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Flavors Making the Industry Even Tastier

By Alexis Rubinstein

We’re all familiar with vanilla hazelnut coffees and orange cinnamon teas, but it takes a true connoisseur to appreciate the science that goes into flavoring these beverages. In a truly unique fashion, the flavor industry remains consistent with its top-selling varieties and consumer favorites, yet is ever changing to keep up with tea and coffee drinker’s evolving palate.

To purists, adding flavor to teas and coffee can seem unnecessary, overpowering, or an intentional way to mask an otherwise inferior product. As coffee and tea knowledge on quality, origin and traceability spreads to consumers, the perception of flavors is changing and developing into a positive way to balance and enhance taste. Consumers who have a high standard of excellence for tea or coffee can now take interest in the high quality ingredients used in flavor recipes. There is much more thought and strategy that goes into finding the right bean or leaf for a particular flavor than one would originally believe; it is a science and an art, where coffee and tea professionals work alongside flavor specialists to create the perfect cup.

Oldies but Goodies
Over the years, the word “flavor” has become synonymous with the long-time favorite, ice cream. With all the competing ice cream companies and their constant struggle with trying to entice their customers with new and innovative tastes, the truth remains - there are certain flavors that have always been, and will always be, crowd favorites. The flavor industry for beverages very much mirrors the trends in the world of ice cream. The flavors that have been around the longest, which are the most mainstream and the most adaptable, are logically the most popular.

For coffee and coffee-based beverages, vanilla and nut flavors reign above others. Joe Staffieri, president of Flavor Development located in Norwood, New Jersey, stresses the importance of these core selections. “The largest sellers have been traditionally vanillas, vanilla creams, French vanillas and all forms of nut flavors (hazelnut, macadamia nut). These are flavors that cannot be considered ‘trends,’ as their popularity never dwindles.” Perhaps it is the familiarity of these flavors, or the accessibility of their ingredients, although some speculate the true reason for the popularity of these key flavors is simply because they are what most effectively complements coffee.

With the amount of flavor companies supplying to the tea and coffee industry, one would assume the market would be saturated with the “same old flavors,” and coffee companies would be more than anxious to venture outside of the realm of the predictable. However, like the old saying goes, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Therefore, the top-selling selection for the majority of flavor companies is seemingly those of the vanilla and nut varieties. Bernd Zimmer of Frey + Lau, located in Henstedt-Ulzburg, Germany, mimics this sentiment. “Bestsellers of nearly every year are not of the fruity types but are vanilla, hazelnut, Irish cream, caramel, chocolate and amaretto/almond,” he stated. Best Coffee, located in Hamburg, Germany, is the global distributor outside of the Americas for Folkloré Foods Inc. When asked what their top-selling flavors of the year are, they stated simply, “as usual, caramel and French vanilla,” leaving me to believe this was more than a pattern in the flavor industry, but rather, its foundation. Flavor Dynamics, based in South Plainfield, New Jersey, saw little difference than the multitude of other similar companies. Their main sellers for coffee drinks are the same, however, it is there own unique creation that has helped their clients steer away from more typical flavors. “Jamaican Me Crazy is actually our number one seller,” Colleen Roberts of Flavor Dynamics explains. “It is our own blend of several flavors- nutty coffee flavors with hints of caramel and vanilla.”

Just as tea delivers a vastly different flavor than coffee, it also pairs differently with flavors. Where as coffee and vanilla/nut tastes seem to go hand-in-hand, tea and fruit flavors are also the industry norm. The more delicate notes in teas would not be able to stand up to the powerful flavors that coffee can. Walking down the tea aisle of a grocery store, a consumer can be overwhelmed not only by the ever-increasing tea options (black, green, white), but also by the tea and flavor combinations. Whether you like crisp melon or sweet raspberry, the concept of pairing tea with fruit flavors is certainly not new but in as high demand as ever.

