Large or Small, Coffee Brands Look to Crack the Code on Carbonation

Considering the pace at which American consumers are crushing case upon case of LaCroix, it’s not surprising that other beverage categories are looking to cash in on the current carbonation craze.

But while creating sparkling water, tea or juice products may seem intuitive, a handful of emerging and established coffee brands are betting that bubbles can work in cold brew just as well. Whether positioned as sparkling cold brews or coffee sodas, this new wave of products is aiming to overcome some of the stigma around the category and change how consumers view the concept of a carbonated coffee through bold innovations and unique flavors.

Making It Pop

Like many other accidental beverage entrepreneurs, Dave Schwanke, president of Portland, Ore.-based Clutch Coffee Roasters, didn’t create a product based on a perceived market opportunity or consumer need; he simply liked the taste.

Speaking with BevNET, Schwanke said he came across coffee soda after discovering an old recipe in a book which he tweaked to his liking. That recipe — which, after finding an audience at a local farmers market, is now available in bottles at stores around the Rose City — remains the same: cold brew is diluted with filtered water, organic spices and extracts are added for sweetness and flavoring, and then the batch is carbonated and bottled. The end product contains 22g of sugar, from agave syrup and cane sugar, and 90 calories per 12 oz. bottle.

“In my opinion, the main reason is because when you carbonate straight cold coffee it tastes terrible,” he said. Carbonic acid, created during the carbonation process, clashes with the natural acids in brewed coffee, he explained, and creates a “prominent mineral bitterness” that requires additional flavoring to mask.

To do so, many brands’ recent experiments in carbonated coffee have led them to use citrus flavors: Stumptown launched its sparkling cold brew line with Honey Lemon and Ginger Citrus SKUs, while Keepers, which ran a crowdfunding campaign this summer in support of its new sparkling black variety, first launched with a Citrus flavor.

Similar to Schwanke, Jenny Bonchak, an award winning barista and the co-founder of Raleigh, N.C.-based Slingshot Coffee, developed a soda recipe as part of her broader interest in creating coffee-based drinks. Having previously developed a sparkling cascara, Bonchak introduced Slingshot’s coffee soda at its cafe location and spent several years fine tuning the formulations based on customer feedback.

The soda launched in 8 oz. cans in two varieties — Black Cherry Cola and Citrus Vanilla Cream Soda — in August. Speaking to BevNET, Bonchak said she sought to recreate the familiar flavors from her favorite fountain sodas while retaining a coffee-forward profile. Each SKU is sweetened with fruit juice and cane sugar and contains 60 calories and 10g of sugar per 8 oz. can.

“Our approach was to ask: What kinds of ingredients are natural and clean can we bring together to kind of mimic certain mouthfuls and flavors without necessarily slapping that thing in there?” Bonchak said. “It wasn’t necessarily about blocking out certain flavors; you want to be able to drink it in one sip and get all the flavors blending perfectly.”

As brands hone in on a flavor profile, consumers’ reaction to certains products may condition their perception of the category as a whole.

“The people who have tried other coffee sodas look at us and think they won’t like it,” Schwanke said, who called himself “not a cutting edge flavor profile sort of guy.” He explained that Clutch’s use of “soda pop,” a nod to his father’s Midwest roots, was also to differentiate itself from sparkling cold brew coffees on the market, even as the category remains small. Clutch Coffee Soda Pop is currently sold in about a dozen stores in the Portland metro area, where it is also available for delivery through the company’s website.

Bonchak said that she also debated whether or not to label Slingshot’s line as a “sparkling cold brew,” but ultimately decided in favor of transparency. “This idea of calling it a soda was also the notion that let’s call it what it is,” she said. “We’re not trying to trying to hide the fact that it has sugar.”

Yet while Schwanke is excited to see how consumers respond to his product at retail, he recognized that coffee soda will likely remain just one piece of the broader RTD coffee market.

“I don’t see coffee soda or carbonated coffee growing into its own category; I think it will always be a subcategory,” he said. “I think carbonating was just the natural next step in the evolution of ready-to-drink coffee.”

Some Fizz, Some Flat

As they seek to find a place for their sparkling coffee products, Schwanke and other smaller brands can learn about the challenges of entering the category from the experiences of several of the leading names in cold brew.

Chameleon Cold Brew, which was acquired by Nestle last year, shared a first look at its four-SKU sparkling cold brew line last fall at Natural Products Expo East 2017. When BevNET spoke with the Chameleon CEO Chris Campbell in May, he noted that the line was still in pilot phase.

Meanwhile, Stumptown Coffee, which helped create the retail market for bottled cold brew several years ago, launched a two-SKU line of sparkling cold brews in 12 oz. cans in March 2017. However, the line, which was available in limited distribution, has since been killed.

In an email to BevNET, the company wrote: “After careful consideration, we have ended production of our Sparkling Cold Brew. Launched in 2017, Sparkling Cold Brew was ultimately an experiment; one that we are happy we did. We learned a lot about our customer and have gained insight into what works best for our coffee drinkers.”

While Stumptown and Chameleon assess their future plans for sparkling cold brew, High Brew is preparing to put its own carbonated coffee to the test. After first showcasing it at Natural Products Expo West 2018 in March, the company is preparing to launch its three-SKU line of shelf-stable sparkling cold brews at several key retailers this fall.

In a call with BevNET, CEO David Smith said that, in the months following the line’s debut at Expo West, High Brew has conducted focus studies and tests on the product that have produced encouraging results. He credited that positive early response in part to a more accessible set of flavors: Classic Black, Midnight Mocha and Vintage Vanilla.

“The exotic flavors [from other brands], it’s a big enough leap of faith to jump to adding bubbles to coffee,” he said. “ That’s one step. If you try to take that too far with a lot of citrus notes and flavors on top of that, it’s an even bigger gap.”

Yet while Smith acknowledged that the line may be more a seasonal product that favors the summer months, he reaffirmed his confidence in its potential.

“For us, it’s really a matter of when and not if this whole carbonated cold brew/soda thing takes off,” he said. “It is a bridge to a new kind of unique format that people are not used to.”