There’s no denying that cold brew coffee has been the buzz menu item for the past few years, with some industry experts even arguing that it’s become the savior of the coffee industry. No longer simply an exclusive or novelty concoction, cold brew is now an ever increasingly demanded drink by millennials, who have exhibited a long-standing and discerning taste for coffee.
In 2017, sales of cold brew were up 80 per cent on the previous year, with this year’s figures showing a continuation of that trend, and a recent study by Mintel showed that millennials drink almost double the amount of cold coffee as the older Generation X. There’s an expected correlation between the warmer weather and cold brew sales within this age bracket who the industry recognizes as a prime market with increasing income, but coffee shops are also seeing an overall year round increase in the popularity of the drink.
US coffee market reports suggest that millennials are driving a surging coffee marketplace, with a movement away from traditional hot coffee resulting in brands and outlets seeking innovative ways to satisfy the caffeine cravings. In 2018, the multi billion dollar coffee market saw millennials drive a rise in RTD, or ready to drink coffee, and in particular cold varieties of coffee.
Robert Campbell, owner of Bolt, a restaurant in East Hollywood, has seen the millennial obsession with cold brew first hand. “Cold brew has gotten really popular with the younger crowd, it’s their go to,” says Cambpell. “It’s the most ordered type of coffee that we sell to millennials. I actually think it’s because they don’t drink soda. It’s kind of a soda alternative. When my generation was that age, we all just drank soda, but now they’re a lot more health conscious about what they drink.”
His own restaurant has seen a surge in sales of cold brew even over the last twelve months, with the drink becoming the clear number one choice drink for younger customers. “It’s something that wasn’t really that common five years ago. Cold brew wasn’t something that was in the mainstream. Then, you had these companies starting to bring it out in supermarkets, and then popular chains putting it in their stores. I think it’s just a quick, easy to drink, coffee. The caffeine content being higher is attractive to millennials, and it’s got a smoother taste, so younger people that don’t necessarily like coffee might drink it because it’s got that smoother finish to it."
Indeed, it’s become widely recognized that millennials have been turning away from traditional servings of hot coffee and have embraced the previously unconventional cold brew coffee in a surprisingly popular fashion. “Personally, I drink cold brew coffee because I like iced coffee and I think it creates a smoother flavor than icing down hot coffee,” explains Michael O’Sullivan, a 24 year old medical student who acknowledges that his university studies often depend on a caffeine fix. He also identifies the appeal of a uniquely crafted drink to millennials, that’s a different offering to the traditional old fashioned cup. “If I know anything about being a millennial, it's that we're quick to go for change and anything that looks a little fancy or alternative. It's a pretty novel idea to create a brew in a way that is a bit upside down from tradition as well and I think that appeals as well.”
Sarah Dobinski, a health sciences manager also agrees with the fashionable appeal of the drink. “I think millennials like it because it’s a fad and they will treat anything while it’s new,” explains the millennial, who makes her own cold brew at home. “Honestly, it’s easy to make a big batch in the refrigerator overnight, and if I’m in a rush I don’t have to wait for the coffee maker or French press. It’s a darker coffee taste, and I can add butter or coconut oil if I’m trying to hit my keto macros”.
So, what exactly is cold brew, and how is it different to your regular cup of joe? “With cold brew you replace temperature with time,” explains Matt Bachman, Co-Founder of Wandering Bear Coffee, an organic fair trade certified, ready to drink cold brew coffee, based out of New York. “Ground beans are brewed in cold water for an extended period of time, generally 12 to 24 hours. The cold brewing process extracts a different set of compounds from the bean, giving cold brew a slightly sweeter, less bitter and often less acidic cup of coffee.”
After the grounds are strained out, the resulting taste of the remaining liquid is often more palatable to drinkers than ordinary coffee, but still with the same intense level of flavor, due to the omission of those more undesirable flavors. “Every cold brew is a little different,” says Bachman. “With Wandering Bear you'd expect a strong but, full-bodied cup of coffee so smooth you can drink it black.” Others argue that the most aromatic of coffee flavors prevail in cold brews, with almost a hint of a chocolatey profile. While the cold temperature of the drink doesn’t encourage as much of a fragrant smell to the nose as hot coffee would, it does in fact use more coffee beans than the ordinary hot drink, with a resulting perfectly balanced, smooth and sweet beverage that more often than not, doesn’t need creamer or sugar.
The longer production process of cold brew, combined with the aforementioned note that cold brew coffee typically uses around twice the number of coffee beans than traditional coffee inevitably results in a higher cost price to the millennial consumer. Yet, this typically stingy demographic has been more than willing to fork out the dollars to satisfy their appreciation of caffeine. “I think millennials appreciate the craftsmen shift that cold brew requires,” explains Toph McRae, a self confessed caffeine addict. “The fact that it’s made in small batches and also that it feels hip justified the price that I pay”. David Robertson, a 25 year old sales analyst in Atlanta is another millennial who agrees that cold brew is worth the extra cost. “I’m willing to spend more because I know it’s something I’m not easily able to make myself,” he says. “I don’t mind paying for the extra steps, and I’m also willing to pay more because, for me, it’s easier to drink.”
It follows a general consumer trend from this generation - an appreciation of artesian products, or food and drink that has been made with a greater amount of skill and detail. Cold brew has received a similar appreciation to what past generations have previously had for beer and wine. “I relate it so much to the craft beer scene,” says 24 year old barman Jack Coghlan. “It's kind of trendy to begin with but then you realize how much better the product is, the consideration that's gone into producing it and then you feel like you are part of the community.” The millennial cold brew enthusiast justifies the money he spends on cold brew on the quality of the unique drink, and the extra effort that goes into making it. “I like the fact that cold brew coffee is made with love. Not by a man trying to make a dollar but by someone or a company that’s crafted together a brew they love and believe in. I have my favorite brew and others have theirs, and that’s what is fun about the coffee community. It's the uniqueness each brand offers that shows the care and craft that goes into cold brews.”
If the trend continues, it’s an indication for marketers that millennials are willing to continue paying more for drinks that show an extra level of complexity and innovation, with the subsequent greater level of satisfying taste. But of course, for this generation, while taste, value for money, and a connection with a brand all play a role in the purchasing of cold brew, it’d be hard to ignore the aesthetic nature of a photogenic cold brew filled mason jar.
“Millennials choose to use products based off of their visual appeal and reaction they can get from social, and you can get all that from cold brew,” explains Remington Riehl, a millennial from Los Angeles, who also identifies the role social media plays in the cold brew obsession. “I honestly believe that some of the appeal of cold brew is because it looks cooler and more Instagramable, with milk seeping down from the top”.
Cold brew has proven itself as a major player in the coffee market, with no signs of slowing down in the future. Be it the convenience of it, the intensity of caffeine, or its agreeable flavor profile, the wide appeal of the drink is becoming even more mainstream, with the obsession extending beyond the millennial market, and into the drinking habits of coffee lovers from all walks of life.