As with all corners of the food and beverage industry, the pandemic has forced coffee roasters and cafes to become nimble and to explore new revenue streams. Chicago-based coffee brand and cafe chain Intelligentsia Coffee is doing that by launching its first-ever line of packaged caffeinated beverages. The series features Oatly, the Swedish brand of oat milk it first brought to American shores in 2016.
America’s non-dairy obsession has fueled Oatly’s popularity — oat milk drinks make up 13 percent of orders at Intelligentsia cafes. It’s now even available at one of Intelligentsia’s rivals, Starbucks.
Intelligentsia has created a trio of vegan and ready-to-drink options: Oat Latte, the Spiced Oat Latte, and a flash-chilled option — the Cold Coffee. President & CEO James McLaughlin says Intelligentsia has been working on the products for more than five years trying to nail flavor profiles that they felt met the standards of coffee served in its cafes.
“It’s really easy to put a product in a can or a bottle or a Tetra Pak, there’s no doubt about that,” says McLaughlin. “But if you want the product to taste good, it’s actually really hard.”
COVID-19 presents numerous challenges for coffee producers, as many wholesale accounts disappeared virtually overnight and a good deal of former commuters began working from home. Metropolis Coffee Company, a local roaster with a cafe in Edgewater, announced Monday that it would close temporarily with plans to reopen in late April. The short-term hibernation is designed to help preserve some funds as owners prepare for an eventual return to normalcy, Block Club Chicago reports. Even with a vaccine, no one knows when coffeeshop culture — with patrons spending hours at a time hanging out— will return.
It’s a happy coincidence that Intelligentsia’s new drinks have hit the market during the pandemic, when more customers than ever are consuming coffee at home, McLaughlin says. The products allow Intelligentsia to control the customer experience to a much greater degree than a bag of coffee beans, which need to be correctly stored, ground, and brewed to achieve the desired flavor. They also allow the brand to reach wide swaths of consumers who don’t have access to a physical Intelligentsia location.
Once considered second fiddle to non-dairy alternatives like soy and almond milk, oat milk has since emerged as one of the most popular non-dairy milks, earning fans among both vegans and omnivores. Fans love the product for its smooth texture and slightly-sweet flavor. Allergic reactions to oats are relatively uncommon in the U.S., further broadening its appeal. Oat milk is also widely considered one of the most environmentally-friendly non-dairy options — a boon for consumers who are concerned about their carbon footprint.
Founded in 1995 in Lakeview, Intelligentsia operates six local cafes that currently offer to go service, along with outposts in Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, and Austin, Texas. The Cold Coffee, the Oat Latte, and the Spiced Oat Latte are available in Intelligentsia cafes and online.