Adam Weible, PE, PMP




“I don’t drink coffee to wake up. I wake up to drink coffee.”

“Today’s good mood is sponsored by coffee.”

“Sometimes I go hours without drinking coffee…it’s called sleeping.”

As these sayings show, Americans love their coffee. If you’ve ever been in an early-morning meeting, you’ll probably hear at least one joke about how someone will be useless until their first cup … or second cup, or third cup … kicks in. In the fast-paced 21st century, you might argue that coffee is more American than apple pie – who has time to knock back a slice of pie between Zoom meetings?

But even folks who value their daily – or hourly – java might not realize the magnitude, reach, and diversity of the coffee industry in 2023.

Coffee is a very big deal nationally and globally, as shown by these interesting facts:

  • 62% of Americans drink coffee daily.
  • The global coffee industry brought in $460 billion in revenue as of last year. The United States contributes $90.2 billion to this total, which is more than any other country in the world.
  • The average American coffee drinker has approximately three cups of coffee per day.
  • People drink over 400 million cups of coffee per day in the United States.
  • Almost 50% of Americans aged 18-24 drink coffee.
  • One out of every five Americans under age 40 has cold brew – coffee produced by steeping the grounds in water and then refrigerating overnight – at least once per week.

And 2023 is forecast to take the industry to new heights, as coffee bean outputs around the world are improving and therefore the price of coffee beans will likely decrease, allowing for greater supply. The coffee industry in the United States is expected to grow annually by a CAGR of 4.34% from 2022 to 2025.

For those of us who grew up on instant coffee or a “cuppa joe” from the local diner, it’s a brave new world of preparations, ingredients, and flavors. We all know about lattes, cappuccinos, and mochas – as do the 32% of coffee consumers who prefer flavored beverages – but advances in technology coupled with changing generational tastes are producing a staggering variety of new blends, processes, and infusions.

A few interesting trends in recent years and going forward include:

  • Koji Coffee: A recent (as of 2019) introduction to the coffee scene, Koji coffee is created by modifying the typical coffee-bean preparation process via the addition of a mold spore to the ripening beans. The beans are then allowed to sit for several days while the mold ferments. Koji coffee has found a dedicated fanbase who swear that the process lessens the bitterness and acidity of typical roasts, making the beverage a sweeter and easier drink.
  • Mushroom Coffee: Made from a blend of ground coffee and medicinal mushrooms, mushroom coffee has half the caffeine of ordinary coffee and potentially offers health benefits including improved immunity and cancer resistance.
  • Buttered Coffee: A recent trend in coffee drinking is to add a tablespoon of butter to a cup of black coffee. Fans of the mix swear it increases the potency of the caffeine and makes the coffee naturally more nourishing, allowing it to serve as a snack on the go.
  • Snap-Chilled Coffee: Emphasizing freshness, the snap-chilling process takes freshly brewed coffee and cools it rapidly, extracting exceptional flavor while avoiding waste. Snap-chilled coffee doesn’t take as long to make as cold-brewed coffee while also avoiding the necessity to distill the coffee by adding ice cubes. This trend is becoming more common in coffee and tea shops everywhere.
  • Nitro Cold Brew: Brewed in both coffee shops and (as of COVID) at home, cold brew produces a drink that fans rave about as smoother and sweeter than traditional coffee blends. Nitro cold brew amps up the experience even more by infusing the cold brew with nitrogen gas. The beverage is kept in a special dispenser and served cold via a tap or infusion kettle. Coffee made through this method provides several benefits: the coffee is naturally sweeter, so you don’t need to add the extra calories of cream, sugar, or flavored syrup; it’s lower in acidity, nice for those with sensitive stomachs; and the nitrogen infusion can duplicate the texture a soda or beer brings to the palate.
  • Ready-to-Drink (RTD) Coffee: While coffee shops are still #1 among those who go out for their favorite beverage, in our on-the-go world people are increasingly demanding convenience. Ready-to-drink coffee – canned or bottled, often chilled coffee – is a fast-growing industry contender, with more than 650 products on the market, sales in the multi-billion-dollar range, and growth projections estimated at more than 35% in the next two years. Long looked down on by serious coffee aficionados, canned and bottled coffee is undergoing a renaissance as greater sophistication in production, distribution, and processing is producing brands that aren’t just convenient, but increasingly delicious as well.
  • Coffee Tourism: Going where the beans of your favorite brew come from is an increasingly popular hobby, especially among Millennials and Generation Z. Traveling to Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, or another major exporter of coffee is not only gratifying for its own sake, but also gives travelers an opportunity to sample coffee directly from the farms where it’s produced and the local cafes that get the first cut of the crop. This is linked to increasing concerns about sustainable and equitable coffee blends, as tourists often frequent Fair Trade and/or Rainforest Alliance-certified production locations.

What does this mean for engineering? Far more sophisticated than the “grind it up and throw it in a can” ethos of generations ago, recent coffee-production, -packaging, and -distribution techniques involve intricate applications of engineering infrastructure and processes. A sample includes:

    • Equipment and Process Engineering: Producing high-quality coffee has always demanded equally high-quality equipment including presses, grinders, and espresso machines. But as consumers – especially younger consumers – put a premium on flavor infusions, nitrogen brews, milk alternatives, and single-source brews, production and delivery methods have had to advance well beyond just plopping a spoonful of instant in the Quik-Drip. Purification, filtration, storage, sanitation, bulk handling, control systems, and similar equipment need to be integrated into a single process, a significant engineering challenge when multiple (often highly perishable) ingredients, gases, and temperature differences come into play in the same facility. The diagram below shows just how intricate a coffee-production process can be.

  • Packaging: A side effect of the pandemic was the rise of coffee subscriptions. Unable to go to their favorite coffee shops, consumers opted to have their coffee delivered directly to their doors. Subscription models let you not only enjoy your favorite brew in the comfort of your home, but also let you sample a variety of blends from around the world. Ensuring freshness and timeliness requires painstaking attention to packaging and distribution methods, and engineers like me work hard to ensure your first cup of the morning is as fresh as though you got it directly from a café.
  • Bottling: With the explosion in the popularity of RTD coffee, engineers need to design the bottling processes for such beverages to ensure the highest levels of quality, freshness, and shelf life. As with most things, increasing throughput is everything. Decisions about which cap sorters (waterfall, vibratory, centrifugal) to use, how to optimize inline cappers for various cap diameters, and whether to use a gravity, pressure-overflow, or volumetric filler are critical in timely delivery and high-quality production of your favorite Starbuck’s vanilla frappuccino or Wandering Bear Cold Brew Extra.

So what’s your favorite coffee drink? Grande iced caramel macchiato with two pumps of vanilla syrup, a pump of hazelnut syrup, and whipped crème? Me, I’ll stick to my old favorite of espresso, but I’m excited for the potential of the coffee industry and the ways in which engineers like me can deliver richer and more satisfying experiences for this expanding market. Let me know your preferences at [email protected].

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