Why So Many Bottled and Canned Coffee Drinks Taste So Bad

It took Blue Bottle a year and a half to get to the point where they could regularly produce iced coffee at this scale. The seed of the idea was a can of cold cappuccino that James Freeman had on a plane to New York in late 2011. “I got this canned cappucino for, like, six dollars or something. And I opened it and I was like, ‘This is so horrible. This is so horrible,’” he said. He started trying every ready-to-drink cold coffee on the market. “The range of tastes is somewhere between terrible and horrible.” (He makes two exceptions to this general rule: products from Portland’s Stumptown and Oakland’s Black Medicine.)

He tried to figure out how these beverages had gone so bad. “You think about the psychology. Nobody is like, OK, let’s have a meeting and let’s invest millions of dollars because we want to develop this horrible product. Nobody does that,” he said. “It’s always with the best intentions.”

So what was going on? Freeman found a source who had worked with big beverage companies, who could explain the problems. First, making a shelf-stable product is hard, and it is hard in ways that are particularly bad for coffees.

“It was sort of a spooky story around a campfire, like, ‘Gather around kids, I’m gonna tell you how a frappuccino is made. No, no! That’s too scary!” Freeman said. He learned about a machine called a retort, a supercharged, industrial-scale pressure cooker, into which bottled coffee is inserted, pressurized, and heated to 240 degrees.

“Basically what survives that…” Freeman’s voice trails off. “It’s the same way that canned chili is made, you know?”

— In the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal profiles James Freeman, the CEO of Blue Bottle, an Oakland and Brooklyn-based specialty coffee roaster that is trying to mass-produce coffee drinks that even coffee snobs would buy. Writes Madrigal after sipping a Blue Bottle iced coffee drink from a carton: “This coffee was the real deal.”

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