Trendy Tastes
Just as ice cream companies hold their vanillas and chocolates to a high esteem, flavor companies have learned to do the same by incorporating new, “of the moment” products. Flavorings and ice cream have more in common than just the easily categorized “classics” and “fads”: they seek inspiration from other parts of the epicurean world. “Flavoring is a sugar-free, calorie, fat and carb-free substitute for dessert in some cases,” explains Roberts. Coffee taking on flavors of crème brulee, tiramisu and even chocolate mousse can allow someone to indulge themselves without the accompanied guilt. While flavor companies find success in developing new products based on food favorites, they can also be the innovators and help popularize new flavors. Staffieri explains the give and take relationship between flavor companies and other edible outlets: “flavors such as mango, pomegranate and cranberry for tea have translated over into other products: the baking industry, other beverage products, candy, etc. Then, everyone trades off - candy introduces a new flavor, and then it’s replicated.”

The media is also highly influential in the “flavor craze.” Tropical fruits, which were once all the rage, are becoming more available and can be found flavoring just about everything from toothpaste to sodas. Although pomegranate juice has been around for quite some time, it’s just recently starting to gain recognition as a tasty and trendy fruit flavor. Making its way into drinks all over the world, its subtle flavors lend wonderfully to a soothing cup of tea. Concoctions like chai, which have both tea and coffee drinkers alike hooked on its spicy bite, have also seen an increase in sales. Simon Poppelsdorf of Bell Flavors & Fragrance says their biggest selling product is now “chai flavors, a combination of all kinds of essential oils like cinnamon, orange, cloves, etc.” Other spice flavors have seen an increase in sales as a result of the chai trend. Additionally, dark chocolate has been on quite a surge as a result of recent media attention. “This past year I saw an increase in our dark chocolate flavor,” reveals Roberts, “it’s an old flavor that has been brought back as new due to the consumer being made more aware of the health benefits. Since the media has spent so much time promoting dark chocolate as an acceptable part of the diet, it has become an important flavor this year.”

With the larger chains now upgrading their coffee and tea selections, venturing into the specialty beverage market and expanding their flavor choices, a cup of hazelnut coffee or peach iced tea can now be handed to you at a drive-thru window. This step has only helped the flavor companies become more mainstream. Reymond Safft of Folkloré credits these “mega-stores” for the sudden interest in flavored teas and coffee. “This has become a fashion since the larger chains have introduced it. It even helps educate young consumers to drink coffee this way.” Since these multi-store companies reach more customers more quickly, they were able to take the flavored beverage concept, which was once considered “specialty” and make it easily accessible.

Perhaps the biggest trend in flavors is creating one for your personal taste, your customers or to match the tea or coffee you will be using in the finished product - because nothing is more designer than having something custom made. More flavor companies have come to realize that each retailer may use a different blend, each roaster a different darkness, and not all standard flavor recipes are always appropriate. Some coffee roasters may roast on the darker side, better suited for stronger flavors, while other may be lighter and could be easily overpowered. Similarly, a berry flavor that is ideal for a green tea may be too sweet for a black tea. “We customize every flavor to our customer’s needs,” says Staffieri. “We work with their basic coffee or tea blend and make sure to maintain a delicate balance. We always ask the varietals of coffee being used, the type of roast and then coordinate the flavor.”

One trend that will surely never go out of style is the idea of staying healthy. Now, more than ever, the public has become aware that what they eat and drink can affect them mentally and physically. While sometimes it is difficult to create a flavor using natural ingredients, flavor companies are making great strides at avoiding artificial additives or components. According to Poppelsdorf, “we sell mostly natural flavors to keep the integrity of the finished product.” Other companies seem to be having a harder time jumping on the health-conscious bandwagon. “Normally our flavors are artificially based,” Zimmer, “this is because the transition to natural flavoring is not entirely possible.” Whether it’s due to cost effectiveness (artificial flavors can generally be less expensive) or simply because there isn’t a high enough demand, very few flavor companies will consider healthier flavoring “a trend.” “It is a marketplace that has many niche areas to it - and it is almost impossible to paint it with a broad brush,” explains Staffieri. “Many people want to have natural flavors for their drinks, it’s desirable in some markets and unnecessary or not even noticed in others. There is no general rule. There are always the label declarations to be cognizant of, whether your product is a natural flavor, natural flavor with other natural flavors, or artificial. However most tea beverages, especially at the retail level, are naturally flavored.” Folkloré has seen the recent requests for healthy flavorings and replies, “most flavors are natural. Where artificial flavors are being used, substitution is in process.”

