Love them or hate them, you can't deny that flavoured coffees have proved popular in the hot drinks marketplace. From the operators point of view, though, the trick is to keep things simple. Ian Boughton reports.
In a trade noted for the strong opinions of its participants, few subjects arouse such passion as the adding of flavours to coffee. It is a large and bitter divide - in which, commercially, the coffee purists are losing.
To be fair, some flavours offered to the coffee trade do sound odd - a strawberry-and-cream latte does not appeal to everyone. And yet, the American-inspired gingerbread latte is now a fixture in the speciality coffee menu at Christmas, with sales rocketing in November and December, and then ceasing abruptly.
Equally, the sticky toffee latte has the coffee purists foaming - but in coffee bars, it sells in appreciable numbers.
Received wisdom said for many years that only Americans like flavoured coffee. The commercial truth was backed up recently when John Taylerson of Malmesbury Syrups published research on British tastes.
"Forty-six per cent of those surveyed have tried flavoured coffee out-of-home, women slightly more than men," he reported. "Although the 18-30s are most likely to have done so, even 42% of over-60s have tried a flavoured coffee. You can see the major high-street coffee bar chains now selling packs of bottled flavours for consumers to take away, and John Lewis, in its food hall, re-sited flavours to go beside coffee with a big increase in sales."
The most popular flavours are the standard ones - vanilla, almond, hazelnut (virtually all nut flavours work with coffee), amaretto and caramel. The most recent stars have been gingerbread and toffee.
Monin, the French giant flavour company, lists more than a hundred flavours, but accepts that the hot beverage world only uses a few.
"Whether or not coffee shops offer flavoured lattes, the public likes them," confirms Darril Ling, sales director of Monin's agent, Bennett Opie. "Is the trend growing? You bet your life it is. But keep it simple. The reason that flavours have taken off in independent coffee shops is that they give these cafés the chance to show what they do well - make a special drink.
"A menu with ‘add a flavour, 20p' is not going to work. But ‘our special gingerbread latte' on a blackboard will work if you do it well. Just serve your gingerbread latte with a little gingerbread man and it's not unreasonable to charge 50p more than a normal latte."
David Cooper, managing director of coffee wholesaler Cooper's Coffee and the distributor of Torani syrups (an American brand which was the first to enter the coffee market), agrees that a big flavour list may be too adventurous.
"Don't expect the customers to choose a different flavoured latte every day - put one on your menu as a special, then begin to change the flavourings on a regular basis to ensure you are getting customers to try new drinks."
However, Cooper says, unexpected flavours can work. "Fruit flavours work particularly well - a strawberry latte is surprisingly delicious. One flavour that is undersold is orange. Try chocolate and orange together in a latte for house special - it's a great combination."
And when you've tried a few, adds Elaine Higginson, managing director at First Choice Coffee, then run a poll among your customers. That will avoid unfortunate menu mistakes.
The biggest name in the flavour world is Kerry, whose DaVinci Gourmet range has been developed for the coffee trade. "A single shot can turn an ordinary caffe latte into a signature drink," says Adrian Coulter, food development manager for Kerry Foodservice. "And this isn't just the domain of branded high-street coffee shops - pubs and restaurants are picking up on flavoured coffees. All operators need to do is include one or two and highlight them on menus."
Kerry has developed a unique Café Culture manual on its website to give suggestions - several other flavour brands do the same.
The Italian Beverage Company claims to have been the first to promote flavours in the UK for coffee use and now offers two, Kerry's Da Vinci, and the own-label Simply, with its distinctive ‘Southern Comfort-style' bottle design.
"There is great debate and argument about the manufacture of syrups," acknowledges operations director Philip Rundlett. "Several competing brands are made by the same people. Our Simply brand is made in the UK, but in a factory that works to our specification and does not produce for any other brand."
Part of the argument within syrups is whether preservative should be used. "We do," replies Rundlett, "because a flavour, sitting above an espresso machine, could go off. Brands that do not use preservatives are supposed to be stored in a fridge, but how are you going to do that in a busy bar? The potential for bug-growth in café-bar is so high that we decided to make our product as natural as possible, but with a preservative."
For caterers who want to choose between syrups, Rundlett has a tip. "You can taste and compare in the finished coffee but we prefer not to - a syrup will taste different in a Starbucks coffee from a Costa coffee. We taste flavours in milk, which is a good neutral carrier. Steam the milk to latte temperature and add the flavour in the exact measure stated by the supplier, then compare."
There is nothing wrong with doing a blind taste test with customers, suggests Gary McGann, marketing director at Beyond the Bean, which developed the vegetarian-friendly Sweetbird brand.
Sweetbird Syrups were devised as a direct response to the claim that certain brands' flavours include animal charcoal as a refining agent. Sweetbird has achieved approval from the Vegetarian Society.
McGann says a well-known barista trick from past years has now come back into fashion. This is the business of lattes reproducing the taste of branded chocolate bars with flavoured drinks - the right combination of caramels and chocolates can give an approximation of a Mars in a latte; some coconut and chocolate can reproduce a Bounty. The only caution is not to use the real brand names on the menu, or legal action can follow.
"No matter what you think of this, it works," he observes, "remember that McDonald's did a wonderful job with branded tie-ups on flavoured McFlurry."
There is a trade wholesaler which specialises in flavours. Cream Supplies is probably the only trade supplier to have seven different brands in stock at once, and a major part of the company's appeal is price - managing director Jonathan Money's syrup prices, across all brands, are competitive, and he's adamant that this is the right approach.
"My pricing principle is to sell products for what I think they should be sold for. I've always thought that syrups are often overpriced for something which is largely water and sugar - this is not 15-year-old whisky we're talking about. So I like to set a price that I think correct, which does sometimes annoy people."
The big syrup trend, he says, is sugar-free syrups - two years ago he was going to discontinue them, but now sales of sugar-free vanilla are as high as standard vanilla.
And look out for a new star latte flavour, he adds - sales of crème brûlée flavour are growing fast.
Beyond the Bean 0117 953 3522
0800 298 2802
Cream Supplies 0845 226 3024
First Choice Coffee
Italian Beverage Co
020 8736 0455
Kerry Foodservice 01784 430777