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How long does bottled cold brew coffee last?

Bottled cold brew coffee remains a popular choice for brands wanting to increase the safety and shelf life of their products. Consumers love the classic look and feel of bottles, and they appreciate their recyclability and relatively low environmental impact. For businesses, the diverse sizes and shapes available support brand recognition. 

Brands wanting to offer bottled cold brew coffee have two material options. Traditional glass bottles are widely available and support a broad range of sterilisation techniques. Glass is also one of the most easily recycled materials. On the other hand, bottles made from modern plastic polymers such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), High-density polyethylene (HDPE), and polylactic acid (PLA) offer significant advantages.

Plastic bottles are far lighter than glass and much less susceptible to breakage. This makes plastic a superior choice for shipping and translates to significant cost savings. Since their reduced weight also requires far less fuel to ship, plastic bottles contribute to a reduced carbon footprint. Moreover, plastic bottles take far less energy to produce, further decreasing their environmental impact. PET bottles are also 100% recyclable and have some of the highest recovery rates in the industry. 

Finally, full Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs) show that recycled PET (rPET) bottles exhibit superior environmental effects over glass bottles throughout their life cycle.

So, how can brands ensure product safety and increase the shelf life of bottled cold brew coffee? 

I spoke to Jaime López, owner of VIBRO Coffee in Colombia, and cold brew coffee consultant Adam Holliefield to learn more about the opportunities and challenges faced by brands that wish to take advantage of the benefits of bottled cold brew coffee. 

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Bottled cold brew coffee: Understanding shelf life

Flavour degradation and bacterial growth are the primary factors that govern the shelf life of cold brew coffee. While one is merely unpleasant, the other can be life-threatening. Research shows that refrigerated, unprocessed black cold brew coffee with no added sugars or milk will remain safe to drink for up to a week. Additions such as sugars and milk are both favourable to bacterial growth, so they reduce that time to just a few days. 

Bottles increase the shelf life of cold brew coffee by providing a relatively stable environment that helps prevent bacterial growth. Glass and plastic provide effective barriers to bacterial intrusion, and lids provide a hermetic seal that completes encapsulation

Understanding the shelf life of bottled cold brew

Producers and co-packers tend to use a variety of strategies to increase shelf life in cold brew bottles. These include cold chain, hot fill pasteurisation, high-pressure processing, and chemical additives. Each of these methods seeks to reduce bacterial growth and preserve flavour. The method you choose for your brand will depend on certain factors, including product formulation, packaging material, distribution methods, market size, shipping distance, and, of course, budget.

As the owner of a cold brew company, Jaime has had to make some difficult packaging choices. He explains what ultimately led him to invest in plastic bottles. 

“When we started our company, one of the most significant challenges we faced was how to package our product due to the different options that exist in the Colombian market,” he says. Jaime explains that he chose bottles primarily for their environmental benefits. He admits that he was also attracted to bottles’ ability to preserve flavour across the products shelf life. 

Notably, a lack of adequate recycling infrastructure and legislative support means that PET is not a viable option for VIBRO Cold Brew. Therefore, Jaime’s commitment to the environment led him to invest in glass bottles, even though this choice reduced his profit margin and distribution options. 

That said, Jaime reports that the brand is “getting 12 months of shelf life with pasteurisation and hot fill, with no refrigeration.”

Adam has been a cold brew manager at Coffee Support LLC for over two years. He sees a bright future for PET bottles.

“There are a lot of advantages to PET bottles. For a long time, juices and other beverages have been in glass and PET bottles. As PET is recyclable, resealable, and lightweight, I think it’s a perfect medium for transporting and merchandising cold brew coffee,” he says.  

How to store plastic bottles for cold brew coffee

When it comes to storing plastic bottles for cold brew, it’s important to remember that factors such as heat, temperature, humidity, exposure time, and strong odours, can impact their performance. 

Ensure the safety of your product by:

Storing your cold brew bottles in areas that are approved for food storage. Keep this area clean, dry, and free of dust, odours, insects, and rodents. 

Using a first-in-first-out system to limit storage time. If you are storing empty bottles long term, consider putting them in a sealed polyethylene plastic bag or lined bins. This will help prevent dust and dirt intrusion.

Maintaining a moderate storage temperature, below 100°F (38°C), to prevent shrinkage. Temperatures above 131°F/55°C can cause plastic bottles to distort severely, particularly around the neck. Such heat can also ruin the finish. 

Storing plastic bottles well away from direct sunlight. Avoid storing on loading docks that are exposed to the sun. Pay close attention to the placement of windows and skylights in the storage area, and observe the locations of heating ducts, engine exhausts, and other intermittent sources of heat.

Plastic bottles can absorb strong odours from items such as fuel, motor oil, spices, solvents, ink, cleaning supplies, and disinfectants. Keep plastic bottles well away from such aromatics

Shipping considerations for bottled cold brew coffee

When shipping empty plastic bottles, avoid trucks with dark curtains or other dark surfaces that could radiate undue heat from absorbed sunlight. When shipping through areas where temperatures may exceed 90°F (32°C), consider using a temperature-controlled trailer capable of maintaining a temperature below 80°F/27°C.

Storage and shipping considerations for filled bottles will vary quite a bit depending on formulation and processing. If your formulation relies on cold-chain, then obviously your product will require refrigerated containment throughout storage and transport. However, even products that have been treated with a kill step will likely need to be kept somewhat cool to avoid advanced degradation. 

Brands should be aware of all food safety regulations in their market to fully understand compliance requirements. Consider consulting with a formulator who can help devise a food safety strategy appropriate to your brand’s packaging and distribution needs.

Images courtesy of VIBRO Coffee

For more information on BPA-free plastic bottles for cold brew coffee, contact our team

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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.