For many consumers, increased availability and variety of ready-to-drink (R.-T.-D.) coffee beverages have extended coffee consumption beyond the ritual morning cup or two. Often combined with milk or a milk substitute, and best served chilled, the beverages are a natural source of caffeine and appeal to consumers who want variety in their morning.

“The R.-T.-D. coffee beverage sector exploits the convenience factor by simply removing the need for a brewer,” said

David Sprinkle, research director and publisher, Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. “These grab-and-go beverages capture impulse and immediate consumption opportunities with single-serve product placement at beverage coolers, but also allow for multiple-serve product usage at home.”

According to Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands, the R.-T.-D. coffee beverage sector continues to experience strong product and market activity around the world. Though the category remains one of the smallest sectors of the soft drinks market in terms of new product activity, accounting for a mere 4.2% of global beverage launches for the 12 months ended July 31, 2014, the figure is up from less than 3% just five years ago, and growth shows no signs of abating.

The nature of the market is changing, said Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova Market Insights.

“Although ambient canned and bottled coffee drinks continue to dominate globally,” she said, “particularly in well-established markets such as those in parts of Asia and the U.S., it is the chilled milk-based variants in lidded cups for on-the-go consumption that have been leading growth, particularly in the relatively undeveloped European market.”

Packaged Facts recently published the 8th edition of “Coffee and ready-to-drink coffee in the U.S.: Retail and foodservice,” and noted the refrigerated R.-T.-D. coffee category is a dynamic one. Total sales increased 39% from 2012 to 2013 as a result of continued brand expansion and innovation.

In the United States, multi-serve refrigerated R.-T.-D. iced coffee products are driving growth in retailers’ refrigerated milk and juice cases as a result of premium positioning. The perishable disposition, real or inferred, as some products are shelf stable but are merchandised chilled, suggests minimal processing, an attribute that resonates with many consumers.

Innovations abound

The multi-serve, refrigerated platform welcomes another innovation from Starbucks Coffee Co., Seattle. Further building on its relationship with PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y., Starbucks and PepsiCo’s Tropicana division are rolling out a line of chilled espresso beverages in 48-oz plastic bottles. Varieties include caramel macchiato (regular and skinny), coffee mocha and vanilla latte (regular and skinny). The dairy-based refrigerated beverages join the refrigerated 48-oz bottles of dairy-free Starbucks Iced Coffee introduced this summer. There are also shelf-stable single-serve glass bottles of both dairy-free and milk variants.

Starbucks entered the refrigerated U.S. dairy case last year with 50.7-oz aseptic coffee-milk beverages that do not require refrigeration until after opening. Branded Starbucks Discoveries, for a limited time, seasonal gingerbread latte and peppermint mocha flavors will be joining the original line of caffe mocha, caramel macchiato and vanilla latte.

Just in time for New Year’s resolutions, Nestle USA Inc., Glendale, Calif., will be entering the R.-T.-D. coffee sector with Skinny Cow Creamy Iced Coffee Drink. Parent company Nestle S.A., Vevey, Switzerland, long has been a global leader in the soluble coffee category with its Nescafe brand. In the United States, the company markets refrigerated and shelf-stable R.-T.-D. iced tea and flavored milk beverages under the Nestea and Nesquik brands, respectively.

The company believes lower-calorie, lower-sugar iced coffee beverages will bring new users to the category. And, like with its other Skinny Cow products, the new iced coffees provide permission for personal indulgence.

Described as “rich, expertly roasted coffee folded into creamy, velvety dairy heaven and then whipped, not once, not twice but three times to deliver a uniquely thick and indulgent smooth coffee beverage,” the new line comes in three flavors: cappuccino, mocha latte and vanilla latte. With reduced-fat milk the No. 1 ingredient in the shelf-stable beverage, and using a blend of sugar with monk fruit extract, each 8-oz bottle contains 120 calories, 2.5 grams of fat and 18 grams of sugar.

In efforts to appeal to latte lovers who avoid dairy, Molly’s Milk Truck Beverages L.L.C., Ramsey, N.J., is introducing namesake almond milk-based iced coffee beverages. Made with cold-brewed 100% Columbian coffee, layered with flavors and sweetened with organic agave nectar, each 12-oz bottle is dairy-free, gluten-free and 90 calories.

The use of cold-brewed coffee or cold-brewed coffee concentrate is an increasingly popular method of distinguishing a brand in the growing category of R.-T.-D. iced coffee. Also known as cold press, this type of coffee is brewed without heat for a long period of time. In the case of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Portland, Ore., that would be more than 12 hours with room-temperature water. The process yields a low-acid concentrated coffee intended to be diluted with water or milk. The company markets the basic product as Stumptown Cold Brew and also has Stumptown Cold Brew Coffee with Milk.

