For obvious reasons, most people around the world think of coffee first and foremost as a beverage. But what about using it to flavour food? Or even turning it into food?
It might come as a surprise to know that coffee has been used in a range of food products for over 150 years. To this day, the market for coffee flavourings and coffee-flavoured foods continues to grow, and it represents a notable opportunity for brands looking to diversify.
To learn more about the market for edible coffee products, I spoke to Kelleigh Stewart from Big Island Coffee Roasters, as well as Brittany Heyd and Meli James, the co-founders of Mana Up. Read on to find out what they told me.
You might also like our article on pairing food and specialty coffee around the world.
A brief history of coffee-flavoured food products
Global coffee consumption dates back as far as the 15th century, but it wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1800s that we started to see coffee incorporated into food.
One of the most notable early products was Camp Coffee, a mixture of sugar, water, chicory extract, and coffee extract that was created in Glasgow, Scotland in 1885. It began as an alternative to instant coffee, but was soon adopted by British home bakers to make an early form of coffee cake.
Alongside coffee cake, another notable coffee dessert which has been around since the 19th century is tiramisu. This layered cake-like dish is made by soaking ladyfinger biscuits in coffee, topping them with a mascarpone-egg yolk mixture, and dusting with cocoa powder.
Coffee-flavoured gelatin (or coffee jelly) also emerged in the 19th century, with its first mention in a British cookbook some time in the early 1800s. It gained mainstream popularity in Japan some 150 years later in the 1960s.
A pairing that’s become increasingly popular in recent years is coffee and chocolate. In particular, several popular specialty coffee roasters (including Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia) and chocolatiers have teamed up to provide a higher-quality take on a classic product.
How are edible coffee products evolving?
In the last few years, more than ever, we’ve seen a huge amount of innovation in the edible coffee segment.
Coffee sriracha, for instance, has become a cult favourite condiment, as has espresso-flavoured balsamic vinegar. Coffee grounds are also increasingly being used as components of dry rubs for meat, as well as being included as a marinade flavouring.
“Although our Espresso Bites taste like chocolate, they contain none,” she says. “They’re made with 100% Hawaii-grown coffee, 0% chocolate, and fully organic ingredients. They also contain less sugar than most bars of chocolate.”
As well as eating it on its own, Kelleigh adds that the Espresso Bites can be stirred into hot water to create a cup of coffee on the go.
She says that they’re finding that perhaps surprisingly, people are replacing their morning coffee with it, too.
“When they’re in a rush or travelling, people add it to water to make coffee, but most of the time it’s enjoyed alongside a cup. Some people even stir it in to give their coffee an extra ‘kick’.
“Usually it’s used as an afternoon pick-me-up; we find that many of our customers keep it in their purse or desk at work, and grab it when they want a small snack.”
Brittany Heyd and Meli James are the co-founders of Mana Up, a Hawaiian initiative which supports entrepreneurs across the state. Big Island Coffee Roasters worked with Mana Up’s product accelerator to develop and launch their Espresso Bites.
“We loved the convenience and uniqueness that their on-the-go edible espresso offered,” they tell me. “It’s a product we hadn’t yet seen emerge from the wider market and it’s delicious!”
Kelleigh adds that the idea for the Espresso Bites came from her dislike of hauling around cumbersome brewing equipment when she was travelling around New Zealand in 2014.
“We wanted to make our coffee more convenient for travellers and busy people like ourselves,” she says. “When we returned to our farm, we began experimenting with different ways to enjoy Hawaiian coffee, with no equipment or water required.”
How has the third wave of coffee driven changes in this segment?
Around the world, higher-quality food and beverage products are becoming increasingly popular with consumers.
In the coffee sector, we can see this predominantly in the third wave of coffee, which is characterised by a number of factors. Alongside a continued focus on quality, there is also a greater appreciation for the craft of brewing coffee, as well as more emphasis on traceability, transparency, and sustainability.
Kelleigh explains that these third wave values have naturally spread to other segments within the wider coffee sector – including coffee-flavoured food products.
“People want a closer connection to the source of the foods they eat and the brands they engage with,” Kelleigh tells me. “High-quality food and beverage products often have a powerful origin story, and stories like these are a compelling way to engage consumers.”
She adds that these factors must, of course, be balanced with quality, however. At the end of the day, it still has to be delicious.
“This combination of flavour, an authentic story, and an ethical supply chain, sparks a relationship between the brand and the customer,” she says. “It’s the foundation for success as an artisan business.”
Meli and Brittany speak to authenticity and ethical sourcing in particular, but note that one of the reasons they chose to work with Big Island Coffee Roasters was the fact that they represented Hawaiian coffee production on a much wider scale.
“We were compelled to work with Big Island Coffee Roasters on this product for a couple of reasons,” they explain. “One of these was the fact that they highlight coffees grown in various Hawaiian regions outside of just Kona.”
Is there an opportunity for more roasters to launch edible coffee products?
By adding a high-quality edible coffee product to their range, specialty coffee roasters can create a new experience for their consumer base while still retaining the values that are important to them and their customers.
“In many ways, Espresso Bites are easier to distribute than fresh-roasted coffees,” Kelleigh explains. “They’re small, have a long shelf life, drinkable and edible, cheaper to ship, and don’t take up much room [if you’re travelling].”
Expanding into this market can also be a great way for coffee roasters to increase their exposure and tap into new markets. Kelleigh explains that their Espresso Bites have helped them expand their reach beyond Hawaii.
“Last year, it was featured on Good Morning America, which was really exciting and provided us with some great exposure,” she says. “This year, we won a Good Food Award, which was truly an honour.
“The Good Food Awards celebrate artisan, hand-crafted foods with superior flavour that brings people together and builds strong and healthy communities,” she adds. “These are all things we’re passionate about.”
Finally, Kelleigh adds that it’s also been an opportunity for them to improve Hawaii’s reputation as a coffee origin on the international stage.
“Hawaii is the most isolated population centre in the world, and our shipping costs reflect that,” she says. “Our geographical and logistical issues leave us at a severe disadvantage compared with other US roasters. It’s one of several reasons that authentic Hawaii and Kona coffees aren’t common outside of the state, despite being one of our most important crops.
“While drinking Espresso Bites isnʻt comparable to drinking freshly roasted coffee, it has become a new way of celebrating and enjoying Big Island coffees and Hawaii’s agricultural heritage.”
It’s clear that there’s a bright future ahead for those willing to innovate with edible coffee products. Whether as a flavouring or as a product on its own, there is clearly potential for specialty coffee roasters to diversify if they are willing to.
Whatever happens in the coming months, it’s evident that there is plenty of innovation as far as product development is concerned in the coffee sector. Brands from all around the world continue to drive exciting, new experiences for global coffee consumers, and edible coffee products are just one of the many that we have seen in recent years.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on coffee production in Hawaii.
Perfect Daily Grind
Please note: Big Island Coffee Roasters is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.
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