When we put the final screw in our first walk-in cooler, we backed up to admire our handiwork. Standing before us was a freshly built eight-foot-tall plywood box, complete with insulation and spray foam, perfectly encapsulating two large stainless tanks of cold brew coffee. Precariously bolted to the side was a large air conditioning unit, modified to run nearly continuously, serving as the refrigeration source for our crude walk-in cooler. I was concerned that the floor could not support the weight, but that was a problem for later. We had kegs to fill and orders to deliver.
It’s not hard to remember our first facility because there was not much to remember. In the back half of a photography studio, situated in the sleepy town of Newmarket, New Hampshire, we produced twenty-eight kegs of coffee per day. Those kegs had to be delivered the very next day, considering our limited cold storage. If we didn’t have orders, we would stop by our highest volume coffee shops and convince the owners to take them. We knew, and they knew, that they would need them soon; it was nearly impossible to keep up with the steady stream of customers itching to try our signature Nitro Cold Brew. It was 2015, practically a lifetime ago, when you consider the incredible growth that ready-to-drink specialty coffee has seen.
Over the past few years, the scale has changed by a factor of 10. From our humble roots of 340 square feet, we’re now on our third facility, a 34,000 square foot state-of-the-art beverage plant. We’ve built each facility from the ground up, allowing us to incorporate scaled beverage processes and systems that bring perfectionism to extraction and packaging. Regardless of the medium – bulk, bag-in-box, bottles, or cans, every beverage we produce here is done with exacting precision. In building our facility, we created a cold-chain distribution system to support our products and our partners’ products in the Northeast. We had to. We could not bear the compromise that shelf stability brought to our beverages. I imagine most professionals in specialty coffee that have pursued packaged beverages have come to a similar conclusion.
NOBL Beverages is not a specialty coffee company; we are expert brewers. It is simply not possible to be exceptional in beverage and exceptional in roasting, so we chose the former. Coffee is an art, and I am not an artist. But all good artists need support, galleries to display their work, and studios to practice their craft. We are both of these to our artist partners. We have brought logic, order, and perfectionism to specialty beverage production, precisely the type of partnership that allows for the best-packaged beverages on earth.
The beverage industry continues to be driven by the titans of sugar-filled soft drinks and cleverly branded tap water. To compete in that space and make a real difference, quality and genuine innovation are the only way forward. The coffee industry can finally bridge the gap between specialty coffee and beverage, and we’ve collectively allowed for real disruption in the space.
To win in beverage is not to conform to the rigidity built by the giants of yesterday. There is nothing that matters to specialty coffee more than building exceptional experiences for customers. To construct these experiences is to avoid all compromises. Leaving quality behind when freshly roasted coffee leaves the view of your roast-master is a sacrifice that we do not need to make, even with the arm-twisting of archaic distribution systems and rigid retailers.
There can be room on the shelves for specialty coffee in the broader beverage category by staying focused on beverage quality. Big Beverage is not paying attention, which is a perplexing proposition in the context of the craft beer revolution. It’s time to make our mark on the non-alcoholic space.