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Flavored Coffee: The Only Constant is Change


It takes 3,200 hand-picked beans to make enough coffee to create one 12-ounce bag of coffee, Jeff Nichols, vice president, global coffee division, Flavor & Fragrance Specialties, told attendees of the 104th Annual NAFFS Convention.

Understanding the differences in the coffee beans is essential for coffee flavorists, Nichols said. Robusta is a lower-quality bean from a lower altitude. It makes up 40% of the worldwide coffee supply but is often used as filler. It carries a heavy body and lacks acidic value. Then there is his much-preferred bean, the Arabica. He said this bean represents 60% of the worldwide coffee supply and is more than twice the cost of the Robusta because it has to be hand-picked at higher altitudes. He called it premium, offering a “clean cup profile.”

Nichols said there have been significant shifts in the coffee industry during his 30-year career. Coffee, he offered as a reminder to the audience, hasn’t always been augmented by creamers and sweeteners. “Millennials,” he added, “people between the ages of 24 and 39, are the key drivers of the coffee phenomenon. They’re digital natives who bore easily. Therefore, they demand flavor variety in their food and drink as well as customization. Millennials have noticeably higher expectations,” he said.

Right behind them, he said, is the I generation. “These people are aged 13-23 now and they are known for being more ethnically diverse and look to global flavors as they embrace multiculturism. This demographic is hyper-connected and quick to adopt new things in the coffee arena. The challenge faced by the coffee industry today is it has to reach them both, so ages 13-39, with a product mix that carries that broad range. This challenge is intensified by the fact that coffee is one of the hardest bases to flavor.” Nichols said coffee is bitter and astringent, with no inherent sweetness or dairy notes. “It’s vitally important that it carry aroma and a good after taste,” he said.

Fatigue rate is a big challenge in his business, Nichols said, noting today’s cup size is a lot larger than it used to be. “Multiple augmentations each have to be compatible with the many delivery systems in order to offer the maximum choices for consumers,” he said.

The solution? “It’s necessary to build attributes into the flavor that are not inherently found in the base. This involves a lot of complexity and to build in aroma with the coffee notes and assuring a clean aftertaste is not simple. It’s up to the flavor chemists to take a super-challenging base and turn it into a format that’s really, really good,” he said.

Nichols said 91.2% of consumers choose to augment their coffee beverage in some way, which has led to a sophistication in flavors and a shift toward flavor-forward coffee profiles to be met for consumers. So, in addition to delivery systems changing and multiplying, the coffee industry faces the myriad of augmentation that will change the ultimate flavor of the beverage and therefore needs to be anticipated.

He said Starbucks has 34,000 restaurants and is the largest purveyor of milk in North America. With the host of alternative milks, including oat, almond and soy – all with different viscosity levels – and sweeteners – including sugar and substitutes – the augmentation possibilities are numerous.

The other piece of delivery methods is the need for “full-cup drinkability”, which Nichols defined as the “last sip as good as the first.” Guaranteeing this is determined by the distribution of flavors, he said. The fact that cup size is also changing means the cup of coffee for some is now more FLAVORS and less coffee.

Nichols called caramel, hazelnut and mocha the “anchor flavors” for coffee. Popular core flavors are diminishing in use, even considering the high consumer appeal. One-third of all flavors are offered for a limited time only, harkening back to the “bored-easily” age groups.

Nichols said coffee companies have another struggle when they aim for consistency and repeat consumer attention. These consumers are enjoying their product in many different environments. Some coffee is prepared at home with different machinery (filters, k-cups or dry mixes), different augmentations and even syrups and water temperatures. Others are grabbed for on-the-go consumption and still others are enjoyed cold.

In fact, this increase in cold-brew consumption is no small trend. At the end of 2021, Nichols said, 50% of Starbucks’ business was served cold. This, he said, is largely afternoon coffee drinkers who aren’t looking for that same steaming cup of morning coffee.

And the tasting! During this interactive presentation Nichols took questions and offered samples of three cold-brew examples of flavored coffee. The first was a nod to the nostalgic: Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal Milk. He said this cold brew uses familiar flavors of cinnamon and brown sugar to tell a story, reminding consumers of a happy time in childhood. The product is slated for a limited-time/seasonal offering and boasts a spice and vanilla profile. Augmentation, he said, enhances the flavor greatly here and would taste great hot as well.

The reason for its popularity? Cinnamon, Nichols said, is a flavor people relate to; a top-12 millennial flavor for coffee. It’s recognizable by all generations as playful and reliable.

Nichols also featured a Mocha Blueberry sample which, he said, lacked a dairy constituent. It carried a dark chocolate note and in order to prepare and deliver a smoother finished product, Nichols said extraction is done for a longer time and at lower temperatures.

Millennials, Nichols said, love blueberry flavor, saying research showed it’s a top-five fruit profile with more than two decades of flavored coffee success. He said it lends itself well to dessert appeal, which also fuels consumer interest when paired with another familiar, indulgent flavor such as mocha. Mocha imparts chocolate taste expectations and thoughts of sweet indulgences from the added roasted coffee notes, he added.

Nichols said the combination results in berry-infused, intense dark-cocoa chocolate with a hint of roasted espresso. The limited-time and seasonally offered flavor is also a traditional augmented product that’s seen as a spring or summertime seasonal item.

Limoncello was the final sample. Nichols said it’s rare to see a citrus fruit combined in coffee because the result, he said, “if it’s not done well, can taste a lot like vomit.” But, he said, since the I Generation is drawn to global flavors and Limoncello is a hot flavor, this product lends itself to thoughts of a beautiful Italian dessert cordial. “Limoncello,” Nichols said, “has an abundance of sweet and sugary notes. Using this in coffee is a risk but it’s a ‘respected’ risk because some signature progressive products are always going to be a little ‘out there’. It could be worth it too, since the targeted I-Gens are found to like citrus.”

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