September 30, 2021

A barista’s guide to drink development


Around the world, some specialty coffee shops stand out from the rest. While branding, aesthetic appeal, and convenience are all key factors, ultimately it will be drink quality that sets them apart and keeps customers coming back.

However, making sure that beverages are always high-quality can be difficult. This is why drink development is a crucial aspect of café management. It can make the difference between a good coffee shop and a great one. 

But developing a new beverage is far more complex than just bringing in a new coffee from your supplier. There are several challenges you might encounter along the way.

To learn more, I spoke with two US Barista Championship competitors. They told me more about what drink development is and how they approach it for competitions and café management. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article on how café owners can tap into the cold brew market.

barista using pour overs

Developing drinks for competitions

If they’ve recently competed in a barista competition, there’s every chance that a championship barista or café owner may want to start offering a winning recipe as a signature beverage at their coffee shop. However, this isn’t always a smart move.

Anthony Ragler is a US Barista Championship competitor, and he’s also the Regional Developer at Black & White Roasters in North Carolina, USA. He tells me that the two approaches aren’t as similar as you might think, and notes that a big part of serving signature drinks at competitions is the atmosphere and the service.

He says: “Whenever it comes to competition drinks, everything has to bend to the flow of customer service in the routine. Your drink can taste great, but how does it play into the story that you’re telling?

“The story that I decided to tell is how our history is made by making the most out of what we’ve been given. Like the idea of taking lemons and making it into lemonade. I literally took a lemon and squeezed it into bergamot for my routine.”

Like Anthony, Avery Leith is a US Barista Championship competitor. He tells me more about his own process of developing a drink for competitions.

Avery says: “I approached the process of creating my competition drink by looking first at the flavour notes of the coffee. 

“If you ask the question: ‘Can I make this drink with any other coffee?’ and the answer is yes, you need to make additional changes to make it more specific to the beans you’ve chosen to use.”

However, with a café, Avery says drink development isn’t as specific. It’s not about appealing to a panel of expert judges and having to justify or narrate your decisions – it’s about creating a beverage that works for as many people as possible.

“When creating a drink within a cafe, it revolves more around accessibility,” he says. “You want it to reach a variety of customers, and to make sure it tastes good.”

Both baristas agree that the main difference between preparing beverages for competition vs cafes is that competition coffees have to follow a certain theme or story. 

They also both note, however, that café drinks should be reasonably easy to replicate and quick to make. This means that customers won’t have to wait for their drink, and will ensure they get consistent beverages time and time again.

barista pouring milk

Developing drinks for cafés

So, we know the approach to developing competition drinks is unusual. But how should coffee shop owners approach drink development for customers?

According to both Anthony and Avery, it all starts with one thing: catering to many different palates. 

Anthony says: “If you’re adding something to the menu, first you should consider two things. 

“One: it needs to taste good. Two: it needs to hit something that you’re not already hitting, whether that’s drawing more customers in, or extending your menu to accommodate certain dietary restrictions or preferences.”

Anthony also says that curating menu options to address everyone’s needs is important to him. 

He adds: “At a café that I worked at, I had an employee who was lactose intolerant, had a nut allergy, and didn’t like berries. 

“When it came time to add new menu options, we made a few that were curated to their restrictions and preferences.” This, he says, allowed them to cater to an even wider audience.

Avery, however, says that it’s not just about creating drinks that “sound cool”. If there isn’t a balance between sweetness, acidity, and bitterness, he says, you can easily fail.

He also emphasises the importance of tailoring your drinks to the season..

“Seasonality has a big part to play,” Avery says. “It changes the direction that you may want to take for your flavour profile. 

“However, seasonality shouldn’t restrict you; it should inspire you. Even in the fall, when pumpkin spiced lattes are in season, challenging your imagination can really separate you from other cafes. 

“I used to work at Elixir Coffee in Philadelphia. We developed a kabocha spiced latte. It was close enough to a pumpkin spiced latte, but we made it our own and customers loved it.”

Finally, Avery says that it helps to speak to people from other industries who have experience with drink development. He says that his own competition drink was inspired by a bartender friend who shared some of his cocktail recipes. 

Ultimately, adding unique seasonal drinks to your coffee shop menu can be a challenge that takes a lot of time and effort, but the reward can be huge. Delivering high-quality beverages that customers enjoy can set your café apart and create memorable experiences for customers.

coffee shop machinery

What difficulties can you expect to face?

Although the process of developing new drinks can be incredibly exciting, there are a number of challenges. 

One thing that both Anthony and Avery suggest is staying away from overcomplicated recipes. This will minimise the time it takes your baristas to prepare, keep your costs down (especially if you stick to simple ingredients), and make sure customers aren’t kept waiting.

Anthony says that for any “really solid signature beverage” you intend to add to your menu, you need to ask yourself a few questions first.

He says: “If you make a really solid signature beverage to serve at a cafe, how often might you have to serve that in a single day? How much strain is that going to put on your baristas? 

“When it comes to making new drink recipes, designing it in a way that it can be ‘batched’ or put together quickly is essential. That way, once it hits the bar, it can be a little more ‘plug and play’, rather than a drink baristas roll their eyes at whenever a customer orders it.” 

Avery agrees, saying that it’s important to think about the people who will be making the beverages. 

He says: “If your baristas have to set aside over an hour of their day to prepare syrups, batches, and other materials in order to keep up with the demand of that beverage, it may be time to reconsider what it is that your customers really enjoy and redevelop the menu to be simpler.

“Drink development is only good as long your baristas are excited and can get behind it.”

three types of coffee

It’s clear that there are some key differences between café and competition drink development. Competition drinks should balance and complement the characteristics of one unique coffee, while café drinks need to appeal to a wide array of customers. 

In a coffee shop setting, signature drinks need to be both appealing and efficient to ensure that your team can keep up with the demand. This will also help you to offer consistent drinks – something which customers will recognise and appreciate, keeping them coming back for more. 

Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring some of the factors that affect café design.

Photo credits: Unsplash

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