(Photo by Rob Torres)
La Colombe has a not-so-secret weapon fueling its big-time national expansion plans: draft lattes — in a can.
On March 1, the ready-to-drink coffee product will hit the shelves of the company’s stores in Philly. It will also be available across the country via the La Colombe website. Good news for out-of-town coffee enthusiasts. Draft lattes are increasingly a thing.
— Roberto Torres L. (@TorresLuzardo) February 19, 2016
Although at first sight the slim 9-ounce can holding the beverage may seem simple, a very complex science process lies behind its creation, says La Colombe cofounder Todd Carmichael. Note that our conversation took place as he stood beside a glass wall covered in mathematical scribblings in a sample room resembling a research lab.
“I invented the ability to create textured drinks in a can,” Carmichael said.
To get to the finished product, however, the road was long and winding, starting with an early prototype that included a volleyball valve drilled into a can for the needed injection of gas. Making frothy microfoam ain’t easy.
After a lot of pitching, Carmichael convinced a key company to become a partner on the project: Philly’s own Crown Holdings, the No. 1 producer of food cans and metal vacuum enclosures in the world, and the creator of another groundbreaking food-industry innovation: the bottle cap.
The process to manufacture the drink works like this: The can comes along the production line featuring a small valve at the base. The Innovalve, as it has been named, is the only FDA-approved valve found suitable to interact with food.
This addition to the container is there to allow the injection of nitrous oxide, the key ingredient in maintaining the frothy texture that latte lovers have come to enjoy. Thanks to its “chimney-like” design, the valve doesn’t expose the latte to the air: it simply stretches to let a pin go in and add the nitrous oxide.
Cold-pressed espresso, reduced-fat frothed milk and cane sugar are the ingredients that make this drink uphold La Colombe’s strict quality standards. The drink receives the injection of liquid nitrous oxide inside a “gasser-shaker,” where the can is shaken and injected at the same time to ensure stability.
After that, to extend the product’s shelf life, it goes into what’s called a retort: a machine that floods the cans up with super-hot water and heats them up under pressure in order to perform an in-can pasteurization. This lets the product remain fresh for 180 days.
Next up was an addition that came from Carmichael’s wife, who would never drink anything directly from a can. “I told her, ‘What if I invent something so that your lips never have to touch the can?’ She thought it was perfect.”
A plastic cover resembling the ones on La Colombe’s to-go cups is added to the top for a double purpose: it prevents consumer’s lips to directly touch the aluminum and any substances it may accumulate during storage, and helps eliminate the metallic flavor note that drinking directly from the can adds to a beverage.
Following the release of the draft latte, La Colombe will resume work on four upcoming flavor variations that will feature the same innovative container: vanilla, mocha and black-and-white — a bolder mixture of coffee and milk — are some of the possibilities.
“I’m famous for being a fan of Philly because I believe it to be fertile ground for ideas like this,” Carmichael said. “We are in the business of making people happy with coffee, and La Colombe is now ready to share this with everybody.”