The hottest trend in caffeinated beverages breaks the mould of traditional coffee. Image courtesy of Brent Hofacker

Few beverage concepts have gone from hipster favorite to mainstream ‘must-have’ in as little time. Cold-brew coffee is often called a ‘labor of love’ since it takes time to make. Unlike iced coffee, which is usually hot-brewed at double-strength and then chilled, cold-brew coffee is never heated. Cold-brew coffee is produced by steeping fresh ground coffee in cold water for anywhere from 12 to 48 hours. Since the brewing process does not involve heat, the compounds in coffee beans are released in such a way that the resulting drink has a smoother taste with much less acid (as much as 70% less) and little of the bitter bite that iced coffee can have. Because of this smoother taste, cold-brew coffee may not even need sweeteners or creamers. What it does have – in abundance – is caffeine. According to Austin-based Chameleon Cold Brew Coffee, one cup of cold-brew coffee can have double the caffeine content of a regular cup of coffee and even more caffeine than the typical energy drink.

While the origins of cold-brew coffee are murky, the company many credit with making cold-brew coffee a commercial success is Seattle-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Founded in 1999 by Duane Sorenson – referred to as the "Che Guevara of the rock-star barista movement" in a 2011 Esquire magazine article about the company's sale to private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners – Stumptown produced what may have been the first bottled cold-brew coffee around 2011. This coffee, in a retro, stubby brown bottle, is one of many reasons that Stumptown has developed a cult following. In 2015, Stumptown was back at it as one of the first to offer a nitro-infused cold-brew packaged coffee with Nitro Cold Brew – a ready-to-drink coffee injected with tiny nitrogen bubbles under high pressure that give coffee a creamier texture and richer taste. Nitrogen-infused products have since become a hot emerging trend in packaged coffee and beer.

From niche market to mainstream trend: how cold-brew coffee captured consumer interest

"Packaged cold-brew coffee innovation has been paced by pioneering brands like Stumptown and Chameleon."

Cold-brew coffee really began a serious run at the mainstream in 2015. Peet's Coffee & Tea purchased Stumptown then and took the bold step of replacing iced coffee in its stores with cold-brew coffee in June of 2015. Two months later, the company was bragging that cold-brew coffee sales had expanded by as much as 70% versus iced coffee sales for the same period a year earlier. Coffee behemoth Starbucks also tipped its hat to the cold-brew trend in 2015 with a new coffee steeped in cool water for 20 hours. The drink is made via an artisanal process that results in a cold coffee concentrate that baristas measure and top with water and ice, serving the drink unsweetened to patrons.

These foodservice moves bode well for the future of packaged cold-brew coffee. The supermarket industry concurs. "If I was to look at anything [in beverages] that was at the tipping point, I would definitely look at cold-brew coffee," says Mathis Martines, senior category manager for innovation and snacks at Kroger. Martines adds: "When you talk about something that is hitting on all of the trends – fresh, crafty, functional – cold brew is the one that is hitting on all of them."

"A newer wave of cold-brew coffee-based products is going places where cold-brew coffee has never been before."

Packaged cold-brew coffee innovation has been paced by pioneering brands like Stumptown and Chameleon, but a widening array of players are entering the niche. California-based Califia Farms pushes plant-based ingredients with new sweet and hot Mocha Mexica, sweet and spicy Dirty Chai, and Triple Shot flavors of single-serving Califia Farms cold-brew iced coffee with almond milk. Hiball in San Francisco goes in more of an energy drink direction with slim-can-packed Hiball Energy cold-brew coffee in flavors like coffee, mocha, and vanilla – each with guarana, ginseng, and B-vitamins. Austin-based High Brew Coffee is another one to watch, also inspired by energy drinks. The brand's original formula double espresso flavor delivers 163mg of caffeine per eight-fluid-ounce can – roughly twice the caffeine jolt of a similar-sized can of Red Bull.

Innovation and development potential for cold-brew beyond the coffee sector

A newer wave of cold-brew coffee-based products is going places where cold-brew coffee has never been before. Brooklyn-based Jus by Julie is debuting 16-fluid-ounce bottles of probiotic cold-brew coffee, a ready-to-drink cold-brew coffee infused with vegan Ganeden BC30 probiotics, claimed to help improve immune and digestive system health. A different kind of health benefit is offered by new cold-brew coffee from Le Herbe in Seattle. This bottled coffee is infused with ‘natural’ cannabis extracts and is only available in cities or states that have legalized marijuana consumption for recreational use. Coarse coffee grounds from micro-lot coffee beans are steeped with marijuana extracts, chicory, vanilla beans, and chocolate for 24 hours to produce this cold-brew coffee, which contains both tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol.

"The stage may also be set for future growth in low-acid coffees."

Cold-brew coffee is even expanding outside of the coffee category. Connecticut-based Two Roads Brewing Company has just debuted (draft only, for now) Espressway cold-brew coffee stout, a locally roasted, organic Ethiopian and Sumatran blend of coffee beans with an oatmeal stout produced in a cold-brew beer process unique to the brand. The coffee is said to steep with the stout for several days, "resulting in a true, cold-brewed coffee stout." Tillamook County Creamery Association in Portland, Oregon recently debuted ‘silky smooth’ Stumptown Cold Brew Coffee Extra Creamy ice cream, a product made with just six ingredients. Finally, a Kickstarter campaign has been initiated to help fund Cold&Blac, London's first cold-brew coffee liqueur that is slated for a March 2016 launch.

Assuming that cold-brew coffee's growth continues, the stage may also be set for future growth in low-acid coffees. While low-acid coffee is not a new concept in America, the sector has never really caught fire. According to Joanie Parsons of Seattle-based Trucup Roasting Company, "20% of the German coffee market is low-acid coffee," eluding to the belief that low-acid coffee could be a much bigger player in the US. Trucup offers a line of low-acid ground roast coffees like Born to be Mild, which has a pH level of 5.74, making the product roughly two to four times less acidic than existing light roast coffees on the US market. Many cold-brew coffee products carry low acidity claims on product packaging, potentially making product acidity or lack of acidity a more important consideration for coffee-buyers. There may be a day when the pH level of coffee may be as common a sight on product packaging as the origin of the coffee beans.