December 12, 2022

What is coffee soft serve & is it becoming more popular?


Coffee-flavoured products, such as ice cream and soft drinks, have been around for many years now. In fact, coffee-flavoured ice cream can be found in many supermarkets and convenience stores around the world, and is a popular choice for many consumers.

However, in recent years, we have seen a growing number of specialty coffee shops serving coffee soft serve – a type of frozen dessert which uses espresso or cold brew as part of the base mixture.

So what exactly is coffee soft serve and how is it made? And with signature beverages and coffee cocktails becoming more common in coffee shops around the world, could it become more popular?

To find out, I spoke with Klaus Thomsen, Chris Sheppard, and Tibor Várady. Read on for more of their insight.

You may also like our article exploring cold brew coffee ice cream.

The Torvehallerne Coffee Collective location in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Where did it come from?

Klaus Thomsen is a co-founder of Coffee Collective in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

“I believe we were the first coffee shop to make coffee soft serve,” he says. “We started serving it in 2016 and it was an instant success.”

He tells me that the idea for coffee soft serve first came about following a conversation with Danish Michelin star chef, Jakob de Neergaard, who also co-owns Jacob & Jakob Icecream.

In order to make high-quality coffee soft serve, Klaus says Jakob suggested using milk with a higher fat content, as adding large volumes of coffee to the soft serve mixture could water it down too much. 

“We then borrowed a soft serve machine and carried out some tests,” he adds. “Within a day, we had created a product that everyone was really excited about.”

As well as Coffee Collective, which sells coffee soft serve (or “softice”) at some of its locations in Denmark during warmer months, more and more specialty coffee shops are starting to offer similar frozen desserts.

For instance, Rosslyn Coffee in London, UK launched its own cold brew soft serve in July 2020, while Espresso Embassy in Budapest, Hungary also started serving soft serve in mid-2021.

Espresso being extracted into two porcelain cups.

How do you make it?

Soft serve is similar to ice cream, but has a softer and less dense texture because more air is incorporated into the mixture during freezing. The air content can be up to 60%, but the ideal range is between 33% and 45% of the total weight. This ensures that the soft serve doesn’t melt too quickly and that it maintains its shape when served.

In general, all ice cream products (including soft serve) need to be frozen quickly to avoid the formation of ice crystals. However, soft serve is often produced and stored at slightly higher temperatures than ice cream to preserve its lighter texture – usually around −4°C (25°F).

Another important ingredient is coffee, which can be brewed either as espresso or cold brew. These extraction methods are better suited for soft serve because they result in a more intense flavour profile, which can stand out against the creaminess and sweetness of the base mixture.

Chris Sheppard is the Head of Coffee at Rosslyn Coffee

He tells me that for its coffee soft serve, Rosslyn uses a cold brew made with its house blend which is steeped for 24 hours. The blend is a mix of Brazilian Sitio Grande and Mariano pulped natural coffees which the coffee shop uses for all its milk-based beverages.

“We use this blend to prepare cold brew because it has low acidity levels and a prominent body, as well as flavours of chocolate, nuts, and caramel,” he says. “We think this coffee complements the soft serve well.”

Some believe that darker roast profiles work well as the intense flavours can shine through more. However, this could also enhance the more bitter aspects of darker roasted coffee, too.

Klaus says that Coffee Collective have tried using several espresso blends for its soft serve, but adds that washed or pulped natural coffees can result in a more clean and balanced flavour.

“The quality of your soft serve will never be better than the quality of your espresso,” he tells me – emphasising the importance of always using high-quality coffee.

Coffee freshness is also another important consideration for making soft serve products, as Klaus adds.

“We extract espresso using the same parameters for all of our drinks, and then add the espresso shots into the soft serve base mixture while they are still fresh,” he explains. “After 15 minutes of mixing and cooling [in a specialist machine], the soft serve is ready.”

A glass bottle of organic cow's milk.

Choosing a base for your coffee soft serve

Most soft serve products have a fat level between 3% and 6%, while ice cream usually has a fat level of around 10%.

In order to achieve the right texture, most coffee shops tend to use whole cow’s milk. This is because it has a higher fat content than most other types of milk, which results in a creamier and richer flavour.

Tibor Várady is the owner of Espresso Embassy. He tells me that the coffee shop uses organic whole cow’s milk in its coffee soft serve, which also includes espresso.

“We were inspired by Coffee Collective,” he explains. “Klaus gave us advice on how to make our own soft serve, and we use whichever coffee we are serving as espresso to add into the base mixture.”

Chris Sheppard explains that Rosslyn uses cow’s milk from Estate Dairy in Somerset, UK – the same milk used in all its milk-based drinks. 

“We also partner with Happy Endings, who are based in East London, to produce our coffee soft serve,” he adds. “When we first launched the product, we were selling around 10l a week – now we serve around 70l per week.”

The ratio of coffee to milk is also important when making soft serve, as Klaus explains:

“We aim to have a similar milk-coffee ratio to our cappuccinos, so it tastes balanced and the flavours of the coffee are not too overpowering.”

Coffee soft serve at Coffee Collective in Copenhagen, Denmark.

It’s clear that coffee soft serve is a popular menu item in some coffee shops, but does it have the potential to become more common in cafés around the world?

Firstly, Klaus explains that there are some challenges which coffee shops might face when making their own soft serve products.

“The soft serve mix can sometimes clump, and if ice crystals form then it can be a problem,” he tells me. “Maintenance of the machines can also be quite challenging as they require intense cleaning.”

For coffee shops looking to make their own coffee soft serve, they need to ensure they have the space to install a specialist machine – as well as training staff on how to prepare and serve the frozen dessert.

“Moreover, when the weather gets colder, we usually don’t sell enough soft serve, but overall we manage our waste levels,” he adds.

Ultimately, this means that it is only likely to become more popular during warmer months, or in countries which have warmer climates year-round.

You can also use other types of milk to make soft serve. While Klaus, Tibor, and Chris all use whole cow’s milk, it may be possible to use other kinds of milk – although it’s important to note that results may vary.

For example, oat milk company Oatly recently partnered with ice cream chain 16 Handles to make an oat-based soft serve, which has proven popular among consumers.

As well as serving it on its own, coffee soft serve can also be used as base ingredient for other signature menu items.

“Our customers enjoy our coffee soft serve and it’s quite popular already,” Tibor says. “But this year, we focused more on serving it as an affogato.”

Klaus agrees, saying: “We also make it as an affogato by pouring espresso on top.”

Other ingredients can also be added to it, which Klaus explains further.

“We opened our own bakery, the Collective Bakery, last year,” he says. “We knew we wanted to add something new to the soft serve, so we made a coffee crumble topping. 

“The crumble dough is made from purple wheat, which is an ancient grain, which is then mixed with very finely ground coffee,” he adds. “We add it to the soft serve just before serving and it creates a nice crunchy texture.”

“At Rosslyn, we lightly dust the soft serve with 50% dark chocolate from Mörk before serving,” Chris explains. “This helps to accentuate the chocolate flavours in the coffee.”

Coffee soft serve in a cone.

Menu diversification is becoming more and more common in specialty coffee shops around the world, and coffee soft serve is certainly evidence of this.

As long as you make sure you always use high-quality ingredients, consider the time of year and your local climate, and make sure it’s financially sustainable to both make and serve it, coffee soft serve could well become popular on your menu.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on adding coffee cocktails to your coffee shop menu.

Photo credits: Coffee Collective

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