Prepared Foods talks coffee ingredient and beverage trends with Chef Eric Nakata, a 20-year food and beverage industry culinary expert. Nakata most recently served as vice president of culinary and innovations at S&D Coffee. He also served as a supplier’s strategic development chef to McDonald’s, and as a director of R&D for a company supplying syrups and blends to restaurants and cafés. His career also includes food R&D posts at Nestlé USA and Bavarian Specialty Foods.
Prepared Foods: You have a broad perspective on food and beverage trends. Let’s focus first on coffee as an ingredient. As someone who’s served in both R&D and culinary roles, what most interests you about new coffee ingredient applications?
Chef Eric Nakata: It’s great to see both coffee and tea being crossed utilized in both food and beverage. Although typically thought of as beverages, there truly has been more acceptance of coffee into food with the crossover trend of dessert flavors moving into savory foods, and savory [flavors and ingredients] moving into desserts. We are seeing more creativity and innovation around the usage of traditional food and beverages turning into ingredients. For example, I see coffee as a flavor profile in rubs, sauces, spreads, fillings and bases.
Coffee also is being used as a “salt” enhancer to draw out the savory flavors from proteins. Additionally, upcycling is a nice usage for spent grounds as it adds some flavor—whether it’s solely for the flavor of coffee or the subtle cues and background addition playing on some of the bitter notes imparted from coffee.
From a beverage perspective, it’s very exciting to see coffee used to accentuate and differentiate flavor profiles in applications like alcoholic beverages, seltzers and growing category of citrus-ades. Although it doesn’t necessarily seem as intuitive, mixing coffee with citrus is very complimentary if done correctly.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the surprisingly growing trend of energy drinks. Double and triple caffeinated beverages, natural caffeine sources and the resurgence of more fun flavored energy drinks. Coffee is one of the first clean energy beverages and people continue to make it their preferred daily rituals.
I continue to see the use of bubbles and carbonation, which although not specifically targeted for coffee, will be a continued trend. Depending upon the type of carbonation used, it has an incredible effect not only on mouthfeel but with flavor perception.
In the example of coffee, nitrogen has the ability to give a tangible light creamy mouthfeel and the rounds out some of the flavor spiked usually found in cold coffee. Carbon dioxide accentuates the citric and bitter notes and masks sweetness characters like caramel and chocolate notes.
PF: Looking back at your own recent development experience, can you share an example of something you worked on?
Chef Eric: Most recent customer requests involve coffee and dairy and/or dairy alternatives in forms of ice cream bases, shakes and iced coffee. Likewise, there are requests for coffee with flavors and carbonation/nitrogen, especially for ready-to-drink applications.
I was listening to Starbucks’ last earnings call with analysts and officials were discussing the company’s cold coffee product mix. They noted that 70% of their consumers are currently consuming cold and iced coffee beverages in comparison to hot coffee offerings. If the industry leader in that space is seeing that activity, I wouldn’t be surprised if other similar categories in retail, casual dining and c-stores are seeing the same trend.
PF: Let’s shift more directly to coffee beverages. What’s most interesting to you in regard to new flavors?
Chef Eric: I love new flavors and limited-time offers. When it comes to Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) season, I cringe a bit because I think we have become lazy in trying to expand the “PSL” flavor wheel. Companies often just fall back on turning any type of food and beverage into PSL flavored variety. There is so much we can work with when it comes to fall flavors, warm spices, comfort, and nostalgia. Dunkin’s launch of Smoked Vanilla Cold Brew with Sweet Cold Foam is interesting. Even more interesting are their Pumpkin Cream Cold Foam drinks and Apple Cranberry Coconut Refreshers.
Starbucks’ new Apple Crisp Macchiato is a product I will try. My first thought would be it would make a great sparkling cider or refresher. Or if you utilized popping boba, it would be a real experience if you could pack the flavors inside the popping boba.
Another interesting take would be the original brown sugar boba from Asia, which reappears here in the United States every few years. It has the potential to stick around and go mainstream because it adds texture interest and also can “be” the sweetener. This could be the answer to managing sweetness levels at store level. Starbucks’ recent Strawberry Funnel Cake Frappuccino is a nostalgic indulgent flavor. Pre-pandemic, we saw this trend of companies playing off fun “fair foods.”
Today, flavor mash-ups and off-the-wall flavor combinations are trending and are most apparent in the snack aisle. Hot flavors also are trending. It wouldn’t be out of realm to see some spicy cold coffees.
PF: From a broad perspective, how would you describe today’s overall creativity involving hot and cold coffee-based beverages?
Chef Eric: I think we are in a state of flux. Those restaurants that were able to stay open had to cut back on their innovation platforms. It was critical to focus on core menu, staffing and sourcing to accommodate to-go and drive-through execution. Then, there were those restaurateurs who were not able to remain open. They have had some downtime to watch, learn, and prepare new opening strategies for to-go and delivery platforms. That may mean “leaning out” menu offerings to better suit third-party delivery or negotiating contracts with ghost kitchens. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the massive, continued labor shortage. In the end, this might just be the catalyst for more automated, machine-based prepping, cooking, packaging and delivery.
With the current climate, I don’t expect to see a huge innovation push for hot coffee unless it involves automation for sealing a hot beverage to make it tamper-proof. An example could be, a boba cup with a hot pressed top seal.
In regard to hot beverage flavor trends, it sort of goes and flows with the weather. If we have a unusually cold, long winter, it could actually help hot beverage innovation. Cold beverage innovations will continue to see growth but perhaps at a slower pace since not all [restaurant] businesses are fully staffed and operational. As the projects continue to come in, I think we are preparing to see full innovation in beverages up and rolling by early 2022.
PF: Any additional projections for coffee beverage trends in 2022?
Chef Eric: I do think that we are approaching a new time where lab-grown ingredients will start to make news. This is the next phase beyond plant-based ingredients, I’ve seen a few articles on lab-grown Wagyu beef in Japan and lab-grown synthesized coffee from Atomo Coffee Inc. The molecular coffee initiative from Atomo is backed by Horizon Ventures, one of backers for Impossible Foods.
There remains some volatility in the coffee market for specialty blends. Even so, I think we will start seeing some roasting and blending ingenuity when it comes to blends that will create cups that will have nice complexity and interest but don’t have the cost of specialty graded single origin, “micro-lot” sourced beans.
We’ll see coffees paired with carbonation, flavor profiles and combinations of elderberry, strawberry pineapple. There will be more tropical flavors as well as aronia berry and specialty citrus including yuzu, Tahitian Lime or Sicilian Lemon. I also can see innovation involving better for you or mood foods with interesting fruit flavor combinations and coffee blends. These involve probiotics, nootropics and adaptogens such as Reishi, Chaga, Cordyceps and Lion’s Mane mushroom ingredients.
Contact Chef Eric Nakata at (720) 951-4731 or by email at ERNnovationsolutions@gmail.com.