Coffee Trends and the Pandemic

Author: Samantha Sied | Photo: Lauren McMillin

The past year of pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives. From our personal routines in work and life, to the way millions of businesses operate. Some industries have fared well, others not so much. What about our favorite industry–coffee?

The Covid-19 global pandemic impacted the coffee industry in many ways. Some are predictable, such as local shops struggling to serve customers who are quarantined at home. Others have been more nuanced, as consumers moved consumption and preparation of their favorite coffees to their homes.

We decided to take a look at what trends have emerged, after a full year of pandemic living. What follows are some of the top trends and insights in coffee for 2020.  

The National Coffee Association (NCA) is an industry association that tracks and reports on trends within the coffee industry. Chances are, your favorite local coffee shop’s owner or specialty coffee roaster reads their seasonal “National Data Trends” report.

The NCA found coffee is still American’s favorite beverage. The typical coffee drinker enjoys three cups a day. One major disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is the increase in at-home coffee preparation. Around 70% of coffee lovers said they consume their favorite brew at home since they are spending less time out at the office or at their favorite coffee shop.

In 2020 and early 2021, people explored their thirst for new experiences, creative expression  and variety while remaining at home.

Exploring New Coffee Beverages At Home

“Despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s profound disruptions on our lives, coffee continues to be America’s favorite beverage,” said NCA President and CEO Bill Murray. “New routines mean Americans are drinking more of their coffee at home than ever.”

As people spent more time at home during the pandemic lock-down, they also looked for new activities to pass the time. Coffee drinkers indulged both their creativity and applied their thirst for adventure to their home coffee drinking habits.

Here are a few ways that coffee drinkers enjoyed new coffee experiences while staying at home:

  • 41% of coffee drinkers decided to try a new type of coffee drink. 
  • 25% purchased a new kind of coffee or a new roast or blend.
  • 27% said they attempted to replicate their favorite coffee shop at home.
  • 23% said they purchased a new coffee machine or brewing equipment over the past year.

The Specialty Coffee Association teamed up with the NCA to research consumer trends. They found the most popular at-home brewing methods were as follows:

  • Drip coffee machine: 42%
  • Single-cup system like pods and espresso makers: 24%
  • Cold brewing: 10%
  • Instant coffee: 8%
  • Pre-made ready to drink coffee: 8%

In other words, although many coffee lovers are enjoying their favorite brew at home, they are trying new drinks, new brewing methods, and learning new techniques.

Honing Home Barista Skills

All over the world, coffee lovers expressed themselves by attempting to recreate their favorite latte foam art and other more advanced techniques. 

In addition to NCA’s discovery, Melitta North America’s 2020 survey also noted similar trends in coffee drinkers attempting to recreate their favorite boutique coffee drinks at home. Around 46% told Melitta they wanted to learn how to brew better coffee at home. 

One surprising twist is that nearly half of the respondents plan to travel this year and 16% of them said they expect to pack their own coffee brewing equipment. 

Going Viral: Coffee on Social Media

At-home baristas use social media including TikTok, YouTube and Instagram to learn new techniques. 

Creators and influencers shared their favorite brewing techniques, drive through coffee shop hack and more. 2020 and early 2021 saw viral social media coffee trends as people moved on from the latest cat video sourdough bread demonstration.

Dalgona Coffee Whips Up a Frenzy

Dalgona Coffee, sometimes known as “TikTok coffee,”  is possibly the best example of a viral coffee trend. The Dalgona trend highlights a thirst for trying new things and honing their at-home brewing methods.

This sweet, whipped coffee is made by combining equal parts sugar, hot water and instant coffee (ideally crystals). The barista then whips the mixture until it forms a creamy, whipped “toffee-like” appearance. 

In fact, “dalgona” is the name of a popular korean honey toffee treat. While the coffee drink usually doesn’t taste like the honey toffee, it resembles it in both appearance and texture. 

The thick, foamy concoction is then layered with milk or other drinks. Some baristas top the drink with sprinkles, seasoning, or powdered cocoa. Creators can make their own Instagram or Tik Tok worthy treats as there are so many variations. 

The current Dalgona coffee trend seems to come from Korean pop culture, but similar drinks already existed throughout the world especially in nations where instant coffee such as Nescafe is popular. 

After the popular Korean television show “Stars’ Top Recipe at Fun-Staurant”  featured an actor purchasing a cup at a coffee shop. It looks easy to make, so Tik Tok creators were inspired to give it a try. 

Tik Tok creator Hannah Cho posted a video of herself making Dalgona coffee for her mother to try, this video received 2.1 million likes and was shared over 175,000 times. This seems to be the beginning of an international viral trend.

“Yes I hand whisked this whipped coffee for like 20 mins bc my mommy wanted to try it,”  according to Cho’s Tik Tok post. “👻 she loved it!!”

Later, Cho posted another view of her friend attempting to make Dalgona coffee with less impressive results. While the recipe is simple and uses inexpensive ingredients, it can be messy while learning the technique which leads to fun video content. 

