The coffee industry needs to take cold brew food safety seriously

It certainly seems like iced coffee has become a permanent fixture in specialty coffee. By 2025, the value of the global cold drinks market is expected to increase by more than US$ 1 billion. This represents a staggering compound annual growth rate of 26.44%.

However, the cold drink’s rapid rise in popularity has not been without its teething problems – largely related to food safety concerns. For example, in August 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration recalled 53 different beverage products due to possible microbial contamination. These include ready-to-drink cold brews from popular specialty coffee roasters such as Intelligentsia and Stumptown.

Although rare, cold brew food safety issues cannot be ignored. And this applies to all producers, from large-scale operations to bakeries and cafes that serve a cold drink.

To learn more about cold drink production and food safety regulations, I spoke with Alessandro Colombo, baker at Caffè Rinaldi, and Randy Anderson, consultant and cold drink expert. Read on to learn what they have to say.

You might like more our article on why cold brew tastes different than other coffee brewing methods.

The booming popularity of cold brew

It’s impossible to ignore the rise of cold drinks in recent years. Many coffee shops around the world now prepare and serve a range of cold coffee drinks throughout the year, including cold brew.

Caffè Rinaldi is located in Rome, Italy. Alessandro says that while many people still enjoy Italy’s traditional caffè freddos (a shot of espresso served with ice and sugar), cold brew is steadily becoming more popular.

“People who come to our cafe and try a cold drink usually come back for more,” he says. “As specialty coffee culture gains momentum in Italy, customers are enjoying new ways to drink coffee. And that includes the aromatic complexity of the cold brew.”

Randy Anderson is a consultant from the US who has over two decades of industry experience and 11 years working with cold brew. He says convenience is a key driver of the explosive growth of cold drinks.

“All cafes and consumers have to do is open the fridge and take out a can or pour from a spout or container and then add ice and water (if using concentrate) and you have a cold drink,” he tells me.

Randy also explains that you can easily order a cold drink online, which helps increase consumption even more. It can also be shelf stable and refrigerated after opening.

“More and more consumers have started to realize that cold brew coffee is a really convenient and quality option for coffee at home,” he adds.

Nitro Cold Coffee Faucet.

Different ways to prepare and serve a cold drink

Today there are a variety of innovative ways to make a cold drink – whether it’s small batches or larger commercial volumes.

Randy explains that a few years ago, most coffee shops dispensed cold brew using a large plastic container. Baristas add ground coffee and water to the container, which is then left to steep at room temperature or below for up to 24 hours.

Now there are much more efficient and advanced ways to make a cold drink – with some automated machines even taking just a few minutes. Alessandro says that at Caffè Rinaldi they use a Dripster cold drink machine, which includes an adjustable valve and a steel filter – making it easier to control the extraction.

“This method takes about two and a half hours to make a cold drink,” he tells me.

While small-batch cold brew solutions are popular in coffee shops, Randy explains that larger producers need to invest in much larger and more efficient brewing systems to keep up with demand.

Refrigerated breweries and commercial-grade stainless steel containers are often the best choice for larger cold brewers. This is because they are insulated, which helps to better regulate the brewing temperature.

Depending on the system used, these machines can prepare a cold drink in just 30 minutes, with a total output of nearly 400 l per day.

It’s no surprise then that commercial cold brew systems can be expensive, meaning coffee and beverage businesses need to carefully consider which machines will work best for them.

The barista pays attention to the safety of the cold drink while pouring.

Understanding food safety regulations

Generally speaking, there are fewer food safety concerns about hot brewed coffee and espresso. This is largely because you are extracting filter coffee and espresso drinks at higher temperatures within minutes or seconds. Also, people usually consume these drinks shortly after extraction – which reduces the likelihood of pathogens and bacteria developing.

Cold brew methods, however, usually take much longer – and are done at much lower temperatures. This increases the chances of bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli developing in a cold drink, which can be harmful to human health.

Although there are very few widespread cases of people getting sick from drinking poorly made cold brew, coffee businesses should still take as many precautions as possible.

“Cold brew has lower acidity levels and doesn’t come into contact with higher brewing temperatures, so it’s important to keep it in the right environment,” explains Alessandro. “You need to store a cold drink at the right temperature and away from direct light sources.

“Spoiled cold brew loses its brightness and takes on musty and unpleasant aromas and flavors,” he adds.

Randy has extensive experience with cold brew food safety procedures. It recommends cafes follow local health and food safety procedures to stay compliant with regulations. First and foremost, he says, it will ensure that businesses are not forced to close or recall products.

“Most independent coffee shops don’t employ a lot of staff who fully understand their local health and cold brew food safety regulations,” Randy tells me. “They don’t realize that you have to handle the cold drink carefully.

“Cold brew is a low-acid beverage, and there are specific laws on how to handle low-acid beverages,” he adds.

Cold brew and milk in a jar.

How to improve cold drink food safety procedures

Both Randy and Alessandro agree that improper brewing temperature and exposure to air are the biggest health and safety risks in cold beverage production.

Alessandro says he uses fresh cold water to make a cold brew, but doesn’t use ice to better regulate the brewing temperature.

Meanwhile, Randy claims that any cold brew method that takes more than two hours should be refrigerated. It recommends a brewing temperature between -1°C and 5.5°C (30.2°F to 41.9°F).

To avoid the appearance of mold or bacteria, the cold drink should be consumed within three weeks of preparation. Alternatively, you can also freeze a cold drink in a container with about 5% extra headroom to allow for liquid expansion.

Brewing instructions

Randy says the following brewing tips will help ensure maximum health and food safety when making a cold brew:

  • Mix the ground coffee and water well to make sure all the grounds are evenly saturated
  • Avoid mixing the soil too much or squeezing it
  • Instead, gently massage the filter bag

He explains that these steps prevent turbidity, which is a measure of the level of particles in a liquid, from increasing. As turbidity increases, the liquid becomes thicker and less clear due to a higher concentration of light-blocking particles.

Also, following the above steps means that the fine particles in the coffee grounds are left undisturbed. Agitating the finer particles too vigorously can lead to over-extraction – creating more unpleasant and astringent flavors.

Finally, Randy emphasizes that cold brew should always be stored in an airtight container to minimize exposure to oxygen and bacteria, as well as other physical or chemical contaminants.

A woman practices cold drink safety while pouring milk.

Whether a coffee business is just starting to produce cold brew or has decided to expand current operations, food safety for cold brew is paramount.

In some cases, this means adopting more formalized brewing processes – which can take some time to get right. However, a good place to start is to simply follow standard food safety procedures and check local health and safety regulations.

Did you like this? Then read on our article on choosing cold brew coffee.

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