Coffee Giants, Startups Target Growth in “Flash Brew”

Even in a world increasingly dominated by cold brews, there’s room for more than one kind of cold coffee.

Flash chilled — the general term for coffee which is brewed hot and then quickly cooled without being diluted with ice or water — is not exactly a new innovation. The method has long been prized by coffee aficionados for its ability to capture the nuanced flavor notes and complex aromatics that emerge during a hot extraction process. Popularized as the preferred style of cold coffee in Japan, flash brewed products have also helped turn that country into the world’s largest RTD coffee market, and that influence has begun to extend to the U.S. Last year, Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Verve Coffee Roasters introduced a flash chilled RTD line, part of the company’s comprehensive pivot away from cold brew.

Already a major force in the Japanese market, CPG conglomerate Suntory is aiming to leverage its experience in flash brewed RTD coffee to grow the company’s nascent U.S. presence via its flagship category brand, Boss Coffee. According to Keishi Fukata, director of marketing for Raleigh, N.C.-based Suntory Beverage & Food North America, Boss was the top-selling RTD coffee brand in Japan last year and third-highest selling beverage overall, with over 100 million cases shipped across 20 SKUs. Launched in 1992, the company has featured actor Tommy Lee Jones as its long-running spokesperson in TV ads.

The marketing and brand voice for Boss in the U.S. will hew closely to the same messages of authenticity, craft and quality that have served Suntory’s prominent spirits labels, including Jim Beam and Knob Creek.

“We think coffee is growing because of a trend towards authenticity,” Fukata told BevNET. “People are switching from indulgence coffee to authentic coffee, and you are seeing that now with cold brew.”

Boss launched in two SKUs — unsweetened black and dairy-added cafe au lait — late last year in Colorado at retailers including Safeway and Albertsons. This spring, the brand will be rolling out to independent retailers in California, Colorado and New York, where it has partnered with Gotham Brands, as well as on Amazon. The suggested retail price for both 8 oz. cans is $2.69-$2.99. Fukata said Boss, a product of Japan, will continue to be imported until the company can produce flash brewed coffee in the U.S. at scale.

That move to scale is an issue that another company is trying to solve for manufacturers interested in developing the RTD flash brew segment. Watertown, Mass.-based startup Elemental Beverage Company is aiming to disrupt the cold coffee business both on-premise and on retail shelves through its proprietary flash-chilling technology, which it has trademarked as “Snapchill.”

First showcased at the Specialty Coffee Association’s Specialty Coffee Expo in Boston in April, Elemental’s new commercial-grade Snapchiller allows cafes, restaurants and on-premise coffee accounts to quickly cool down coffee (or any other hot liquid)– without dilution or the use of any additives — by passing it through an evaporator coil. The unit can process 4-16 ounces of liquid per cycle and can chill 12 ounces of liquid per minute. The Snapchiller is expected to begin shipping to customers who have pre-ordered their units in the fourth quarter of 2019.

From an efficiency perspective, the makers say, the advantages over cold brew are obvious; rather than forcing coffee shops to brew large batches of a single coffee variety overnight, they can manage supply and minimize waste by making any kind of cold coffee on demand. Specialty coffee house George Howell currently uses the machine at its two locations in Boston.

While it seeks out partners for its on premise units, Elemental is also moving forward with its own line of “Snapchill” branded ready-to-drink coffees. Available in 12 oz. cans in three single-origin varieties, each serves as an example of how the technique can preserve the unique flavors and aromas of each type of coffee in a cold format. The product is available in 6-packs for a suggested retail price of $29.95 through the company’s website. Elemental also offers kegged coffee and a limited super premium Founder’s Selection variety in a 750 ml bottle for $235.

However, the company hopes that the largest opportunity to expand flash brew for RTD lies in Elemental’s industrial-level Snapchiller (only one is currently in operation, at the company’s headquarters). Dussault said the company had not decided whether or not it will sell that unit to individual customers or use it to form co-packing partnerships with local roasters, such as Little Wolf of Ipswich, Mass. “We want to be in control of the coffee quality and of the equipment,” he said.

As cold brew becomes more and more ubiquitous in U.S. coffee retail, the aim for flash brew producers like Boss and Elemental is to show that the evolution of the cold coffee experience is far from over.

“One of the thoughts I had in starting the company was that there is some kind of connection I have with fresh hot coffee,” he said. “There’s something special there, and that’s what I wanted to get from cold coffee.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated the price of 6-packs of Elemental Beverage Co.’s Snapchill ready-to-drink coffee as $39.95. The article has since been updated.