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What’s driving cold brew coffee? Diving into market trends & consumer preferences

Market trends are shaping to make 2024 an exhilarating year for cold brew and ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee. Driven by younger consumers looking for health-conscious alternatives to sugary beverages, the cold brew coffee market is emerging as a place of experimentation, discovery, and craftsmanship. 

According to a recent report, the global cold brew coffee market reached a value of about $604.47 million in 2023. Beyond this, it’s expected to reach a value of $3751.76 million by 2032. This impressive growth includes an impressive array of innovations including herbal additives to customise health benefits, and specialised cold brew concentrates for mocktails, cocktails, and other beverages. 

Projections indicate this market diversification will continue unabated, favouring innovations that create a stand-out brand. To help sort through all the hype, I spoke with Eric Johnson, CEO of Trident Coffee Roasters, and Stephanie Thornton, Senior Innovation Manager at Finlays. We dive into cold brew coffee packaging and what consumers expect from this market segment.

Cold brew coffee: 2024 market trends

Are sales of cold brew coffee still dominated by younger consumers? 

Based in San Diego, CA, Trident Coffee Roasters offers nitro cold brew, espresso, and whole roasted beans direct to consumers and wholesale. This is done online and through the brand’s three cold-brew “tap-rooms”. By contrast, Finlays, founded in 1750, is a leading independent B2B manufacturer and supplier of coffee, tea, and botanicals worldwide.  

Speaking from these highly diverse perspectives, Eric and Stephanie provide valuable insights into technical developments, demographics, and cultural trends driving consumer preferences for cold brew and ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee.

Stephanie, who has been with Finlays for three years, explains that Generation Z and Millennials still dominate the cold brew market. “They are very much our target consumers. However, we’re seeing cold brew coffee now entering mass quick service restaurant (QSR) chains, which tells me this is a mature category.” 

She adds the demographic at many of these QSRs is predominantly female. “And not just young women, but also moms,” she says, adding they’re also seeing more consumers from Generation X. “I attribute that to cold brew coffee having now contributed to the market so much that it’s almost becoming routine. So, by proximity [older generations] are seeing so many others buying this cold coffee that they’re starting to get on the bandwagon.” 

Eric, who has over 13 years of combined experience in entrepreneurship, management, specialty coffee, agrees. “It’s still definitely a younger demographic. Millennials and Gen Z appreciate the craft component. They’re interested in finding new experiences, and what we’re bringing to the table is a new coffee experience.” 

A focus on the supposed health benefits of cold brew 

Eric notes that cold brew is gaining popularity “similar to how we saw the craft beer space emerge about 10-15 years ago. There is a lot of focus on ingredients, sourcing, and the type of bean being used,” he says. 

He also believes the RTD space is moving towards the “latte” variety, with the driving force being plant-based milks. “A lot of people are using copackers to get their product on the shelf. It has to be shelf stable and go through retort,” Eric says. “And so, you’re not getting many coffee notes out of that. You’re predominately getting the milk and sugars. So, from a latte standpoint, that works great.”

Another factor to consider is how health-conscious consumers are becoming. Both Eric and Stephanie agree that people are more concerned about what they put in their body. “There is so much potential in the natural beverage market,” Stephanie notes. 

Eric explains Trident Coffee primarily offers black RTD coffee options but also has a few products that are mixed with MCT oil and sweetened with monk fruit. “We try to minimise sugar and milk consumption as much as we can for all of our products, so customers can appreciate the coffee as a health beverage.” 

Interestingly, Stephanie reveals that cold coffees are gaining popularity among the Hispanic population. “The Hispanic market really loves their coffee and they love it sweet. They love different flavours and are willing to try unique flavour combinations. It’s a very interesting demographic to monitor,” she adds. 

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Cold brew coffee packaging trends

One trend that continues to grow is sustainable packaging and reducing the environmental impact of your business. “The carbon footprint from shipping is a pretty big challenge,” Stephanie says. 

She adds that from a B2B standpoint, Finlays has placed renewed focus on finding lightweight options that take up less space. “This helps increase the affordability of our products.”  

Stephanie explains that due to the volatility of the market and inflationary prices, Finlay has seen consumers putting less of a focus on certified coffees. “By certified, I mean fair trade, rainforest alliance, and organic,” she says. “Consumers are choosing to purchase options that are considered conventional because it’s cheaper for them. This is why sustainability [in packaging] is so important.”  

“If we make sustainable packaging that cuts shipping costs, then they don’t have to make that decision,” she adds. “From the consumer standpoint, we want to find something that’s easy to recycle.” While there are several recyclable options available, several have to be manipulated in order to be processed correctly, which can be inconvenient to consumers.

Trident Coffee uses recyclable aluminium cans for its cold brew coffee. “What’s nice about aluminium is that it’s one of the most recyclable materials out there,” Eric says. “So, that was a good entry point for us. And if we have to expand to a co-packer at some point, it’s easily translatable into that space. You can also trap the nitrogen in that packaging via multiple canning line systems.”

How are shelf life concerns driving cold brew packaging choices?

As with any emerging beverage market, there are still concerns around cold brew. These predominantly revolve around safety, and, as Stephanie points out, the shelf life of sustainable packaging materials. 

“Some sustainable materials are unable to contain the product well, and that diminishes shelf life,” she says. “The standard is between 6 and 12 months.” She adds that a lot of this is “uncharted territory” and many of the materials Finlay’s has explored are currently unavailable in the US. 

“But this issue is going to be top of mind. I don’t think retailers will want a shorter shelf life, even if the material is more sustainable and lightweight,” she adds. 

At Trident Coffee, Eric explains that everything is refrigerated, as within the kombucha market. “To preserve the flavour profile, it has to be canned, without resorting to any pasteurisation techniques. Our RTD is done in-house as we have a canning line. We also distribute it through a cold chain to preserve the flavour as best we can.”

Thanks to the brand’s brewing methodology, filtration, and nitrogen dosing, Trident Coffee’s products are shelf stable for about 5 months when refrigerated. “If we want to expand into new markets, that’s something we’ll have to take a look at,” Eric admits. “But, in our entry level testing, it’s worked well for us to stay in the San Diego market and not worry too much about shelf-life considerations.” 

Keep an eye out for the next exclusive interview with Eric and Stephanie, as we dive deeper into the effects of terroir and roast profiles on cold brew quality.

Image courtesy of Trident Coffee Roasters

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About the author

Paul Clearfire is a coffee historian and author living in Portland, OR, and has spent the past 20 years perfecting the art of manual espresso extraction. He's been writing for Perfect Daily Grind Media since 2023.