Exploring alternative coffee beverages

Exploring alternative coffee beverages

While specialty coffee consumption continues to rise around the world, demand for functional alternative beverages is also increasing. 

This is in no small part because health and wellbeing are rapidly growing as consumer priorities. As a result, coffee alternatives marketed as “healthy” pre or post-workout supplements are becoming more popular. 

To learn more about alternative coffee beverages, I spoke to two professionals from the “low-roast” coffee market. Read on to find out what they told me.

You may also like our article on the matcha latte.

matcha coffee

What is “alternative” roasted coffee?

Across the coffee sector, consumer interest in alternatives to “regular” roasted coffee has been changing. 

There’s no doubt that younger demographics have influenced the trajectory of the coffee industry with new product categories (such as cold brew and RTD lattes, for example). In response, roasters have changed their strategy to meet this demand and produce “alternative” beverages.

Logan Allender is the Head Roaster and COO at Atlas Coffee Club. “Typical coffee [like medium to dark roasts] attempts to strike a bittersweet kind of balance,” he says. “When we think bittersweet, we often consider foods like dark chocolates or cranberries.”

Logan roasts coffee for Golden Ratio, a company that produces single-serve, “gold” roast coffee bags in Austin, Texas. 

“Golden Ratio aims to be less acidic, [so] we find the resulting cup is smoother and sweeter,” he says. “[There are] more caramel [flavours], with complementing notes of cashew, oat milk, and malt tea.”

The “gold” roast profile also means that the caffeine levels in Golden Ratio remain high. According to the company’s website, it contains 50% more caffeine per gram than regular brewed arabica coffee. 

However, recognising that younger consumers are increasingly drinking smoother, mellower coffee beverages (like cold brew), it also aims to eliminate acidity and bitterness.

Logan says that this “gold” roast is achieved using a different technique. 

“Our approach is much more gentle than typical roasting – not too dissimilar from roasting nuts,” he tells me. “We use higher airflow and lower temperatures to create an even roast that ensures good moisture removal from the coffee, without overcooking the exterior.”

Golden Ratio is also only sold in pre-ground pouches. This helps to meet a growing demand for convenience among younger consumers. However, this isn’t the only reason why it’s pre-ground for sale.

Robbie Thomas is the Marketing Director at Golden Ratio. “Our beans are less roasted than regular coffee, [so] the beans are much more dense post-roast than regular coffee,” he explains. 

“This creates a problem with most coffee grinders – the golden beans will break them!”

freeze dried coffee

The growing functional ingredient market

The global functional ingredient market is set to reach US $105.64 billion by 2027. But what does “functional” actually mean?

There are multiple definitions, but the general consensus is that a functional ingredient is a food or beverage item that has some kind of tangible benefit beyond its flavour. For instance, coffee is a functional ingredient which promotes health and wellness and improves wakefulness because of its caffeine content.

However, in an effort to make coffee even more “functional”, some consumers are increasingly looking to maximise the impact of their coffee. For instance, many people use cold brew in tandem with fitness supplements as a preworkout combo.

Robbie, however, explains that the functional beverage market is always evolving.

“People’s love of coffee and caffeination cannot help itself but to push new bounds,” says Robbie. “Today, we can see an explosion of new creative expressions, helping folks enjoy their coffee.

“This includes flash-frozen coffee, higher-quality instant, mushroom coffee, [and] low-roasted coffees (like gold coffee).”

Mushroom coffee is an historic example of a functional beverage. Despite its recent surge in popularity, the drink was actually used in early Chinese medicine. More recently, it was employed as a coffee substitute during the Second World War.

Mushroom coffee is typically made by adding hot water to a ground mixture of roasted coffee and mushrooms. These mushrooms are traditionally of the chaga, turkey’s tail, lion’s mane, or reishi varieties, all of which have supposed medicinal properties. 

However, while there are claims that mushroom coffee can improve immune activity and reduce the risk of heart disease, its flavour profile isn’t for everyone.

“While the spicy and carbonic flavours [can be preferable to some, it] can also be off-putting to others – often requiring customers to add milk or milk alternatives to reduce the bitterness,” Logan says.

“Acidity and bitterness are two sides of the same coin. [They are] the extremes of the pH scale and can be harsh if they go too far in any direction.”

coffee and yoga

Consumers & a new focus on wellbeing

“Two-thirds of Americans who drink coffee everyday add cream or sugar to their beverage,” Robbie says. “Only one-third of Americans who drink coffee everyday enjoy it black and without sugar.”

