On a hot day, a cup of ice-cold brew from the local coffee shop is a thing of eternal beauty.
But the typical artisanal iced coffee isn’t an option when you’re at the Safeway, hoarding snacks for a bargain matinee showing of Cabin in the Woods.
It’s 80 degrees out, and the heat is making you sleepy. As you gaze bleary-eyed at the “Cold Drinks” section, you spy a beautiful silver cylinder of something called illy Cappuccino. You pay your $3 for it, and, once nestled in the darkened theater, you pop the tab and tilt the can to your mouth just as the movie’s protagonists get to someone’s cousin’s cabin, which is obviously the most haunted place on Earth, when — Blegh! What is this I’m drinking?
If they’re going to call this terribly sweet substance with strong notes of Swiss Miss and metal a “cappuccino,” then they’d better call you Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because words are meaningless.
While ruining a good thing for the sake of convenience seems uniquely American, canned coffee was actually invented by the Japanese. According to Hidetaka Hayashi, president of the Hayashi Coffee Institute in Tokyo, pre-made coffee in cans may have been introduced to Japan as early as 1958, although it wasn’t until 1973, when Pokka Lemon Corp debuted the hot/cold canned coffee vending machine, that the drinks really took off.
Canned or RTD (ready-to-drink) coffee is now a $16 billion business (.pdf), and the U.S. is the second largest consumer of the stuff thanks to offerings from Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Trader Joe’s and even Wolfgang Puck.
It’s safe to say that canned coffee is having a moment. There’s just one problem: It doesn’t taste very good.
When I mentioned to a friend — an Italian who considers herself a coffee expert — that I was writing an article about the problems with canned coffee drinks, she looked at me like I’d said I was writing an article about how to make cats more like bananas. This dismissive (and dare I say, snotty) attitude was shared by all of the coffee connoisseurs to whom I so much as mentioned the words “canned coffee.” All except for one.
Peter Giuliano is the owner of North Carolina-based Counter Culture Coffee. He’s the guru of baristas everywhere and a cold-coffee expert. He is also a man intrigued by the possibilities of a good canned coffee. According to Giuliano — who even copped to wanting to create his own canned coffee — the main problem isn’t that pre-made coffee can’t be good. It’s that the way it’s currently made, with an emphasis on low cost, will never allow for a quality beverage.
“They’re not crafted. They’re manufactured,” he says. While this might be fine for something like Coca-Cola, it’s much harder to pull off with a highly unstable substance like coffee. There are thousands of chemical compounds in every cup, and according to Giuliano, more chemical reactions happen during the preparation of coffee than anything else we normally eat or drink.
So what makes the current crop of mass-market canned coffee so bad? In a word, heat. Because pre-made coffee must be able to sit unrefrigerated on a store shelf, it has to be sterilized, which in the case of canned coffee involves heating the ingredients to 250 degrees for about 15 minutes. Heating coffee for that long not only kills microorganisms, but also causes the naturally present acids to break down, making the coffee bitter.
Enter milk. As Giuliano tells me, the high concentration of milk and sugar in most canned coffees is likely an attempt by the manufacturers to counteract the bitterness. Unfortunately, the addition of milk brings on a whole other set of problems, namely that cooked milk acquires rancid notes like those found in condensed milk or tapioca. This cloyingly sweet smell is off-putting for many would-be canned coffee consumers.
The result of all this cooking is that canned coffee comes in two varieties: extra-sweet, with lots of milk and sugar, or stomach-achingly bitter, with minimal flavor additives. Often, the former will be marketed as “Latte,” “Mocha” or “Cappuccino,” but as far as I can tell, these titles are applied at random and can be ignored. Just know it has milk and sugar in it.
I chose four coffees for my taste tests. The choices were partly based on an attempt at diversity (milky, black, foreign, domestic) and partly based on availability, since, as it turns out, canned coffee is pretty difficult to find. If a store carries it at all, they typically only have one brand. I bounced all over Manhattan trying to locate an appropriate selection of beverages.
The first coffee I tried, and the only Japanese brand, was Boss Black, which I found in a Japanese convenience store near the East Village. It came in a cool black can emblazoned with the words “BOSS” and “BLACK” and a picture of a dude smoking a pipe.
But that was where its positive attributes ended. The coffee — if you want to call it that — was so stomach-achingly bitter that I, a person who always drinks black coffee and is typically not a sissy baby, couldn’t even finish the small can.
Next, I visited Trader Joe’s to get my hands on a can of the company’s “Latte.” The cutesy blue cylinder looked like something that might contain baby formula, and at just 75 cents per can, it was suspiciously cheap. So I wasn’t shocked when this “Latte” turned out to be aggressively sweet and milky, yet somehow watery at the same time and almost completely lacking in coffee flavor.
Surprisingly, the only palatable offering came not from venerable Italian coffee maker illy, whose issimo Cappuccino revolted me at the movie theater, but from Starbucks. The Doubleshot struck a good balance between coffee and milk and sugar, and had less of the metallic aftertaste that seems unavoidable in canned coffee. It was the only canned coffee I tasted that I would willingly drink again.
According to Peter Giuliano, canned coffee could be a whole lot better, and possibly even good, if companies used high quality beans and a pasteurization method like micro-filtration or flash pasteurization, neither of which require the coffee to be exposed to high heat for long periods of time.
In fact, good pre-made coffee already exists, albeit not in a mass market form. Brooklyn-based coffee roaster Kickstand makes a liquid coffee concentrate that can be shipped to consumers around the country. The coffee is made via cold extraction — the grounds sit in water for a minimum of 12 hours before being filtered. Because no heat is applied, this type of cold-brewed coffee is low in acidity and delicious without milk or sugar. Not adding milk has another benefit, which is that the coffee doesn’t have to be sterilized. Since cold-brewed coffee is essentially flavored water, the air-tight bottles stay fresh for around three months if kept in a cool environment.
Kickstand’s product is expensive, must be diluted before being consumed and can’t be bought at the store. So it isn’t exactly the answer to canned coffee’s problems. But it does demonstrate that, if made with quality in mind, pre-brewed cold coffee doesn’t have to suck.