A bespoke, attention-grabbing signature coffee could help to boost your profits. Ian Boughton looks at the vital ingredients for a successful addition to the drinks page of your menu
Last month's UK barista championships have put signature drinks into the spotlight once again. A major part of the contest is a drink made to a barista's own recipe, and there's a continuing debate about how practical, and profitable, it is for caterers to add unique drinks to their menus.
Such a drink has to grab the attention, have sufficient profit potential to make it worthwhile, and yet has to be made in short order. Some competition drinks are made simply to impress the judges, and are wildly impractical for café use, but this year's barista contest raised the matter of practicality.
Jeremy Regan, operations manager of the Muffin Break chain, was this year's head judge. "This year we saw many items that could have a place on a menu," he says. "Such a drink has to get several things right. It has to be quick to make, probably no longer than a standard coffee, and so it must use ingredients that are ready to hand. But it must return a good margin and standard coffee flavourings are not cheap, so this presents a problem."
The makers of proprietary flavoured syrups are keen to help operators produce profitable "specials", and are always ready with advice.
"Keep things simple and think of the classic flavours such as caramel, hazelnut, vanilla and chocolate," says Darril Ling, marketing manager at Bennet Opie, distributor of the French-produced Monin flavours. "Our best-selling flavour is vanilla and it's better to focus on the presentation of this than to introduce a weird flavour that may discourage customers.
"Actively promote the signature drink as a lighter alternative to a pudding and choose a name that includes the name of your business. Remember - a signature drink is a bespoke product, which is a real opportunity to increase profit margins."
Cooper's Coffee has just reintroduced to the UK the original brand of flavoured syrup. This is Torani, and the story goes that coffee gourmet Brandy Brandenburger was enjoying a flavoured Italian soda in a bar when the idea occurred to him to buy some of the flavours and see what happened to them in coffee. He started a whole new industry.
Torani lends itself particularly well to nut flavours, says managing director David Cooper. They generally work well with coffee, but some staff get them spectacularly wrong. "Macadamia is the best nut flavour for coffee. The main problem with the most popular flavour, which is hazelnut, is that people overdose the syrup, and its intensity and sweetness then dominate the drink.
"A very popular combination is Crème de Banana and Chocolate Milano syrup [a bittersweet rich chocolate] to make a ‘monkey mocha'. Probably the best one that is undersold is orange. Chocolate and orange together in a latte is delicious.
"And a simple tip on making great flavoured lattes is to steam the milk with the syrup and then pour on to the espresso afterwards. This enhances the flavour much better than simply adding cold syrup to the latte."
At First Choice Coffee, the recommendation is again to keep things simple. With the huge variety of syrups, creating drinks is relatively easy but customers must not be deterred by long wait times, says managing director Elaine Higginson. First Choice uses Sweetbird syrups from Beyond the Bean. They are free of genetically modified organisms, artificial flavourings and colourings, and are the only such product approved by the Vegetarian Society. This distinction, says Beyond the Bean founder Jeremy Rogers, came to light when he discovered that certain branded syrups were made using sugar that was filtered with what is called "animal charcoal", and were thus non-vegetarian.
"Sweetbird syrups also taste better because they use primarily the higher-quality sucrose and glucose sweeteners," Rogers says. "Many syrup manufacturers use low-quality sugars, such as beet sugar, processed in ways we do not approve of, and low-quality artificial flavours."
What goes into a flavouring is the subject of much questioning in the coffee trade - typically, it's alleged that some common flavourings contain substances that can be toxic. Others say this applies only to products consumed in unrealistic excess.
It's also recommended that caterers quiz their suppliers over what is and what isn't a natural ingredient - generally, flavours are either natural, "nature-identical", or synthetic. Confusingly, "natural" flavourings don't have to come from the actual plant - strawberry flavour products can contain natural flavourings, but they don't have to be from a real strawberry.
However, ingredients can be much misunderstood, warns Gary McGann, general manager at Espresso Warehouse, producer of the Essenz flavours. "For a café-bar, the practical difference between natural and ‘nature-identical' flavours is that natural ones degrade - but caterers want flavours that are natural, and still expect a two-year shelf life," he says. "Natural flavours will degrade even faster if you leave them open in hot places. Staff leave them on top of the espresso machine, and that's when you're going to get mould. So our opinion is that ‘no preservative' can be a danger. We're happy to use a preservative that is a mould-inhibitor."
The rule of promoting signature drinks is that less is more, McGann continues. "The big difference in flavoured drinks between here and the USA is the ratio of flavour to drink - we use a quarter of the amount they do, and it's the balance of flavour and sweetness in the drink that you have to get right.
"We recommend taking a drink from your main menu and making a slight change to it - so, if you're already selling mocha, then promote a white chocolate mocha at Easter."
Espresso Warehouse's main rules say that fruit flavours work better with cold drinks than hot - flavouring a cream topping can turn a standard drink into a premium one, but only if it's good-quality cream. The company adds that nut flavours work very well with coffee.
If a classic flavour emerges from this year's barista contest, it will be one not usually associated with coffee - the most common flavour used was rose, as syrup or water.
The new UK barista champion, Hugo Hercod, from the Relish deli in Wadebridge, Cornwall, created a Turkish Delight drink that used Steenbergs organic Iranian dried rose petals as an introductory snifter, after which a layer of Atkins and Potts rose syrup was blended with Origin Coffee's hot chocolate, and then added to a shot of espresso. More of the Atkins and Potts syrup went into the foamed coconut milk topping.
Sindy Kamcheong, world champion for food and beverage brands operator SSP, also made a drink inspired by Turkish Delight, using chocolate syrup and rose water - combining those two can be tricky, but the final effect is that the rose water comes through as a highlight.
Rose water cropped up again in the recipe from Lance Turner of Lavazza, who created a hot-and-cold Thai-spiced macchiato using galangal - a fragrant ginger - and lemon grass, with rose water in the foamed milk.
Maxine Beardsmoore, from the Bottle Kiln in Derbyshire, used rose in her African Sunset. "I used a pure rose syrup with espresso on top, and I topped it with a pistachio-infused cream," she says. "I ended up with three layers, and the idea was for the judges to sip and get the layered taste."
This, she says, is an idea that could work on a menu, perhaps as an after-dinner item.