the idea. The Raspberry Candy blend was perfect for a Neapolitan flavour profile. With a few little tweaks to our recipe, we were able to highlight chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla in a way that we felt accurately represented the classic ice cream combo.”

COVID had a big impact on foot traffic passing through Ciel through much of 2020. While this was difficult for the café, Glenn says they were able to use this time to prepare for a strong return.

“This idea was born out of the physical downtime we had over COVID. We used that time to pivot, brainstorm, and think about what we could launch as a celebration once restrictions were lifted,” Glenn says.

“I had this idea in July, cold and gloomy in the middle of lockdown, but we didn’t launch until early November.”

The Neapolitan bottles have minimal labelling, with one brown, white, and pink sticker each to evoke the look and flavours of Neapolitan ice cream. Encouraging Ciel’s customers to share the bottles and their opinions on social media has also helped to draw more attention to the café.

“We’ve had customers who saw the Neapolitan on their friend’s social media and travel in from different suburbs to try it themselves,” Glenn says.

“At the beginning, even though we were confident in the flavours, we were unsure of how the market would receive the Neapolitan, but it brings back the childhood memories of having a big ol’ scoop of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry in your mouth. Having that aftertaste in your mouth from a bottle of coffee is mind blowing.”  

While RTD is still a small pocket of the specialty market, Glenn thinks with increased interest in take-home options across hospitality, people will look for the same in coffee.

“You can get your commercial iced coffee from the supermarkets, like Big M and Dare, but there is a niche crowd that appreciate what we do in the specialty coffee industry,” Glenn says.

“This specialty grade RTD coffee fulfils a small pocket of customer demand right now, but in the long run, I think people will be able to see the value of specialty coffee, knowing they can enjoy it cold and in a bottle.”

This article appears in the February 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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