Twenty-odd years ago, most Americans didn’t know a barista from a barrister. Now they can watch an entire documentary about the men and women who create art in a coffee cup. The film, “Barista,” opened last year. Said Brent Hall, manager of product innovation for a coffee supplier and a nationally known barista and competition judge himself, “This is probably the biggest thing for barista competitions since…well, barista competitions.”

That such competitions even exist underscores the outsize importance that coffee occupies in our culture. And while no companion investigation into the world of tea has hit theaters yet, the affection and obsession that it also inspires suggests it’s only a matter of time before one does.

Which is why now’s the time to explore how tea and coffee innovations are changing the beverage landscape. To that end, we asked category experts why two such old-fashioned beverages suddenly feel so forward looking, and which tea and coffee concepts they think can cross over from café to drink case.

Dairy Foods: So are your customers asking for more assistance in the coffee and tea arena?

John Harper Crandall: Current and new-customer requests for innovative brewed tea and coffee formulations have grown considerably over the last 12 months. Spring and summer 2016 will welcome many new products into the marketplace.

Dairy Foods: Why is there such ferment in coffee and tea, and why now?

Anton Angelich: Sugary and carbonated soft drinks are losing ground. Tea, with thousands of studies affirming its health benefits, is filling the gap and will continue to do so in 2016. Today’s coffee consumers, many of whom are Millennials, want new taste experiences.

Meghan: A majority of consumers drink coffee or tea on a daily basis, so these categories are a great way to experiment and introduce groundbreaking trends. To keep up with consumers’ palates in 2016, you need to be somewhat disruptive.

Dairy Foods: Fair enough. But who’s breaking the ground here? Where do coffee and tea trends come from?

Angelich: Experimental environments in urban, Left Coast/Right Coast locations, college towns, immigrant communities and “coffee-incubator cities” such as Seattle and Portland are prime locations for experimentation and exploration of new coffee and tea beverages.

Independent coffee bars and entrepreneurial online startups are testing grounds for new-product innovation. With low overhead and abundant creativity, they make testing of new concepts easy. Concepts with exceptionally good taste move forward to larger audiences.

And large CPG beverage companies and foodservice operators continuously look for and monitor new coffee and tea beverages launched into these experimental environments and determine the seemingly best concepts to develop into commercial versions for testing with a wider audience.

Hall: Credit the “healthers” who are taking advantage of coffee and tea’s health benefits and adding it to everything food and beverage — be it shakes, cakes or colas. Bars are also inspiring mock/cocktail innovation in coffee and tea.

Dairy Foods: I’ve made a list of headline-grabbing coffee and tea trends, and I’d love to get your takes on them. To start: What’s the deal with cold-brew coffee?

Stacy DeMars: The cold-brew coffee craze took us by storm last year and continues to increase steadily. Cold brew refers to the process of steeping coffee grounds in room temperature or cold water for an extended period, which yields a concentrate that’s often diluted with water or milk and can be served hot, over ice or blended.

Dairy Foods: Why do people like it?

Kevin Goodner: The biggest aspect making cold-brewed coffee desirable is the taste. It’s generally less acidic, which creates a more palatable, less “harsh” product. Some say it tastes sweeter, but this is a perception that comes from the lower acid content. I think many consumers like coffee products like lattes and frappes because, at least in part, the sugar and milk or cream mute the acidity and bitterness of the coffee. Cold-brew coffee makes it possible for people who don’t like the taste of regular brewed coffee to enjoy a cup of plain coffee. This also means that the product has less sugar, fat and calories, which many people want to avoid.

Dairy Foods: Why else is cold-brew worth watching?

Hall: As a concentrate, cold brew can serve as a food ingredient. It’s a great cocktail base. Cold brew is super versatile and also responds to the need for convenience that today’s generation is demanding. It’s easy to bottle and drink on demand. Hot coffee doesn’t really work that way.

Dairy Foods: Closely related is nitro coffee, which is cold-brew joe with nitrogen gas fizzed through it from a tap, kind of like Guinness on draft. Why on earth are we doing this?

Hall: N2 provides a mouthfeel that’s well rounded and, depending on your coffee, almost slick. Just as in beer, it reduces perceived bitterness and raises perceived sweetness. Plus it looks great. I have served this to self-described coffee snobs and early coffee entrants. It really is a drink for everyone.

Dairy Foods: Does nitro coffee have legs?

Patton: Nitro cold-brew coffee is expected to blow up on the trend scene in 2016, with more cafés adding it to their offerings, and even some ready-to-drink versions coming out. Nitro coffee has mass consumer appeal, but particularly appeals to Millennials and coffee aficionados.

Goodner: I believe this is largely a fad and will be moderately popular at bars and restaurants but will see little traction in the retail space in 2016, if ever.

Dairy Foods: We’ll have to bring you two back next year to see whose crystal ball was clearer. Espresso beverages like lattes and mochas in an RTD format are one of the biggest “good-news” stories the beverage sector has to tell. But now that we’ve bottled espresso, what other innovations are percolating in this space?

John Wilson: In 2016, we’ll no doubt see dairy-free RTD espressos and coffees, more flavors and flavor combinations and low-calorie drinks, such as Starbucks’ Skinny Caramel Macchiato. In the RTD espresso/coffee channel, mocha-type and vanilla flavors continue to rule; however, more flavors are definitely coming down the pike, such as Wolfgang Puck’s crème caramel and café au lait.

We continue to see seasonal flavors as a bright spot, such as pumpkin spice in autumn and chocolate caramel for the holidays. And as hand-crafted cocktails continue their popularity, espresso is certainly showing up in that trend. Bourbon with orange or chocolate bitters and espresso on ice are all quite popular.

Patton: We’ll continue to see more innovation around espresso beverages, whether in the way they’re made, the flavors or the type of milk used.

