RTD Beverage Copacking for Cold Brew Coffee (RTD = Ready to Drink) is not similar to other typical contract beverage manufacturing. This is something the big copacking facilities figured out really, really early, and the new startups are suffering for it.
Typical RTD Beverage Copacking
Think about the typical bottled soda. It is essentially water, flavorings, and inline carbonation. We call this the “mix and go” method. Tried and True, Tested and Predictable. Highly automated, and highly profitable…. at scale…
The next step was tea. However most tea is simply steeped very strong, diluted down, and sweetened. So while there is definitely a new element of brewing, the process is compact, quick, and easy.
The new wave of cold brewed coffee is baffling, and problematic to these companies. You have to have an extraction component, typically lasting hours. Even with “Iced Coffee” (technically not cold brewed at all, but sometimes the perfect application for certain flavor profiles), the hot brew and cool down similar to Iced Tea cannot really be done at the same concentrations. This doesn’t matter if all you are going to do is mix sugar and dairy into it (more on this later).
When you add in the variability of cold steeping coffee, as well as the efficiency, it is a bad setup for typical RTD beverage Copacking.
Enter Specialty RTD Beverage Copacking
The reality is that for all but the cheapest, highest volume, additive laced cold brew, the copacking facility, process and business model needs to be different. In our previous article, we discuss WHY a company typically gets to the point where they need a specialty RTD beverage copacker. In this article, we want to begin a multi-part discussion of the HOW the process goes, and what considerations need to be made.
Think of contract beverage manufacturing as a river or perhaps even a hill. At the end of the river/hill is a finished product. The results of all the actions in the beverage manufacturing process result in the Finished Good (FG), or basically your target product. If you were to travel “up” you would begin to experience the details and steps of the product process in reverse order. So in this case “upstream” or “uphill” is moving back in time/process through the processes and products until they are their most elemental. Moving “downstream” or “downhill” is stepping through those processes and products until the FG is accomplished.
The use of the metaphor “Upstream”, “Downhill” etc . . . is very effective is this discussion because we all know what rolls downhill the easiest . . .
Bad stuff rolls downhill… or flows downstream. Stuff you DON’T want in your specialty beverage.
Determining the Finished Product
Believe it or not, very few inquiries we get have a clear and focused Finished Good defined. Sometimes they have a concept, but rarely when we ask them detailed questions about their beverage product, they are not able to answer things like:
- What is the flavor profile you are getting or trying to get?
- What is the brew strength you are trying to achieve?
- Do you have any objective measurements (TDS, ph, SG)?
- What roast profile and parameters do you currently use (if roasting your own beans)?
- Is there anything different you want to do with you product (nitrogenation, flavor adjuncts, packaging changes)
These are just some questions we could ask prospective clients. The answers help us understand how focused and clear the client is about their end product. Without that focus, we simply don’t know what to aim at. How can we help someone produce their product at scale without knowing what their product both currently is, and what the client hopes it to be?
Many times, it is part of our job to help them find these details, and the most important part is that they accurately reflect the client interest and focus, not ours.
The last few words there are a very significant issue in the current state of affairs. There is a real struggle between what is most profitable for the copacker, and what the client is trying to achieve. Sometimes these agendas line up, sometimes they don’t. The honest operations will simply tell you “We can’t meet your expectations”, and give you options, or suggest another company.
The Real Test
The next part after determining the Finished Good, is to see if we can match it. This sounds obvious, but it is vital that the manufacturing process can make the same result as the Finished Good. Once a good example is created, there is a series of metrics that need to be established that allow measurements both Objective and Subjective
This in some ways is much harder to measure, but basically with the contract manufacturing of cold brewed coffee, the main points are:
- Does it taste the same?
- Does the acidity match?
- Does the body or “mouthfeel” seem consistent?
- Does the color look similar?
- Does the aromatic elements come across correctly?
This is basically individually determining if the product is the same. This is where most coffee roasters would use “cupping” to evaluate whether they roasted the beans correctly. In this case, it is “cupping” post brewing.
This is much more mechanical. The product is measured by something else other than just your own personal experience. It is easy to rely too much on these metrics, yet they cannot be used in place of actual critical tasting. Some examples are:
- ph: One measurement of “acidity”. This doesn’t tell us the strength of the acid, but it should fall in a very consistent range.
- tds: Total Dissolved Solids, or the amount of the actual coffee bean that dissolved into the liquid. This is normally understood as a %, and should be fairly consistent as well.
- Extraction Yield: This is really only available after the brewed coffee is harvested, but is a helpful tool in seeing if the overall extraction % was accomplished. This helps us understand if the same amount of extraction was accomplished.
These data points help us seem if anything went outside the norm. It is not uncommon to see very consistent numbers, yet have small variations in taste. We believe that both Objective, and Subjective measurement is important. And it counts batch over batch.
The goal of a specialty RTD beverage copacker is consistency. We want to see the most consistent results that match the Finished Good of the client. It sounds simple, and it is. Like most things however, simple and easy aren’t the same thing.
While this article might seem overly dense and detailed, it is truly only the surface. Obviously, anyone can take coffee, grind it, soak it in cold water, and then filter it and drink it. But making it at scale, consistently requires a very focused approach, that is much more similar to pure manufacturing than crafting a beverage at a coffee shop or even roasting the new samples of the super Kenyan that just landed at the Annex.
We hope to address several other key points in future articles such as the Brewing Process (Roasting, Grinding and Brewing), Food Safety Requirements (at the current time there are federal guidelines coming shortly that will knock the industry on its head), Shelf Stability, Packaging, and Distribution. We believe helping prospective clients navigate the significant gulf between basic cold brew to real specialty copacking will help set correct expectations, and position our customers for success.
Portola Coffee Lab and Cold Craft LLC have extensive experience with sourcing specialty coffee, roasting development and leading edge brewing techniques. When we work with a potential partner for contracted manufacturing of cold brew coffee it is often surprising at how many factors need to be addressed to develop and scale up beverage manufacturing to high quality standards.
Contact Us if you want to know more about what we can do to help you with your cold brew manufacturing.