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Drinkable Dessert Inspirations

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Drinkable desserts are everywhere —convenience stores, coffee shops, even your favorite burger place or supermarket. Most every foodservice outlet or retail store has indulgent beverages, either ready-to-drink (RTD) or made on the premises. Even chocolate cafés and kiosks have sprung up that dedicate themselves solely to desserts, including beverages like drinkable chocolate.

Drinkable desserts come in many profiles. Some are based on actual desserts made into liquid or drinkable forms. Others include fruit- or coffee-based coolers (like Starbucks’ Frappuccino ®), smoothies, ice-blended drinks, yogurt-based beverages, milkshakes, and drinking chocolate. Common delivery methods include:

  • Dry mix—sometimes with a dairy base—flavored and/or sweetened and blended with ice;
  • Liquid that is heated to a warm temperature, then served (like some drinking chocolates);
  • Shelf-stable or refrigerated, liquid beverage base (milkshake and smoothie bases, or new products like the crème brûlée base discussed later) which the end user customizes by adding various ingredients including, juice, extracts or concentrates;
  • Bottled or aseptic, RTD.

Ingredient options 

Product designers typically ask themselves several questions when considering drinkable desserts. What type of dessert should be created and/or replicated? How indulgent should the product be? In contrast, what nutritional levels are desired? What level of thickness (viscosity) will the product require?

Creating products that are stable in a package for extended periods of time typically requires the product developer to evaluate various sources of fruit, protein, sweeteners, gums, flavors, and acidifiers, (and for drinks that appeal to the health-oriented consumer, vitamins and minerals), as well as the ingredients in the original dessert. The drinkable dessert will use commercial ingredients that will withstand processing and achieve the necessary shelf life. The following are some of the ingredients that we typically find in a drinkable dessert.

Fruit. Raw fruit ingredients are difficult to work with in manufacturing plants because of handling and storage issues. Fruit powders and flakes work well in a dry mix, but can be quite expensive. For liquid products, the easiest choice is juice concentrates, but purées provide fiber and mouthfeel that is not present in clarified concentrates. However, the type of filling and/ or processing system and the final package might dictate these choices. For example, many plants cannot handle particulate matter in beverages.

Protein. The most-common protein sources are dairy- and soy-based ingredients, including milk, soymilk, yogurt, kefir, and whey and soy concentrates and isolates. Keep in mind that when working with proteins, their isoelectric point or range can affect viscosity, sedimentation, texture and overall taste. The other major concern with protein is the potential for Maillard reactions to occur with reducing sugars during high-temperature processing.

Sweeteners. Depending on the type and amount of sweetener used, viscosity and sweetness can vary greatly. Consideration must also be given to how a sweetener will react with proteins in Maillard reactions if a beverage or base is heated during processing or before serving.

Sucrose—including minimally processed sugar cane juice— will typically give the most-pleasing, well-rounded sweetness that most consumers are familiar with. High-fructose corn syrups offer a price advantage and a certainly pleasing sweetness profile many people like. Several organic corn syrups are available now, as well. The unique and varied flavors of different honeys can deliver a good amount of sweetness due to the high fructose content. Most agave syrups are relatively clean-tasting, and the flood of agave onto the market has dropped the price and given the product developer an attractive option for the ingredient statement.


Drinking chocolate presents a new, more-indulgent option to hot cocoa. Single-source cocoa and ethnic variations can further diversify the beverages.

Chocolate. When formulating with cocoa powder, cost can play a major role in helping the formulator choose a low-fat cocoa powder (11%) vs. a high-fat cocoa powder (23%). High-fat cocoa can cost as much as 30% more than low-fat products. Shades of cocoa can range from red to black. Nonalkalized cocoa powders typically have an acidic or fruity taste. Alkalized cocoas have a milder, betterrounded flavor, along with darker colors.

Since cocoa powders are insoluble in water, stabilization and suspension is a factor, especially for RTD beverages. For any product, the viscosity will determine how long it takes the cocoa powder to settle out, and a lecithinated cocoa powder is a good choice for an instant product. The type of stabilizers used will play a part in determining settling time and final texture.

Color. The pH, processing temperatures, desired shelf life and other factors all help determine the colors chosen for a beverage, and whether natural or synthetic are better options.

Natural colors in juice concentrates can often fade to unappealing shades due to high pH, oxidation and/or exposure to ultraviolet light. Some natural color ingredients are stabilized to maintain their desired shade through processing, but all natural colors should be evaluated thoroughly against your processing conditions before moving forward with production.

Beverage categories 

A range of beverages fit into the world of drinkable desserts. Each beverage is often typified by the ingredients used in the formulation, which usually determines the category for marketing —or perhaps creates a brand-new one!

Smoothies. Smoothies are a $2 billion market, with an 80% jump in sales in the last five years in made-to-order foodservice, RTD and packaged smoothie mixes, according to Mintel International, Chicago. Similar to the RTD coffee market explosion, the smoothie market will now become differentiated with new, innovative flavors in retail products. “Superfruits” such as açaí, goji (or wolfberry), mangosteen and other imported exotic fruits will be integrated, possibly offering healthier options in the drinkable dessert category. A recent introduction by Stonyfield Farms, Londonderry, NH, blends categories. Stonyfield designed a drinkable yogurt energy smoothie called “Shift.” This is perhaps the first company to integrate the energy and smoothie categories, melding aspects of wellness and indulgent beverages.