A new concept in iced coffee, though not an R.-T.-D. product, comes from Old Orchard Brands, Sparta, Mich., that recently introduced iced coffee frozen concentrates in caramel and mocha flavors. Each 12-oz container is designed to be mixed with 20 oz of water to make four one-cup servings containing 160 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and no protein. The concentrate is vegan, as its creamy component is a non-dairy coconut oil-based creamer.

Formulating with coffee

Even though there are two major species of the coffee plant — Coffea arabica, simply referred to as arabica, and Coffea canephora var. Robusta, or simply robusta, coffee beans are differentiated by growing region, harvesting, roasting and more. The attributes allow for the development of signature flavors in R.-T.-D. products.

Arabica plants, which are considered to produce superior beans, make up about two-thirds of the world coffee market and robusta plants are about a third. Unless a coffee ingredient states it is made from 100% arabica beans, most likely it contains some or all robusta beans, the less expensive of the two. Robusta coffee plants are a hardier species, flourishing best in low-lying, warm, and humid equatorial forests. Within this environment, robustas produce a greater yield than arabicas because they absorb more moisture and produce a larger bean and under the accelerated growth conditions of the lower rainforest, they mature more quickly and blossom throughout the year.

Robustas also contain about double the amount of caffeine than arabica, making them attractive for use in energy-style coffee beverages. Interestingly, since caffeine acts as a natural pesticide, robustas are more disease-resistant than arabicas.

Robusta coffee has a distinct sensory profile, which, as the name suggests, is a stronger “robust” taste with a heavier body and more pungent aroma than coffee brewed from arabica beans. In general, arabica beans produce a superior taste in the cup, being more flavorful and complex than that produced by robusta beans, which tend to produce a bitter tasting brew with a musty flavor and less body.

Beyond the species distinction, only about 10% of the arabica coffee grown each harvest qualifies as “specialty coffee.” This is a quality level based on bean size, color, lack of defects, broken beans, infestations and taste in the cup.

Coffee characteristics change from year to year and vary from farm to farm, even within a region, with the largest growing regions being Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica. Factors affecting the quality and flavor of beans, and the ingredients made from them, include plant variety, soil chemistry and the amount of rainfall and sunshine. Many of these are uncontrollable.

What coffee ingredient suppliers may manage are the flavors associated with roast. Roasting is a technical skill that approaches an art form. It is a heat process that turns green coffee beans into the fragrant, dark brown beans that get brewed. Roasting brings out the aroma and flavor that is locked inside green coffee beans. In fact, green coffee beans have none of the characteristics of roasted beans.

Most coffee bean roasters have specialized names for their favored roasts. Terms are not legally defined or regulated, and as a result, there is little industry standardization. In general, roasts fall into one of four categories — light, medium, medium-dark and dark — with bitterness and flavor intensity increasing with roast. Medium-dark roasts commonly are used in unflavored iced coffee beverages, as the beans tend to possess a rich, dark color and a slight bittersweet aftertaste. Dark roasts are black beans with a pronounced bitterness. They have an intense flavor that melds well with other flavors, most notably chocolate and vanilla.

Sourcing has become a key element in premium coffee, presenting an opportunity for R.-T.-D. iced coffee formulators to go upscale, said Mr. Sprinkle. In addition to identifying the type of bean, its growing region and its roast, philanthropic and sustainable distinctions may be made, too. Examples include organic, shade grown, bird friendly and fairly traded.

Beverage formulators have an extensive portfolio of coffee ingredient options from which to choose, allowing marketers to differentiate in terms of price and quality. Some iced coffees claim to be made with freshly brewed coffee; however, the descriptor is not regulated and it is doubtful the majority of the companies have a giant Mr. Coffee on the manufacturing floor. Rather, they are using industrial coffee ingredients prepared from freshly brewed coffee or even cold-pressed coffee. The coffee typically is reduced to an extract or dried to a powder, as it is expensive to transport water. Water, milk or other liquids may be added at the R.-T.-D. beverage manufacturing plant.

Freeze-dried or instant coffee powders are a more economical option than the freshly brewed concentrates. Such dried products often deliver an acidic aftertaste that requires masking through the addition of flavors and other ingredients.

Coffee flavorants are a third option and may be used alone or to enhance other coffee ingredients. Flavorants may be natural or artificial, with the former made from real coffee.

Beyond coffee ingredients, formulators may further differentiate through layers of flavors, sweetener and even added nutrients. The R.-T.-D. iced coffee category has the potential to provide something for everyone’s taste and nutritional preferences.