Dairy Foods: I’m glad you brought up milk. These days, all sorts of milk alternatives — or alternative milks, if you like — are winding up in lattes et al. What’s going on?

Patton: Customization is key in coffee and tea shops. With almond, soy and coconut milk being pretty commonplace, I think we’ll start to see combinations of these milks, as well as more cashew and even hemp milk in cafés.

Angelich: As American consumers expand their consumption of nondairy and vegan milk alternatives, it’s just natural for these beverages to make their way into coffee creamers, lattes and other applications where milk or cream would be combined with coffee or tea.

Dairy Foods: What about flipping that equation and adding coffee — or tea, for that matter — to milk alternatives? Is that happening, and if so, why?

DeMars: With health and wellness becoming extremely important, many people are turning to dairy alternatives, and tea and coffee are ideal ingredients to use in both dairy-alternative and dairy beverages. The flavors pair extremely well in dairy-alternative and dairy applications, and the health benefits found in both coffee and tea lend themselves to the trend of healthy beverages.

Dairy Foods: Well, let’s talk more about tea. One tea trend I’ve noticed is the rise of matcha, Japan’s traditional powdered green tea. Is matcha making what’s old new again?

Patton: There’s a desire to go back to the roots of foods and beverages, and ingredients that have been around for decades are getting a fresh look. Matcha has recently gained a lot of traction in the U.S. beverage market, and we’ll also start seeing it make its way into other categories: dairy, snacks, meals, confections, et cetera.

Angelich: Matcha is a new taste expansion of green tea for Americans. In Japan, it’s a very special tea that has very special preparation and serving rituals. Besides its healthy associations, matcha is also thought of as a pinnacle of quality and a premium product.

DeMars: In 2015, matcha was trending in everything from beverages to food products, and it’s expected to keep growing in the U.S. in 2016. It’s considered an all-natural powerhouse, packed with antioxidants, insoluble fibers and L-theanine, which can answer consumer demands for energy, vitality and overall wellbeing.

Harper Crandall: Right now, “intense” seems to be all the rage in the U.S. marketplace. Matcha has a strong, interesting flavor profile that’s much more impactful than a traditional green tea. For Americans, it’s new, intense and bold and fits right in with stronger brewed coffees and espressos, as well as with spicy-food trends.

Dairy Foods: What about chai, another tea import that’s taking off?

DeMars: Devotion to chai is spreading across the country, with the energizing kick of black tea combined with the power of ginger, cardamom, cloves and milk. People love the soothing feeling they get when drinking a cup of chai.

Harper Crandall: Chai is just good. It’s spiced, rich and mysterious, and meets consumer desire for an “experience” when they buy and drink a premium beverage.

Dairy Foods: What are they doing with chai?

Patton: We’re starting to see it combined with other flavors. We’re seeing spicier versions of chai, chai paired with desserts, chai with savory, chai with cola…As with matcha, we’re also seeing chai as a flavor in other categories.

Goodner: Chai tea is a great product because there are an infinite number of flavor profiles available all under the chai heading. There’s only so much latitude available to straight teas like black, green, white and rooibos — but chai? No limits, for the most part.

Dairy Foods: I can’t step inside a yoga studio anymore without seeing bottles of fizzy kombucha tea all over the place. Why?

Patton: I think it’s a combination of health benefits, taste and uniqueness. We’ll start to see kombucha combined with coffee, tea and other beverages as it gains more mainstream popularity.

Wilson: Kombucha’s actual effects are a matter of debate. It’s a form of tea whose health benefits have been touted for centuries. Plenty of studies have shown that probiotic fermented products like kombucha aid digestion and help maintain intestinal health. There’s also evidence that consuming live bacteria can boost the immune system and stave off allergies.

Angelich: Kombucha is at the forefront of sour and the fermented-food and –beverage trend. Eastern medicine practitioners believe that sour foods have a calming effect on people’s stressful lives, which is something Americans can relate to.

Wilson: Kombucha clearly fits in the functional drink category beyond its naturally occurring benefits; various ingredients are showing up with added functions. In 2016 we will no doubt see more functional ingredients such as protein and caffeine introduced.

Dairy Foods: It may not be nearly as exotic as kombucha, chai or matcha, but old-fashioned iced tea never goes out of style. Is it experiencing a “reboot”?

Patton: We’re seeing different methods of making iced tea grow more popular — as in cold brewing — and we’re seeing fun and innovative flavors. Adding carbonation to tea is a trend that’ll continue to gain traction in 2016 in the U.S.

Goodner: Carbonated tea is starting to be seen more and more. Another concept that’s going to be big in 2016 is tea slushies. Just as people are moving away from carbonated soft drinks to teas, people will be moving away from other flavored slushies to tea slushies.

Dairy Foods: What has caught your attention?

DeMars: We’ve found many products incorporating tea into other beverages as a great way to differentiate a product while still using a familiar ingredient. Several different beverages, such as juice drinks, carbonated drinks, energy drinks and even some sports drinks are now including tea to add flavor, function or consumer appeal.  

Roundtable participants

  • Anton Angelich, group vice president – marketing, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • John Harper Crandall, vice president of sales, Amelia Bay Tea Brewing & Formulation, Johns Creek, Ga.
  • Stacy DeMars, senior marketing coordinator, Finlay Extracts & Ingredients USA, Inc., Lincoln, R.I.
  • Kevin Goodner, product manager, essences & extracts, Synergy Flavors Inc., Wauconda, Ill.
  • Brent Hall, manager of product innovation, S&D Coffee and Tea, Concord, N.C.
  • Meghan Patton, associate marketing & consumer insights manager, David Michael & Co., Philadelphia
  • John Wilson, vice president, sales/marketing, Allen Flavors Inc., Edison, N.J.