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What's behind the craze to can cold brew coffee

Just like beer, grab-and-go cans by specialty coffee brewers find a loyal following  

(From left) Cold brew cans from Tulum; Subko's cold brew can. 
(From left) Cold brew cans from Tulum; Subko's cold brew can. 

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Specialty coffee in India got a tremendous boost during the pandemic with equipment sales going up, roasters trying new fermentation methods and a spurt in awareness about coffee. In its latest attempt to attract new consumers, specialty coffee brewers have a new weapon of choice – cold brew cans.

Cold brew coffee is a preferred choice for millennials seeking to graduate from sugary cold coffees towards specialty coffee. It takes anywhere between 12 to 24 hours to prepare, wherein coffee grounds are simply steeped in water without being heated at any stage. Due to this, it has minimal bitterness and the coffee’s body allows its flavour profile to shine through.

Whether it’s a conglomerate like Starbucks, or specialty coffee roasters working with different estates, there has been a marked rise of cold brew. Whilst selling it in glass bottles has been the preferred choice, packing it in aluminium cans is a trend that is only just taking off.  

It all started with Blue Tokai in October 2021, when India’s largest specialty coffee company launched not one or two but six different cold brews variants, seemingly to shake up the market with a new product. These include Classic Light, Classic Bold, Cherry Coffee, Tender Coconut, Passion Fruit and Single Origin from Ratnagiri Estate. “The global ready-to-drink (RTD) market has boomed. It gave us confidence to explore this category when we realised there was nothing similar available in the Indian market,” says Matt Chitharanjan, Co-Founder and CEO of Blue Tokai.

Today, half a dozen specialty coffee companies have jumped into the fray; from Dope Coffee Roasters with their Polaris Cold Brew, Tulum Coffee and Woke’s Nitro Cold Brew Coffee, among others.

Glass vs Cans
Ready-to-drink cold brew coffee has been around for some time with most specialty roasters opting for glass bottles. They worked well but they come with a set of issues, chief among them being breakage. “Cans solve a few problems that glass bottles inherently come with. There’s breakage during transportation that doesn’t happen with cans. Glass becomes difficult due to logistics whereas with cans, pan-India distribution becomes much easier,” Ashish Bhatia, co-founder of the RTD beverage brand Malaki says.

Malaki launched a Coffee Tonic in a can in October. Explaining the rationale, Bhatia says coffee is sensitive as a raw product and that its freshness and carbonation stays better in a can compared to a glass bottle. “We even have thermodynamic ink painted on the can that changes colour from white to pink at seven degrees Celsius to indicate the optimal temperature to enjoy the beverage. It’s a cool and functional thing that makes the can even more appealing,” he adds.

Besides no-breakage, cans extend the shelf life of cold brew coffee from a few weeks to a couple of months. Moreover, they give brands an edge over their competitors. In a post announcing their cold brew cans in December, Tulum Coffee talks about market saturation with glass and plastic bottles as a factor to can cold brew coffee. It mentions, “We want to do things the right way but at the same time be different.”

Rahul Reddy, founder of the Mumbai-based Subko Specialty Coffee Roasters agrees coolness is a driving factor. “Beyond its obvious benefits, we wanted to build an aesthetic and convenient beverage that someone would be proud to hold and drink. Cans provide that extra attitude compared to bottles,” he adds.

Setting Up Cans
Using cans is still a prohibitive process for most specialty roasters. There are two ways of doing it currently, either by contract manufacturing or going the DIY way.

The challenges with contract manufacturing have mostly to do with MOQs (minimum order quantity). As Vardhman Jain, Co-Founder of Bangalore-based Bonomi that exclusively retails cold brew coffees explains, “To start canning cold brews, one would require at least one lakh MOQs to be purchased at one go making it a huge upfront expenditure. Glass bottles, meanwhile, can be done with an MOQ of just 10,000 bottles. Which is why even though we plan to retail our cold brew cans, it’s not a huge priority for us at the moment.”

Jain, in fact, has been in talks with a microbrewery that retails beer cans to use their facility to make Bonomi’s cold brew cans as well. It’s a process that Subko followed as well by taking help from Bombay Duck Brewing to set up their own small-batch canning facility. However, the downside of this process is the huge amount of time it takes to bring the product to market. “We started thinking about canning cold brews a year ago and have been in the market for about three months,” Reddy says.

The DIY advantage is that Subko probably has the most distinctive-looking can in the market that’s long and thin in shape with a bigger size of 330ml, whereas contract manufacturers all produce the same size 250ml cans, leaving specialty companies just their labelling to stand out among competitors. The disadvantage is Subko’s cans are the priciest as well, retailing at 275 for a 330ml can. Compare that with Blue Tokai that sells a pair of 250ml cans for 300 or a single can for 190.

Cans also require more technical procedures to be followed, such as a nitrogen-flush to keep the brew fresh and increase its shelf life. And despite everything, cold brew enthusiasts feel the drink is sometimes flat and doesn’t have the same body as freshly ordered cold brew, making product innovation an ongoing requirement.

Moving Forward
Nonetheless, it’s a given that specialty coffee numbers are on the upswing making canned cold brews a viable proposition in the long term. Chitharanjan of Blue Tokai says while cans usually sell best during summer, cold brew as a product is accepted year-round. “Customers who enjoy less bitterness and more body that cold brew coffee typically provides will pick up the product through the year,” he says; a sentiment echoed by every other roasters as well.

Beyond that, the rise of quick e-commerce platforms such as Zepto and Swiggy Instamart, among others, provide more ground to sell. “Almost eight percent of all orders come from these platforms now. It’s given us the confidence to launch more variants such as 1 Cal Cold Brew and Coffee Martini in the next few weeks,” Bhatia of Malaki says. There has never been a better time to be a cold brew lover than now.

Priyanko Sarkar is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer covering the beverage industry.

Also read | What makes a good cup of coffee?


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