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Canned Coffee Explained: How, Why, and What To Look For


  • Canned coffee generally retains all the qualities of a normal brew and can last months or even years on the shelf thanks to different processing methods.

  • Coffee that contains milk may need refrigeration at all times and often will spoil faster. Most canned coffees are canned with nitrogen to eliminate oxygen in the container and improve longevity, plus provide a smooth drink.

  • If you want to ensure that what you're drinking is healthy, you should always look for high-quality canned coffee that doesn't have loads of sugar or preservatives.

Why Is Coffee Sometimes Sold In Cans?

Canned coffee is exceptionally convenient. Canned cold brew coffee can last up to two years if stored in appropriate conditions. Selling ready-to-drink coffee in a can also makes it easier for vending machines to operate, making it popular in countries like Japan, where these machines are commonplace.

Canned coffee is also really popular as a sort of on-the-go energy drink!

But what makes ready-to-drink coffee particularly special is the atypical treatment it undergoes to become shelf-stable.

A hermetically sealed environment within the can prevents the growth of bacteria that would spoil a usual cold brew. This process involves pasteurization, which means heating the coffee to over 70 degrees Celsius to kill any bacteria that might be floating around. The can is also sterilized before filling with various methods, most of which involve heating the can to over 100 degrees Celsius, effectively killing all microorganisms.

What About a Cold Brew?

But how come some cans of coffee are stored on the shelf and some must be kept in the fridge?

Some canned coffees contain other ingredients such as milk, cream, caramel, or flavors that degrade over certain temperatures. These cans require refrigeration to prevent spoiling of those perishable ingredients.

This is the case for many flavored coffees that also need refrigeration to retain the natural sweetness of their ingredients. Additionally, the cold stops bacteria from proliferating and wreaking havoc on your coffee's flavor and shelf-life – not to mention health.

Think about it. You usually make cold brews with cold water, and they have a more potent flavor for the same reason. This is part of why canned cold brew coffee tends to be a popular choice among enthusiasts.

Preparing Ready to Drink Coffee: Why Nitro Is Necessary

Cans are pressurized with either nitrogen or carbon dioxide. This process displaces the air inside, ensuring a longer shelf-life.

However, nitrogen is often the gas of choice as it has almost no impact on the taste of the coffee. Because of the way that gasses interact with flavor compounds, if you conducted a taste test of a can pressurized with nitrogen and one with carbon dioxide, you'd likely find the second one to be much more sour and bitter.

Nitrogen also helps prevent oxidation, displacing all of the oxygen in the can. It interrupts microbial growth, lengthening your coffee's shelf life. As if this weren't enough, nitrogen interacts with the liquid, giving it that smooth, velvety, beer-like texture that many people associate with canned coffee.

Philly Fair Trade's nitro cold brew is a great example – and we think some of the best canned coffee around.

Philly Fair Trade nitro brew canned coffee

Is Coffee In a Can Healthy?

Short answer: yes for most black, unsugared coffees, (though we like to play it safe and buy organic coffee).

There is mounting consensus in the scientific community that coffee contains compounds such as chlorogenic acid and several cellular antioxidants that seem to be beneficial for our health.

There is also evidence that coffee constituents can combat certain cancers, and more recently some experts have concluded that coffee has neuroprotective effects.

It goes without saying that coffee contains caffeine, which also has some beneficial properties and helps with brain health in moderation. There's no reason why canned coffee wouldn't have these benefits compared to hot coffee.

However, there is a crucial fact to remember: most canned coffees aren't just plain old black coffee, and many contain considerable amounts of sugar or other additives.

This is where things get a little slippery, as many saturated fats and large amounts of sugar used to help preserve shelf life in canned coffees can be detrimental to your health.

Bottom line: super sweet canned coffee beverages probably aren't great for you.

Flavored Coffees In a Can

Some dark roasts, for example, include enormous amounts of sugar, cinnamon, cocoa, citrus, milk, and cream. Many are also not gluten-free. Of course, these aren't harmful on their own, but the synthetic versions that producers often add can be.

While these might not be bad in and of themselves, they are often dumped into cans to dilute the bitterness of certain flavored coffees and hide the use of a low-quality bean. Another thing to keep in mind apart from sugar is how many preservatives are added to your beverage – you might want to avoid them.

In short, canned coffee generally retains all the good qualities of a classic hot mug, but extra additives such as sugar or preservatives should concern you if present in high quantities.

FAQs About Canned Coffee

Where is canned coffee most popular?

Ready-to-drink canned coffee or coffee in a bottle is exceptionally popular in Asia, where vending machines are everywhere and people are used to picking up drinks in packaging on the go. Japan has over 4 million vending machines that offer both hot and cold coffee.

How long can canned coffee last?

Your favorite coffee can last up to a year after the date of brewing listed on the can. Plain black coffee will last months longer than coffee containing milk or other additives. Additionally, shelf-stable coffee that has undergone thermal treatment will last the longest.

How does canned coffee with milk not spoil?

There are three main reasons. Firstly, most bacteria that could spoil the coffee die during pasteurization. Second, when you pressurize cans with nitrogen, it displaces all of the oxygen inside. As oxygen is one of the main agents in the process of spoiling, this delays it quite a bit. Lastly, most canned coffee that contains milk must be refrigerated at all times, keeping it at very low temperatures that slow the potential growth of any bacteria. If you're curious, just look at the expiration date and iingredients before you crack your next can of espresso, mocha, or coffee!

coffee beans, coffee, roasted

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