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Restaurant and coffee shop operators are finding a growing market for craft-made specialty beverages that deliver a distinctive, personalized and high quality experience for their patrons, especially the sought after millennial crowd.
Calling a food or beverage “craft” suggests that it is made with skill and simple, traditional methods, rather than mechanized mass production. That designation applies to many of today’s most popular and saleable specialty beverages. Beverages that have a craft identity typically offer a story and an experience that many patrons, especially millennials, find appealing. Among the favorites are specialty coffee and tea drinks, both hot and cold, such as flavored latte and cappuccino, cold brew and nitro coffee, green tea latte and matcha green tea.
Rising consumption of gourmet and specialty coffee beverages is one of the National Coffee Association’s five top trends for 2017, reports the NCA blog. That is the result of consumers prioritizing experience over price in their beverage purchases.
The desire to cash in on the millennials’ craving for specialty beverages is driving innovation among operators today. Take the beverage menus of The Roasterie, a Kansas City, Missouri-based specialty coffee company with three café locations.
The Roasterie conducts twice-yearly drink contests that challenge the craftsmanship and creativity of its café staff. The winning entries are promoted as coffees of the month. Two examples are the Cinnamon & Honey Latte, featuring locally gathered honey, and the Horchata Latte, a Cinco de Mayo specialty made with horchata, a sweet and creamy Mexican-style rice milk beverage flavored with cinnamon.
Promoting contest-inspired specialty drinks like those “is about creating unique coffee experiences for our guests,” says Mike Valent, The Roasterie’s director of café operations.
In another take on crafting a specialty beverage, The Roasterie’s Aeropress Macchiato showcases hot java topped with a layer of milk foam in a clear glass. A barista prepares it by hand with a plunger-type brewer, providing theater in the café.
Latte art — designs crafted in the cup with steamed milk swirled by hand — add final flourishes to specialty coffees. On Valentine’s Day the lattes wear hearts; on St. Patrick’s Day, shamrocks. Halloween brings jack-o’-lanterns. “It’s a great way to brighten a customer’s day as well as an indicator that the milk has been steamed correctly,” Valent says.
The Roasterie also taps into the vogue for chilled coffee specialties. Its cold brew coffee, steeped for 19 hours, offers higher caffeine and a smoother, less acidic palate than hot brewed java. Its nitro cold brew goes a step further with a distinctive, nitrogen-infused foamy head and creamy mouthfeel.
The Beach Time Toddy, made with The Roasterie’s cold brew, milk, almond syrup and coconut syrup, is a summertime iced treat “that some people request year round,” Valent says.
Other hits include an iced green tea latte flavored with coconut milk and lavender syrup and an unusual concoction of Ethiopian natural coffee, which has a blueberry nuance, steeped with jasmine pearl tea and served cold.
A prototypical craft-made specialty beverage is a signature of South Water Kitchen, a Kimpton restaurant in Chicago with a Midwestern-inspired menu. SWK Cold Brew is the brainchild of executive chef Roger Waysok. He had a hunch last summer that housemade cold brew would appeal to guests who avoid alcohol at lunch and might like something more on-trend and flavorful than a soft drink or glass of ice water.
He makes the brew by steeping custom-blended coffee beans in water for 48 hours, straining out the grounds, adding a little more water to adjust the strength and pouring the liquid through a funnel into glass bottles that are closed with a manual capper.
“That handcrafted, homemade feel is really big right now,” says Waysok. “It comes across in the flavor and appearance, and it creates a story that customers like hearing.”
The brew is priced at $6 per bottle. “It’s more than just a cup of coffee,” Waysok says, citing the coffee beans, time and craft involved. “There is a story behind it. People are pretty happy with it.”
Waysok notes that sophisticated consumers are drawn to one-of-a-kind menu items. “They don’t want your average, everyday product,” he says. “They want something exciting, that they can’t get everywhere else --- something that makes them feel that they are on the cutting edge.”
Cold brew is a core menu item of specialty coffee chains and it's cropping up in a growing number of restaurants as well. It ranks among the five trendiest nonalcoholic beverages in the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2017 Culinary Forecast. In addition, Nation’s Restaurant News pegged cold brew as one of its nine food trends for 2017 in an article last year.
Not lost on operators is the special thirst that millennials have for it. Cold brew “has broad appeal among young consumers,” wrote NRN senior food and beverage editor Bret Thorn last year. “The fact that it’s generally made in small batches in a sort of craftsmanlike way also seems to appeal to them.”