Coffee and alcohol have been consumed for centuries, so it’s natural that the two would be combined and enjoyed together. The rising popularity of Ready To Drink (RTD) alcoholic coffee beverages also indicates that consumers are interested in mixing the two together.
Adding specialty coffee cocktails to your menu could help you tap into this segment – growing your client base and increasing their overall coffee consumption at the same time. Here’s why there’s never been a better time to consider adding coffee cocktails to your menu, and what you need to consider when doing so.
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Coffee’s Relationship With Alcohol
The consumption of coffee and alcohol might date back centuries, but combining them to create cocktails is something that’s relatively recent. The Irish Coffee was said to be invented in the 1940s, the White Russian in the 1960s, and the Espresso Martini in the 1980s. All three cocktails are still popular, and featured in Drinks International’s list of the World’s Bestselling Cocktails of 2019.
According to David Jameson (UK Coffee In Good Spirits Champion for 2014 and 2016), early coffee cocktails were usually basic, considered to be an acquired taste, and dominated by strong, bitter coffee. He mentions that using commodity-grade coffee would have impacted cocktails like the Irish Coffee, keeping them from developing a balanced flavour profile.
Times have changed since then, and the arrival of specialty coffee and third wave coffee shops means that modern coffee cocktails are more refined than their predecessors. David explains that specialty coffee has the range to become an ingredient “which can be moulded to fit a gap in your drink or used as a basis to build around – a long way from the monochromatic days when coffee was ‘just coffee’”. He adds, “Coffee cocktails can be a great gateway into speciality coffee for people who otherwise would not end up in that arena.”
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The Coffee In Good Spirits Championships
The creation of the Coffee in Good Spirits Championship (CIGS) is testament to the specialty coffee industry’s recognition of coffee cocktails. This annual event has been held since 2011, with National CIGS Championship winners competing for the world title. Participation requires contestants prepare Irish Coffees and hot or cold cocktails, which are then judged on their balance, creativity, and overall impression.
Competing in CIGS requires in-depth knowledge and understanding of what qualities different coffees bring to the table, and which other ingredients (and alcohols) they’d pair well with. It’s something that Dan Fellows understands, having won the world title in 2018 and 2019 – making him the only World Double Champion.
For example, Dan created his version of the Irish Coffee by combining natural processed Yellow Pacamara from Nicaragua (brewed through a Clever Dripper) with three Speyside whiskies, Caribbean light muscovado sugar syrup, coconut palm sugar syrup, and double cream. As a result, the drink had vanilla cream and butterscotch flavours, followed by tropical notes of caramelised mango and pineapple, dried banana and spiced dark rum.
Combining coffee and cocktails on any level requires understanding a coffee’s unique qualities, and how best to highlight them with alcohol and other additions. Dan says, “I always try to use coffee creatively as an ingredient … [Coffee] can be used as a secondary ingredient, bringing complexity or depth to a cocktail. As coffee can have such a wide range of flavours dependent on many variables (origin, process, variety, roast, brew method, recipe etc.), it’s important to carefully combine complementary or contrast coffees and spirits.”
This will require careful planning before the drink is made. Silvia Graham is the Co-Owner of First Coffee Bucharest and Barista School Romania. She mentions that when training baristas for coffee cocktail competitions, she starts by selecting which coffee, brewing method, and roast profile to use. She adds that once you have a structure for what kind of cocktail you want to create, you can decide on everything else.
RTD Offerings on The Market
While the coffee industry has been recognising coffee cocktails through the CIGS Championships, the market has started to see a demand for RTD coffee and alcohol combinations – many of which incorporate trendy nitro coffees or cold brews.
According to global marketing research company Nielsen, RTD coffee cocktail sales have dramatically increased since 2018, with customers citing their convenience, versatility and price, as reasons for their popularity.
Several coffee brands have collaborated with established alcohol brands to create RTD beverages with alcohol – such as coffee roasters La Colombe partnered with MillerCoors to create a cold brew drink combining malt liquor and medium roast Colombian and Brazilian coffee.
Should Your Coffee Shop Take Notice?
Integrating coffee cocktails into your coffee shop’s current offerings could help you secure new audiences. According to UK market research firm Mintel, combining what’s typically a bar offering with a coffee shop offering gives customers the best of both worlds, helping you maintain and grow your late-night audience and transition your services from day to night.
Offering cocktails could offer a financial boost by increasing the overall consumption of coffee. Considering that the demand for coffee is highest in the morning and continues to drop throughout the day, offering it in the evening could further boost consumption. And as this might require you to remain open past standard operating hours, you’ll extend your sales times too.
Creating Your Own Offering
Any coffee cocktails you add to your menu will need to appeal to your customers and make the most of your coffee. As Dan says, “there really is a coffee cocktail for everyone, but it’s most important that you a) understand what kinds of coffee/cocktails /flavours that your [customers] like, and b) what your ingredients taste like and bring to the drink. In doing so, you’ll be best placed to create a drink which meets [their] needs”.
This will require you to understand each coffee you offer to highlight its best qualities. Raul Rodas is 2012 World Barista Champion and owner of Paradigma Café, a coffee shop and roastery in Guatemala. He stresses that coffee is versatile and that depending on what variety or origin of bean you’re using, how you’re roasting it, and its profile, you’ll need to consider adding different flavours and ingredients. For example, Dan recommends pairing a medium roast, naturally processed coffee with a high flavour intensity barrel-aged spirit – for example, dark rum.
Care will need to be taken with the alcohol, as it could behave unpredictably in different combinations or at different temperatures. For Silvia, “this is the hardest way to balance coffee in a cocktail… because alcohol has a powerful taste and you need to know how much to use ‘[without covering] the taste of coffee”. If the cocktail is hot, Raul feels that alcohol has the potential to be volatile.
Above all, you’ll need to rely on your sense of taste and what you want the end result to be. Raul advises, “Think about what you want to enhance, Know your coffee and what flavours you want to bring up… It needs to be drinkable and delicious.” No matter how many ingredients you use, Silvia believes that you’ll be able to judge the result by whether it complements the coffee or detracts from it. “Coffee is the key and [if] all the other ingredients and alcohol are complementing the coffee, [you’ve created a winning] coffee cocktail.”
If making a new creation doesn’t appeal to you, sticking to offering tried and tested classics is an option. Raul recommends that coffee shop owners consider using “base cocktails that have been around for a long time.”
Creating a coffee cocktail might seem complex but it’s one that has the potential to help your coffee shop enter new markets and capture the attention of new customers.
Ultimately, Silvia advises that you keep tasting and experimenting, as “you never know how interesting [a drink could] be and what surprises you [could experience] when you combine coffee and alcohol.” As long as you keep doing so, you’re bound to create a winning combination (or a new spin on an old favourite) that your audience will literally drink up.
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Written by Janice Kanniah. Photo credits: First Coffee Bucharest, Ana Valencia
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