Delicious Demographics
With coffee and tea being consumed throughout the world, one could only assume that taste preferences would vary by region. Like cuisine, different parts of the U.S. enjoy different dishes. In the past, we have seen these differences become more apparent with the types of tea they consume and the methods they use to brew it, as well as the variety of coffee beans and roast levels. Now, these variations in taste are also becoming evident in flavor choices.

Flavor Dynamics has come up with a ground-breaking concept they call “flavor mapping.” According to Roberts, “the inception was brought about primarily as a goal to determine how the flavor profiles changed across the regions of the U.S. First, we established what the primary flavors are, which hasn’t really changed, and then set out to start an evaluation of the same four or five flavors in each region. We mapped the sweetness, harshness, creaminess, etc. Then studied how and why they vary. Once we developed the library of profiles, our customers can then look at the demographics of their region and we can show them what we gather from the testing will sell best in that particular area.” This tool can be most helpful for customers, giving them better insight into what taste profiles people in their region prefer, or providing them with a solid jumping-off point to begin customizing their own flavors.

Aside from finding the right version of the same flavor, customers are also left with the challenge of knowing which flavors will be accepted by their locale. “Certain flavors still have a regional preference,” says Staffieri, “but there are some universals. In the ice cream industry, for example, coffee ice cream is popular in New England, but not as popular in Texas - but vanilla is the leader for both. Macadamia nut is big in Hawaii but not as big throughout the rest of the U.S. Yes, there are regional preferences, but for the most part we have become homogenized by television and fast food chain operators. Flavors start to become almost universal. It’s like the advent of Mexican restaurants throughout the country - you can find them in New Hampshire as well as Texas. I do suspect, based on what I’ve seen, a popular product becomes popular nationwide.”

Flavor Forms
Today, there are numerous methods of delivering flavor to your beverage. Major sweetener companies have launched new flavored products, allowing coffee or tea drinkers to transform their ordinary drink into a tasty delight with the stir of a straw; creamers now deliver flavor with a silky swirl. Someone who is looking to spruce up their morning cup of Joe or afternoon tea has many options, forms and methods of delivering flavor. So, with all the varieties out there, how does one know which is best?

In the industry, according to professionals, there are only two real vehicles of delivering flavor to tea and coffee: solid and liquid. “Products are initially combined in liquid form,” Staffieri describes, “and then if needed, they are dried. The form of flavor is dependant on the finished use- a product such as Slim Fast or instanct iced tea, for example, or any other powdered beverage base would require a dried powder flavor. If you are selling a flavored coffee bean, it should be impregnated with liquid flavor, which permeates the bean better.”

Flavor Dynamics also recognizes the different effects of dry and liquid flavors. “Liquid flavor can be massaged into cut tea, laid out to dry and then packaged,” says Roberts. “If a tea company is flavoring and packing teabags and looking to put the flavor right into the bag, you would use a dry form.” In June, Flavor Dynamics also launched their patented new flavor product, Flavorcoats, which are “partially encapsulated dry flavors.” Flavorcoats, unlike other dry flavors, do not dissolve. The company uses liquid form flavors to add to whole beans because the consistency can easily coat the bean and ensure the flavor is spread equally throughout the batch. “Liquid flavors are created to be topically applied,” says Roberts, “then it dries into the ground coffee, and as long as it does not go over approximately 3% of the beans, it will not overpower the flavor.”

With the tea and coffee industry becoming more generated towards the specialty market, the flavor companies seem to be following in its footsteps. However, the flavor trend most noticeable in the past year is that flavors are not a trend at all. With a variety that suits all needs and tastes (sugar-free, all natural, dark chocolate, chai spiced), flavors have become a new way to customize your beverage of choice. The key flavors remain strong, the “designer” flavors stay revolving and consumers are still licking their lips.

Tea & Coffee - January, 2008

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