Dalgona moved beyond TikTok and YouTube, there were over 440,000 posts mentioning Dalgona coffee from on Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter, March 1, 2020, to June 15, 2020. As a result, sales of instant coffee were expected to increase by 5% in 2020.

Dalgona isn’t the only social media inspired coffee trend. Another Tik Tok driven trend comes from creators sharing their favorite Starbucks hacks for the ultimate treat.

The Rise of the “Appachino” and the Drive-Through Trends

The NCA reported that app-based ordering increased by 63% among those who drink coffee at least once a week. Drive through ordering increased by 13% among daily coffee enthusiasts. 

This trend marks the rise of the “Appachino.” Buzzfeed recently reported a new trend that is basically a mash-up of the viral social media hack with app based ordering. TikTok creators share their favorite Starbucks hacks as they video themselves at the drive through. 

Buzzfeed also reported about how some baristas have taken to Twitter to vent about customers ordering “secret menu” drinks including some with over one dozen customizations.  

Do you fancy a low calorie coffee drink that tastes like Nutella? If so, The Macro Barista shared a nitro cold brew hack that tastes a little like Nutella.This video received 126,000 likes and inspired many drive through orders. 

This is just one of hundreds of coffee drive through secret menu hacks posted on TikTok, Twitter and other video-friendly channels. There is a TikTok secret menu hack simulating just about any dessert, candy, or cocktail. 

Smooth Foamy Nitro Cold Brew

Cold brew coffee is less acidic than traditionally brewed coffee. For that reason, cold brewing techniques have been trendy for years. Fans find the flavor less bitter tasting and smoother resulting in a lower calorie drink since they feel less need to add sugar or creamer. Also, people who get upset stomach from heat-brewed coffee find cold brew gentler.

Nitro cold brew involves introducing nitrogen gas to cold brew coffee. The innovation was inspired by beer brewing techniques. Since the nitrogen gas doesn’t dissolve well into water, it results in a thicker mouthfeel. Many compare it to drinking a pint of Guinness partially because of the creamy foam head. 

The exact origins of nitro cold brew are disputed. Nate Armbrust of Stumptown Coffee Roasting in Portland, Oregon is one of the possible creators of Nitro Cold Brew. 

“He started thinking about his home-brewing days and the appeal of Guinness poured fresh from the tap,” according to Chemical and Engineering News. “That beverage is blended with nitrogen gas, which creates small bubbles that help stabilize a creamy head. Looking to replicate that creaminess with coffee, Armbrust struck upon the idea of pushing nitrogen gas into his cold coffee.”

Others credit either Cuvee Coffee in Austin, Texas with creating or popularizing Nitro Cold Brew.

At-home baristas create their own versions of nitro cold brew by using a refillable whip cream canister to infuse their own cold brew with nitrogen.

The Coffee Market: Ecommerce & Subscription Boxes Rule

The National Coffee Association found online purchases increased by 57% in 2020 as more people drink coffee at home yet still crave variety.

Also, online shopping increased during COVID-19. Coffee is one of the top selling e-commerce niches with an annual market sales of  $1.08 billion in the United States, according to “Tea and Coffee.”  Amazon is the leader in online coffee sales with pods and capsules accounting for 86% of their sales.

E-commerce stores and specialty coffee subscriptions carved out a special niche. If you can’t visit your favorite coffee roasters or café, you can still subscribe to your favorite roast of beans. 

In the United States, consumers have a range of options when it comes to buying coffee, including:

  • Whole bean 
  • Ground coffee 
  • Instant coffee
  • Coffee pods & capsules

Subscription options exist for fans of whole bean, pre-ground ground, instant or coffee pods. 

Sustainable Coffee Consumption: From Seed to Cup

Foodies often struggle to balance their interest in gourmet treats with their interest in environmental sustainability. Farm to table and field to fork restaurants and sustainable food distribution methods appeals to these consumers. 

A similar trend has been emerging in the coffee world. Many coffee lovers balance their thirst with concern about the environment. Climate change may severely impact today’s coffee growing regions. These consumers may pay a premium for fair trade and environmentally sustainable coffee producing practices from seed to cup. 

Even coffee enthusiasts who use single cup brewing pods like K-cup sometimes embrace reusable or compostable pods to diminish their environmental footprint.

What About Coffee Shops?

“Let’s grab a cup of coffee” is a phrase easily said that contains so much subtext and nuance. It can be a low key way to start a friendship, business partnership or romance. How will the pandemic change the role of the coffee shop?

“Many are also returning to coffee shops around the country or plan to do so soon,” said NCA President and CEO Bill Murray. 

Traditionally coffee shops are places where people gather and share ideas. Writers, entrepreneurs, artists, and students in all fields use their favorite coffee shops as a third space. Like bars and restaurants, coffee shops are struggling. Some expect COVID-19 may cause nearly one quarter of US coffee shops to close

Many coffee shops quickly pivoted to expand their Ecommerce, drive through and curb-side pickup options in order to survive. 

Whether at home or on-the-go the coffee industry demonstrates its ability to evolve, innovate and adapt to consumers’ changing needs.