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Bag-in-box vs kegs for cold brew coffee: Which is best?

Recent statistics project that the cold brew coffee market will grow from $3.16 billion in 2024 to $16.22 billion by 2032. So, it’s no wonder that coffee roasters and retailers are scrambling to find the most cost-effective and sustainable methods for distributing and dispensing this incredibly popular beverage. Fuelled by this push, both bag-in-box and keg-based dispensing systems are competing for market share.

This growing market presents many opportunities for innovation and discovery, as it is rich with options. That said, this can make it challenging to know which packaging format will be the best investment for your business. One choice for many retailers is whether to base their cold brew coffee dispensing systems on kegs or bag-in-box (BiB). 

However, brands must first consider certain factors, such as whether it is best to dispense from concentrate or use a finished beverage. Or, whether customers would prefer a nitrogenated product. And if so, should the brand use a pre-infused product, or invest in an infuser? 

Beyond this, businesses must consider which systems will require the least maintenance and which ones meet sustainability criteria. Essentially, any storage and dispensing method will have to meet the expectations of a highly discerning market.

I spoke with John Goerke of Bona-Fide Nitro & Tea to help weigh the pros and cons of kegs vs. bag-in-box systems as packaging materials and distribution and dispensing solutions for cold brew coffee. 

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Bag-in-box versus kegs: Understanding the basics

Kegs

Kegs are cylinders that are capped and sealed at the top and bottom. They’re typically made of stainless steel or PET plastic, though less commonly, of plastic-lined aluminium. A wide variety of keg sizes are available, and standards differ across different countries and regions. However, three of the most common sizes used for cold brew coffee are 5-gallon, 2.5-gallon, and 64-oz.

When dispensing, kegs generally use one of two systems. For example, one system uses two openings on the top of the keg. Each opening is sealed with a one-way valve that is accessed using two separate mini-ball lock connectors. One connector is used to introduce pressurised gas into the keg, and the other is used for dispensing the beverage. 

The other dispensing system has one central opening on the top end of the keg and employs a single combined valve for both gas and liquid. A special “Sankey” connector provides access to both functions.

Bag-in-box

As the name implies, bag-in-box systems have two main parts. The first is a sealed multi-layer bag made of various types of plastic, which serves as the beverage container. The second is a box, typically made of heavy-weight cardboard, which provides structure for the bag. Additionally, the box protects the bag from damage and provides convenient handles for transport. 

Like kegs, bag-in-box packaging is available in myriad sizes. Two of the most commonly available sizes for cold brew coffee are 2 litres and 20 litres. 

For dispensing, BiB systems employ a plastic valve or spout affixed to the bag. A gate incorporated into the box provides structural support for the spout. There are two common methods for dispensing cold brew coffee via BiB. 

The first system uses a mechanical pump to pull the coffee out of the bag. To a casual observer, these systems appear to function very much like a keg and tap system. You pull the tap, and coffee pours out. These systems can include an infuser to add nitrogen, as well as a water mixing system for dispensing concentrates.

The second system, used primarily in ready-to-drink applications, requires no further accessories. For this system, the user simply withdraws the spout, breaks the seal, and starts pouring directly from the bag. 

The pros and cons of each

Before discussing the differences, one must understand what kegs and BiB packaging have in common. Both packaging formats have excellent barrier properties and protection from UV exposure. Additionally, both systems provide viable sustainability options, though there are important differences in their approaches to sustainability. Likewise, both formats can do a decent job of preserving the flavour profile and other sensory characteristics of cold brew coffee. 

So, what sets them apart, and why might one consider one format over the other? John is an award-winning coffee and tea entrepreneur with over 37 years of experience in the specialty coffee and tea trade. He explains the pros and cons of each. 

“One of the reasons I put coffee in kegs is that they’re pretty sustainable. It’s good to the last drop. Our process claims 180 days of shelf stability, so caterers love our stuff,” he explains. “They don’t have to use it all. They can consume half a keg, and they don’t even have to put it back in the refrigerator—just put it back in their dry storage. So it’s got a lot of flexibility.”

Despite these benefits, Bona Fide began rolling out its products in BiB options this year–for a few compelling reasons. 

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What makes bag-in-box a compelling choice for cold brew?

First, BiB requires less equipment. John points out that dispensing product from a keg requires between $70 and $100 just for the accessories such as valves, clamps, and so on. For BiB, retailers can use a single clamp that attaches to the bag spout. 

“You can use the same container to push through the keg cooler as you use for your refrigerator. It makes [dispensing] a lot more attainable for people,” John explains. 

Another big plus for BiB is that it is far less space-intensive. The boxes fold, the bags collapse, and they are far easier to store than kegs. This positively affects costs for manufacturing, shipping, storage, and disposal, which all contribute to a somewhat lower average cost per unit sold and thus a lower cost to consumers.

John says that perhaps the most significant factor for Bona Fide’s shift is that “bag-in-box represents a huge piece of the market that is only growing”. 

In the wine industry in Europe, where John lives, he sees that BiB wine containers are “getting pretty cool, and glass is getting pushed to the ends of the aisles,” John believes that, despite early resistance, “consumers are used to it now. They’ve come to expect that good things can come out of the bag”.

Article body image courtesy of Bona-Fide Nitro & Tea

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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.