Cold Brew & Food Safety

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The NCA Cold Brew Toolkit draft will be open for coffee industry comment through the end of May

An edited version of the following article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal


Cold brew has taken off – and it’s changing the way we drink coffee.

Total retail sales of refrigerated cold brew grew by about 460 percent from 2015 to 2017, reaching an estimated $38.1 million in sales this year, according to research from Mintel.

And, unlike avocado lattes, cold brew is more than a passing trend. About 10% of coffee drinkers reported having cold brew daily in 2017, according to the NCA National Coffee Drinking Trends report – up from only 1% in 2015. Experts predict that this category will continue to drive coffee market growth.

But despite of – or perhaps due to – this sudden popularity, there are still a lot of questions and misconceptions around cold brew.  This is especially true for coffee companies that are considering making, serving, or selling cold brew.


Cold brew is a process – not just a product. [Source: Giphy]

What is Cold Brew?

“Cold brew” is not just another term for iced coffee – it’s a special process, which produces a unique final product. (It’s just a bonus that it also taps into the small-batch, thoughtfully crafted, third-wave ethos. Mason jar optional.)

Unlike other coffee drinks, cold brew is brewed without any heat. Instead, coarse grounds are exposed to water, usually over a long period of time, often  overnight, and typically at room temperature or colder.

As a result, cold brew is often less acidic and smoother than traditionally prepared coffee. This means consumers can cut down on adding extra sugar – or even drink it black. This makes it a convenient  alternative for people looking for a refreshing energy boost without extra calories.

Cold brew is already revolutionizing the ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee market, especially among younger consumers. This is a bright spot for the coffee industry – RTD retail sales are expected to triple by 2022, according to Euromonitor research.

“While top-line coffee consumption isn’t anticipated to change [over the next 5 years], the underlying dynamics will,” said Eric Penicka, Euromonitor, during a recent NCA webinar.*

Cold brew can be easily purchased and consumed  on-the-go, at any time of day. It can also be delivered to mainstream markets via traditional RTD beverage distribution systems, unlike  traditional coffee.

The addition of different milks, flavors, or functional ingredients makes cold brew customizable for a range of coffee consumers – from connoisseur to clueless.

Mason jar optional.

Mason jar optional. [Source: Tyler Nix via Unsplash]

Challenges and Considerations

Traditional coffee, brewed fresh from grounds and consumed immediately, has historically been  considered a “low-risk food” by the FDA. The naturally-occurring constituents in coffee have actually been shown to help inhibit the growth of microorganisms. [Gaula and Donegan, 2015, The Journal of Biological Sciences]

But cold brew has an inherent higher food safety risk  because it is produced without heat,  often stored at room temperature for extended periods of time. It is also considered a “low-acid food.”

This risk is compounded by the enthusiastic good intentions of small coffee shops or businesses  rushing to jump into the trend.  And, new innovations are bringing the coffee area into uncharted territory – often with unexpected safety considerations. A recent high-profile recall of cold brew in the news highlighted the potential risk for consumers – and the reputation of the industry.

“Ready-to-drink is a new product format for many coffee manufacturers, and with it comes many new challenges and considerations for food safety.  The NCA is working to develop new resources to make available to the industry to help them make informed decisions for their processes and products,” said Mark Corey, Ph.D., NCA Director of Scientific Affairs and Project Management.

“There is a lot of innovation in the industry, and with access and education to the right resources, this can be a win-win for consumers and the coffee industry.”


Introducing the NCA Cold Brew Toolkit

The NCA saw a growing need for  resources that can help the industry understand what constitutes cold brew, and to offer tools for managing  food safety – from the mom-and-pop corner coffee shop to the big corporations.

That’s why in 2017, we convened a group of industry experts, scientists, and food safety professionals  to  develop simple and practical technical  guidance to industry on cold brew.

The resulting NCA Cold Brew Toolkit resources include:

  • Technical guidance and best practices
  • A generalized product description and definitions
  • Food safety recommendations
  • Shelf-life, storage, and handling testing recommendations

The recommendations were intentionally developed as general guidance to not limit future innovation in a rapidly evolving space.

Invitation for Industry Feedback

 In the interest of inclusion and collaboration, the NCA has chosen to open the technical guidance for comment before final publication.

Now is your chance to shape the future of cold brew by reviewing the draft Toolkit resources on the NCA website and providing feedback by May 30th.

All members of the coffee community are invited to submit comments and reflect on the expert recommendations provided. The NCA will revise the report based on industry feedback, and then make it available as a resource to the entire industry. (Please note that the NCA will not be able to respond directly to all comments.)

After the NCA Cold Brew Toolkit is finalized, we are planning to offer a webinar and in-person workshop for making, storing, and selling cold brew. Industry experts will answer individual questions, provide context, and help participants better understand how they can mitigate their risk – and when to call in the heavy-hitters.

Questions? Please contact the NCA at


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