1If you were a part of the first wave of companies selling the high-caffeine alternative to iced coffee then you were most likely ordering up a glass Boston round bottle.

And why wouldn’t you? Its simple shape, as artisanal as it is suited for lab work, offered a wide gradient to allow the label design to speak clearly to consumers. Many of the companies on the ground floor of the cold brew explosion offered some variation of the Boston round – Chameleon, Stumptown, and Grady’s all embraced this traditional look.

But seven years on from the category’s formal debut, it looks like the competitors are all running hard – in different directions. Both new and seasoned brands aren’t content to be part of a crowd utilizing the same old packaging format. A quick stroll through the grocery store shows cold brew in beer bottles, plastic bottles, milk cartons, bag-in-boxes, tall cans and slims. Multi-serve deliveries come in kegs and growlers. It’s a plethora of package designs limited only by the entrepreneur’s imagination and budget, and by what shelves retailers are willing to cede to the fast-growing category.

While many brands still seem to use the Boston round at launch, even those companies that have long relied on the medicine-style bottle are taking chances to experiment with their packaging.

And the variety in the packaging style may point to a larger point about the category: that cold brew, despite the amount of attention it’s gotten from coffee companies and consumers, is still early enough in its CPG lifecycle that there is not yet a concrete approach to the category. Additionally, experts say, the variety of usage approaches to the product itself – be it a concentrate, single serve, or multi-serve format – is also slowing uniformity, and potentially leaving retailers with tough choices.

“This is becoming a more difficult category to shop,” said Adam Spriggs, a designer and founder of the firm Nucleus Maximus. “You have 8, 10, 12 oz. bottles, we’re seeing a lot of SKU differentiation and unique products. I think it’s getting to the point where it makes it more difficult for the shopper to make sense of all the options in front of them. So I think it’s really going to be important for brands to rethink the hierarchy of what they show a consumer first, second, and third so the packaging has more utility for the shopper.”

So how did the different cold brew looks evolve?

Fred Hart, creative director at branding and packaging design firm Interact on Shelf, relies on the mantra that packaging should “challenge the category, not the consumer.” He said that the early category standards – or lack of same – likely came from regular cold coffee drinks, and that the lack of convention is, in some ways, an extension of the variety associated with those products. In iced coffee, beverages like Starbucks’ Frappucino used a thick bottle while Java Monster saw success in cans. Coke’s IllyCaffe drinks use both stubby cans and slim ones, while Vita Coco’s Coco Cafe even made coconut water’s traditional Tetra Pak design work for coffee.

“It stems from cold brew’s bigger, older brother. Iced coffee’s ubiquity in RTD as both a drink unto itself, and as a flavor or additive, has given way to structural freedom and creativity without challenging consumers,” Hart said. “The ability for iced coffee to exist and bleed into other beverage segments in some way has desensitized consumers to varying structures and formats for cold brew.”

Nevertheless, some standards are starting to emerge as brands begin to strengthen. With companies like Califia Farms and Chameleon coming on strong with their design and imagery, consumers may be starting to move the category beyond the education phase.

“I go to the supermarket and see Califia Cold Brew in 16 oz., 12 oz. PET bottles and if I’m walking down the aisle quickly it looks no different than half of the RTD products out there,” said Tony Ruth, head of branding and concept development for venture capital firm Cleveland Avenue. “The point is, as cold brew becomes increasingly familiar, it doesn’t require special explanation or positioning. Califia doesn’t need to sell the idea of cold brew, Califia is simply selling their own brand with this as one of many SKUs that they have. They’ve absorbed the trend into their brand structure.”

Waking Up

Variations in style and recipe may also necessitate alternative packaging. Rise Brewing Co. in New York sells nitro cold brew in 12 oz. cans, which debuted in August and retail at $4.49 each. Co-founder Jarrett McGovern told BevNET their cans use the same widget technology for nitrogen as Guinness, and although the company has considered bottling options, cans are effective for preserving the flavor and texture of nitro coffee.

Rise chose their name and branding to associate with waking up, McGovern said. According to Ruth, a can of high-caffeine coffee in the morning is perfect for the aging energy drink demographic that is used to grabbing cans out of the fridge on the go, but who have grown out of their daily Red Bull ritual.

“Cold Brew in an aluminum can is designed to attract the aging energy drink or Mountain Dew consumer away from their old habits,” Ruth said. “At some point you have to say ‘I’m not 28 anymore, I can’t show up to a meeting with a can of Whoop Ass Energy Drink.’”

On the other side of Rise’s business model is their keg line, which sells quarter, half, and 1/6th barrels to restaurants and offices. A “six barrel” can run up to $140, but a half-barrel can equal out to costing less than a dollar a serving. Kegs can be lucrative to stores and are appealing to offices looking to offer their employees something more high-end than K-Cups, but it also falls back onto Rise to deliver and install the kegerators. Some offices, McGovern said, prefer to test out the coffee by purchasing cans first before committing to a keg.

2Also targeting the workplace is bag-in-box. New York’s Wandering Bear Coffee has similarly made its mark on the city by offering delivery service to offices, but the bag-in-box also fits snugly into a personal refrigerator and has an advantage over bottles, keeping the coffee fresh for up to a month.

“So many offices are proverbial ‘coffee deserts,’ and this is a chance to take back that level of quality,” said Wandering Bear co-founder Matt Bachmann. “Even when you’re at work, you’re never not a consumer.”

For the at-home coffee drinker, Grady’s offers a “Pour and Store” pouch that lets consumers brew their own coffee in a nozzled bag. The cold brew kit includes 12 bean bags that will stay fresh for up to two weeks.

Changed by Craft

The craft beer boom reshaped the beer industry into a market where consumers are more in tune to taste, technique and aesthetic. Similarly, while the major coffee giants like Starbucks still reign, and have even helped to popularize cold brew, there is a sense that consumers are attracted to craft hobbyist aesthetic that cold brew brings to coffee. Spriggs compared the category to cold pressed juices, saying some artisinally-inclined coffee drinkers might feel like the smaller and the more obscure the company, the better. That homemade product appeal may even explain why Boston round bottles, which invoke a rustic feeling, were so popular with the category in the first place.

3“It’s a stock bottle so it’s very easy for everyone to get ahold of it,” said Grady Laird, founder of Grady’s. “And if you’re searching for stock bottles it does stand out as one of the better looking ones. I think the shape makes a really attractive product.”

According to Ruth, early cold brew packaging would often use glass bottles to emphasize an elegance and premium sensibility similar to spirits, with larger 32 oz. offerings fetching the same price point as alcohol.

Now that cold brew has arrived in the mainstream, innovative packaging is a way to mark a new brand’s identity and whether to invoke a premium coffee experience, a more approachable morning routine experience, or even as a novelty. Starbucks has opted for a sleek tapered glass bottle for its RTD line, but a small brand like Joe’s Coldbrew is taking a risk by putting its coffee in a flask. If a packaging standard develops the way it has in beer or soda, it may come down to what’s most economical and accessible.

Spriggs said that retailers have a keen eye for the most effective packaging that dictates who gets the shelf space. If certain brands become sales leaders, stores could decide to emphasize one style of packaging over another, which could shift cold brew back into a uniform.

“We’ll have to see what shakes out in terms of what are the real volume winners in terms of the different subsets of cold brew coffee offerings,” Spriggs said. “But I think the category itself is so big. It’s an everyday occasion for so many people and there’s just a lot of room.”