Adding milk, cream, sugar, or sweeteners can increase the calorie content of a cup of coffee and make it a less healthy beverage option.

Research shows that health and wellbeing is a growing priority for many younger coffee consumers; in a survey by Sandford Health, some 53% of millennials cited health and wellbeing as their most important values. 

“One in every seven US Americans wrestles with some sort of digestive issue,” Robbie says. “Regular coffee can irritate these through its natural acidity or caffeine levels.

He also says that Golden Ratio is five times less acidic than regular brewed coffee. This can be beneficial for consumers who are sensitive to acidic foods and beverages.

“Our beans are roasted less than regular coffee,” Robbie says. “It’s somewhere in between green coffee and a blonde roast (the lightest ‘regular’ coffee roast in the market).”

Caffeine sensitivity is another important factor, too. While coffee is linked with a number of health and wellness benefits, decaf and other caffeine-free alternatives are popular with people who are caffeine-sensitive.

Caffeine sensitivity itself is actually determined by an individual’s genetic makeup and metabolism. People with faster metabolisms tend to feel the impact of caffeine less. Conversely, caffeine naturally processes more slowly for people with slower metabolisms.

This growing segment of caffeine-sensitive consumers understandably looks for alternative beverage options. Furthermore, even for those who aren’t especially caffeine-sensitive, caffeine can lead to headaches, anxiety, and stomach problems in high doses.

Alongside decaf, however, other caffeine-free options are emerging on the market. Chicory root, for instance, can be roasted, ground, and brewed as an alternative to coffee. In New Orleans, ground chicory has even been mixed with coffee in a citywide tradition for hundreds of years.

golden coffee

How might this market develop?

As interest in higher-quality coffee and consumer wellbeing both continue to grow, the alternative coffee market seems set to increase. Robbie notes, however, that quality itself plays an important role in the development of these markets.

“Let’s take matcha for example,” he says. “It’s become overwhelmingly popular in a short period of time, but it’s not cheap [or] generic matcha that’s causing this meteoric rise.

“Instead, it’s ceremonial grade [or] specialty matcha that is making a big name for itself in [the] alternative beverage [market].”

Matcha is prepared by grinding young green tea leaves to a fine powder, then whisking the powder with hot water to make a tea, or adding it to steamed milk. 

Matcha has become overwhelmingly popular for its health benefits, as there is plenty of research linking the consumption of green tea to a decreased risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes

The growing focus on health has also boosted the popularity of other traditional beverages, too. Another example is haldi doodh, also known as turmeric milk, golden milk, or the turmeric latte. 

Believed to have originated in India, this beverage is made by steeping fresh turmeric is in milk or dairy alternatives. It is then boiled and mixed spices and sweeteners. Studies have shown that curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

Beverages like these have become increasingly popular with wellbeing-focused consumers in recent years, and have started to appear on café menus around the world as a result.

But what does this mean for coffee? More competition, or a higher profile?

Coffee contains high levels of antioxidants, and a 2011 study published in Food Science and Nutrition found that it can reduce the risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and certain cancers. 

Beyond that, thanks to the energy boost caffeine provides and coffee’s naturally low calorie content, interest in using it as a fitness supplement is increasing.

For example, consuming coffee before running has been found to increase runners’ top speed. Similarly, research from the University of Illinois concluded participants who drank coffee before exercising suffered less from muscle soreness.

But it’s not just health and wellness that drive the demand for coffee as a functional beverage.

“Customers are more interested in finding high-quality coffee that ensures farmers and the land are treated ethically and sustainably,” Logan says. “With Golden Ratio, we are roasting coffee much lighter than what is considered typical, [so there is] far less room to hide flaws in coffee with darker roasts.

“This essentially requires that we seek out the very best coffee and ensure those involved in its production are being ethically supported.”

golden latte

Consumers are becoming more interested in alternative roasting techniques and alternatives to coffee. It’s becoming clear that both ingredient quality and consumer wellbeing are driving behaviours.

Furthermore, Logan notes that classic attitudes to coffee are changing. “Coffee drinkers are dropping the idea that adding anything or changing your coffee is sacrilege,” he concludes. “Ultimately, it’s your coffee and you should enjoy it however you want.”.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on white coffee around the world.

Photo credits: wonderkindco.co

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Golden Ratio is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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