The Gen Z Mindset Is Changing Coffee

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In a world where the daily grind often begins and ends with a cup of coffee, the next generation of coffee trends will likely be driven by new products and new users.

We’ve seen plenty of trends start with younger consumers and then become adopted by older consumers. I call that a Gen Z Mindset. If you are comfortable crowdsourcing restaurants from an Uber or Lyft in a city you don’t know well, or you are seeking to live your best life and hacking for time efficiency is in your DNA, then the Mindset moniker likely fits.

The generations that proudly wear the labels of tech-savvy, socially conscious, and effortlessly unconventional have, unsurprisingly, ushered in a new era of coffee consumption.

Caleb Bryant, previously Associate Director, Food & Drink at Mintel and now a Client Insight Consultant at Circana, has written about the arrival of coffee consumption’s “Fourth Wave.” While early movements heralded coffee’s mass availability and a drive for quality, Gen Z is leading a new movement built around new product innovation and influencer marketing that is driving even more consumption.

In fact, among non-alcoholic beverages, coffee products are projected to grow in incremental servings faster in the next five years than any other beverage type, according to Technomic’s Away-From-Home Beverage report. This outpaces the growth of energy drinks, milk alternatives and carbonated drinks. So what can we learn about younger consumers through their coffee mugs?

As the largest supplier of coffee and tea products to restaurants across the United States, I spoke to the team at Westrock Coffee. They are experts in understanding what consumers are demanding in their cups.

”It’s a fascinating time in the coffee industry, provided you’re responsive to the demands of the market and on how to serve a new generation of consumers and interests,” said Shawn Halterman, Vice President of Insights and Channel Strategy at Westrock Coffee, who shared some fascinating insights that opened my eyes to a new side of the Millennial and Gen Z markets.

Traditional Symbols Of Adulthood Are Shifting

Drinking coffee was once considered an emblem of adulthood, favored by exam-cramming college students or young adults as they entered the “real world”. But traditional age-related barriers of entry may be less important to younger consumers, as young taste palates may be more sophisticated than ever.

Coffee consumption is starting at a younger age. A Mintel study found that while adults 35 years or older reported first drinking coffee somewhere between their 18th and 20th birthdays, younger consumers start much earlier: consumers currently aged 18-24 first start drinking coffee at an average age of 15.

“There was once something forbidding about the taste or accessibility of coffee until a certain age was reached,” said Halterman. “But by being exposed to a wider range of flavors and cultures earlier in life, young consumers have been developing a taste for coffee at a far younger age than their parents.”

Westrock Coffee knows that Gen Z has grown up faster, and so have the tastes that they demand. “By the time consumers reach college age, we can assume that they’ve already experienced coffee’s core taste profile, and therefore are further along in their tasting journeys.”

Coffee Is King…But Changes Are Brewing

Modern consumers, especially younger ones, have demanded that the products they consume match the changing dynamic of their lifestyles. And while the traditional hot cup of coffee (served in a diner mug or a classic paper cup to go) still captures a dominant share of the market, new products and packaging have helped fuel young consumers’ earlier adoption of coffee as a beverage of choice.

Beyond regular brewed and hot specialty coffee, new categories in iced coffee, frozen blended coffees and ready-to-drink platforms in cans (the innovation key to the “Fourth Wave” of coffee consumption) have made the coffee drinking experience more accessible and easier to drink than ever before, and have allowed new flavor profiles to find an audience.

That change has also created an opportunity for younger consumers to lead a charge away from traditional usage patterns. While hot coffee is mainly a routine morning beverage, cold coffee options are considered more of an afternoon treat, enjoyed as a reward or for taste rather than as a “start your day” wake-up stimulant.

But Don’t Mistake Change For A Retreat

Despite those dramatic shifts, assuming that young consumers are wholly rejecting the patterns of their parents would be a mistake. While younger consumers are clearly driving growth in cold coffee trends (consuming a higher percentage of cold coffee than older consumers), they are also highly likely to be hot coffee consumers as well.

Halterman agreed. “Younger consumers are more likely to consume both hot and cold coffees, and for different occasions and motivations. There’s a nod to tradition by drinking hot coffee in the mornings, while shifting to cold coffees later in the day.”

Embracing Different Brews

As coffee consumers continue to skew younger, Millennials and Gen Z are clearly at the forefront of a generational shift from traditional hot brews to the cool and refreshing world of cold coffee. Their evolving preferences and dynamic demands are shaping not only their coffee choices but coffee culture itself, and yet, hot coffee isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. What these new trends and alternatives do offer is a glimpse into the possible chilled future for the world’s favorite caffeinated beverage.

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