Buzzy at-home coffee brands are waking up the $11 billion coffee business
COVID forced our coffee-drinking rituals to change. Seeing an opening, a wave of new at-home coffee brands are rethinking the classic cup of joe.
Inside the brand’s frosty aluminum pods, sits a frozen puck of brown liquid that looks more like ice cream than a cup of coffee. It’s popped into a cup and mixed with hot water where – as the promotional video on the brand’s website shows – it swirls around until it has transformed into a piping hot cup of joe.
It looks like a gimmick – but there is some solid logic behind this coffee ice cube concept, says the brand’s founder, Matthew Roberts. By freezing freshly brewed coffee (Cometeer's is made with 1/10th of the water normally used), the brand can capture the flavor of the coffee in a way a mass-market at-home coffee brand isn't able to. The result is something that tastes like it has been brewed in a cafe, but made in the comfort of the home. The reviews agree with Roberts’ thesis.
“It’s counter-intuitive that the world’s number one hot beverage [can be] melted from a frozen puck,” he admits. “But we can pull [a level of] nuance and flavor out of a coffee bean that you just can’t access with household equipment.”
Cometeer has picked its moment. Soft launching in 2020, it arrived at a time where consumer coffee drinking habits were in flux: the pandemic had shuttered the places people might normally go for their favorite cup, while brewing at home has been a trade-off between convenience and taste.
Still, brewing coffee at home looks like it's here to stay. In April, Nestlé (the maker of Nespresso pods and Nescafé instant coffee), posted 8% quarterly sales growth – its best for nearly a decade. According to the NPG Group, while consumers drank roughly 73% of their coffees at home pre-pandemic, that number is now more like 81%.
At-home coffee gets a makeover
Cometeer is not the only one giving at-home coffee a rethink, as brands innovate on form, function and convenience. Jot, which launched in April 2020, makes a coffee concentrate that can be mixed with hot or cold water, or even used in cocktails. Golden Ratio, which sells “teabags” of light-roast coffee, launched shortly afterwards. A number of brands – including Voila and Swift Cup Coffee – have been working on improving the reputation of instant coffee for some time, while Wunderground (which soft-launched in June) and The Good Ritual are finding ways to include adaptogenic ingredients in their products without the end result being more mushroom soup than coffee. Wunderground’s founder Jody Hall says the brand tested around 30 recipes before hitting on its final range of three coffee blends.
Others are trying to solve the problems that consumers have when it comes to actually choosing a coffee to drink.
“Coffee is one of those products where people crave variety – they like to try things, especially if they are fresh and come from local roasters,” says Liana Herrera, the founder of coffee subscription business Bottomless, adding that coffee is typically at its best for just two weeks after it's roasted.
The problem is, shopping this way can be time consuming, and requires customers to decipher the obscure language used by most roasters or on coffee shop menus.
“The coffee shopping experience is generally broken,” Herrera says. “It’s very much pushed to [the consumer] to make a decision about what coffee to buy. But the reality is a lot of consumers don’t care about all that information – what they care about is finding a product [that they like drinking].”
Bottomless provides its subscribers with a connected scale that can trigger a re-order once it senses the coffee is running out, and also asks customers to tell it what they do and don’t want in a cup of coffee, so it can make personalized recommendations. Similarly, the likes of Trade Coffee, Slurp and Cometeer also try to find out how you like your coffee before pitching specific products.
The tricky task of selling coffee online
Speciality coffee has long relied on physical cafes to get people switched over from curious to consuming. The experience of stepping into a venue decked out with minimalist decor, while scientific-looking brewing kit sits on the bar and the smell of coffee wafts through the air, is hard to replicate online.
Wunderground’s Hall understands the power of the coffee shop better than most, having spent the formative years of her career at Starbucks. She joined in 1989, when the coffee giant was only just starting to expand outside of Seattle. “I grew up at Starbucks, where it was all about ‘one cup at a time’,” she says, adding that she believes the coffee giant's success has been down to its ability to “build connections” by “looking across at someone in the eyes.”
Not unexpectedly, Wunderground’s strategy from day one has been to not just sell online, but in-person too. The company is currently running a pop-up store in Seattle, which it will close once its permanent cafe location is open. Further pop-ups are being considered across the U.S. to help get the word out about the products and give consumers the opportunity to try out the brand’s coffees.
Cometeer is also thinking about how it can bring its coffees to real-life locations, rather than just selling online, where it has to rely on people being willing to place bulk orders without having tried its novel format (Cometeer currently sells its coffee in boxes of 32 servings, for $64).
“Getting a customer to jump in and buy that amount for the first time has been the challenge,” Roberts says. Because of the nature of its products, Cometeer will have to grapple with some unique challenges, such as how to convince retailers to carve out space for coffee products in the freezer aisle, or whether cafes will be equipped with the shop-floor freezers needed to stock its product.
If it can solve these problems, then the brand’s plan of mass-market domination might just materialize. Coffee pods – although not in frozen form – have become a phenomenally popular product since Nestle patented the Nespresso machine in 1976. Today, it’s estimated that 400 Nespresso coffees are drunk every second.
“Cometeer really is for everyone,” Roberts says. “Everyone enjoys a great beer or a great glass of wine, and so we think this product is for anyone who enjoys a good cup – whether it’s a pumpkin spiced latte or a single-origin Ethiopian coffee.”