Sourcing for cold brew copacking is a constant attempt to solve several concurrent problems on a regular basis. This is a normal exercise in the manufacturing sector. Many potential clients we speak with are not used to this process at the scale required for scaled-up production (unless they are already involved in direct manufacturing). Retail cafes do have sourcing problems, as do wholesale roasters, but the scale of solving ongoing manufacturing sourcing issues requires different approaches.
When you think about resourcing in the copacking process for cold brew coffee, you have different facets of any given problem that apply to different categories of resource. Here are 3 common categories and each one requires management and planning in one or more areas:
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Welcome to the Wild World of Sourcing
The best product in the world doesn’t matter unless it is the correct product, and is available. This all depends on sourcing. Sourcing means getting the right product, in the right quantity, and the right timing. Sounds simple, but it requires constant interaction between us and the client.
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 are they 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 Recipe + the Process
The first key is the recipe. This is WHAT you use to get your product. The next key is the process. This is the HOW you use the WHAT.
A Real Recipe
The critical element of the recipe is how critical the threshold is to maintain specific elements of the Finished Good. This might sound obvious, but requires a lot of thought. There are several factors that influence the threshold parameters. Here are a few real examples:
- Products tied more to a concept not directly related to the flavor. This could be products being used or sold for just a special event, or products used for a brand that isn’t a food-centric brand . Think private labeling water for a concert, or a cold brew product used for a fund raiser.
- Products that relay less on specific coffee characteristics and more on flavor adjuncts. Products that are sweetened, contain dairy, are heavily spiced, or will be used to blend with other things later are all examples of products that have a lower threshold of consistency as their primary flavor is masked by other things.
- Products that make no specific claim to quality, process, or ingredient.
- Large scale, high volume products that don’t have associations with a specific high end brand. Several brands currently in grocery/retail are not associated with the highest tier of quality. In fact many don’t make a specific or detailed claim to quality in their marketing. This allows the ability to make small adjustments in sourcing that do not affect the end product quality or taste.
- Products that describe a specific element (e.g. “18 hours cold steeped”, or “100% Columbian” ) but don’t describe others specific elements that can be changed.
- Specific Origin based coffee products. The need to capture the subtleties of the origin means very little room doe deviation from the flavor profile.
- Brands that have high expectations within the coffee and beverage world. Specialty coffee brands often have an active, critical customer base and meeting expectations is a minimum requirement. Exceeding customer expectations is the norm.
- Brands that make multiple, significant claims on their marketing materials that cannot have any variances simply due to description.
The recipe needs to be detailed enough to fulfill the requirements from both the product descriptions as well as fulfilling the brand and product expectations. It needs to include the quantities, and the raw materials certainly. Just as importantly, it needs to be clear how critical the parameters are and what tolerance and options can be used.
A Real Process
This is just as important as the recipe. The process definitions tell us what steps to take and what objective measurements are required. Just as importantly, what options and steps can be taken to adjust when normal variations in the raw materials present itself. Just with the raw coffee itself, bag to bag, shipment to shipment, year to year the variations add up.
Process description should always include product safety as a serious consideration. Food safety within the cold brewed coffee industry has not received as much attention as warranted. It is not only important, it is required by the FDA.
The process needs to include definitions of the tools, the timing, the measurements and the adaptive responses to take. This is developed in concert with the copacker. The copacker themselves will also have a set of safety considerations and operational parameters they must follow to operate within their own considerations.
Sourcing for the Recipe and the Process
With the basic key elements in place, the sourcing process begins. The constant interaction of maintaining product quality and available materials and labor resources stays in constant flux. There are 2 ends of a spectrum when it comes to WHO provides the resources.
The more elements of the product you supply the copacker, the more sourcing you will be required to provide. The key benefit to your operation is control, and cost savings. You can elect to buy volumes or not, organize deliveries at your own timing, and take opportunity to improve your operations. You will often see smaller operations, startups, and companies that have specific ties to unique elements (origin, bean, product claim, brand identity) do more than less of the supply resourcing.
The more elements of the product supplied by the copacker, the less management and administration you will need to provide. We often see large operations, or product and marketing specialists who want to avoid the manufacturing process entirely on this end of the spectrum. The more sophisticated the operation, the more familiar they are with outsourcing like this. The benefits of keeping management in the manufacturing operation are worth both the cost differential, and the savings in overhead and planning/
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 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.