Coffee and milkshakes. RTD coffee products are approaching $400 million as a category, and this market is still growing, according to Lauren Steele, spokesperson, ByB Brands, Inc., Charlotte, NC.

RTD coffee and milkshake-type drinks are found in supermarkets, delicatessens and convenience stores, and are mostly indulgent. Some examples include the Godiva Belgian Blends line— jointly manufactured by Godiva Chocolatier, New York, and The Coca-Cola Company, Atlanta— which includes flavors like Dark Chocolate Mocha and French Vanilla Latté, and the shelf-stable, RTD milkshakes from Ben & Jerry’s, South Burlington, VT, which come in branded flavors like Cherry Garcia and Chocolate Fudge Brownie.

In 2005, Caribou Coffee, Minneapolis, designed a line of shelf-stable, RTD, indulgent coffee drinks. The gold standard was determined by the flavor profile created by the chain for its retail drinks, such as its signature lattés and coolers, which come in flavors like cappuccino, caramel, mocha and French vanilla. The key, of course, was the quality of the coffee beans used, and the process of making the coffee extract to blend with the milk and flavoring systems.

Matching the drinks made in a retail store was difficult. For example, trying to blend a high-acid coffee extract with milk, then cook it and make the aroma, taste and finish smooth and appealing would usually take 10 to 15 rounds of tasting and sampling of the product, following slight adjustments to the formulation.

Matching the indulgent factor was less challenging. Creating a rich, emulsified mixture that included chocolate, caramel and other flavors, as well as dairy and coffee ingredients, was more straightforward.

Drinking chocolate. From 2004 to 2005, Seattle-based Starbucks was the first national food or beverage chain to serve a drinking chocolate. Mark Crowell, CRC®, president of CuliNex, Bainbridge Island, WA, explained that the drinking chocolate was “a very rich, delicious product, but it might have been before its time.”

At the time, the average hot chocolate’s makeup was often somewhere around 90% milk and/or water and 10% chocolate beverage powder, which might include nondairy creamers and artificial flavors. New, artisan drinking chocolate is typically 90% chocolate and 10% natural spices, aromatics, flavors and milk or cream. These drinks rely on a very high percentage of melted chocolate in the mix. The large difference between the two dictated a need for further education of the general public about the characteristics of high-quality drinking chocolate.


Fruit-based blended smoothies and shakes present lighter—yet still sweetly satisfying—dessert or midday treat options.
Photo: Dole Food Company, Inc.

The key to creating a successful liquid-based drinking chocolate is using a simplistic approach. According to Michael Szyliowicz, president, Mont Blanc Gourmet, Denver: “We start with the best-possible ingredients, just like a chef would. We source from many countries, and make our blends based on the inherent features. A machine is provided for retailers to serve and maintain the chocolate mixture’s temperature between 80°F to 150°F. (The average serving temperature for drinking chocolate is 110°F.) Mont Blanc also provides recipe assistance to use their drinking chocolate in both drinks or desserts.”

Some of the beverage recipes provided include:

  • Adding a shot of drinking chocolate to your favorite coffeehouse beverage;
  • Using the drinking chocolate as it was intended, but flavoring it with a syrup shot or measure of spice, like cinnamon;
  • Blending the drinking chocolate with alcohol to create spirited, flavored coffee drinks.

Szyliowicz also notes that, regardless of where you’re serving drinking chocolate—whether a coffee shop, quick-service restaurant or ice cream parlor—it tends to be a seasonal offering, with most sales during winter months.

To delve further, consider the origins of drinking chocolate. When drinking an artisan or high-quality chocolate, the features of the actual chocolate—whether bitter, sweet, aromatic, floral or nutty—should come through. Some examples of different drinking chocolates include:

  • European or classic drinking chocolate—dark chocolate, aromatic vanilla and cream;
  • Aztec—spicy, with flavors from chiles, cinnamon or spice;
  • Mexican and Hispanic—less sweet, with flavors like dulce de leche;
  • Oriental and Indian—usually a higher-cocoa dark chocolate (70%); examples include chai with green tea (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cardamom), coconut, cardamom and clove.

Mark Sciscenti of Kakawa Chocolate House, Santa Fe, NM, forms chocolate into small balls for grating and mixing into a cup of hot water and/or milk to produce strong, bittersweet, richly seasoned beverages.

Some of his “elixirs” include Mesoamerican chocolates like Acuyo (unsweetened chocolate, wildflower honey, herbs, chilcostle chile and Mexican vanilla), Aztec Warrior (unsweetened chocolate, herbs, flowers, nuts, spices, pasilla de Oaxaca chile and Mexican vanilla), and Pepper Allspice (unsweetened chocolate, wildflower honey, hibiscus flowers, spices, catarina chile and Mexican vanilla), among other Hispanic-inspired offerings, as well as others like Italian Citrus (chocolate, lemon and orange peel, cane sugar, Ceylon cinnamon, Mexican vanilla, and essential oil of ambergris) and a 1790s Jeffersonian (73.5% chocolate, cane sugar, nutmeg and Mexican vanilla), among others.

Chocolate might even have health benefits. Although most chocolate products are a mixed bag when it comes to health, chocolate—particularly dark chocolate—has been the subject of many health studies of late, and could help draw more consumers to the concept of “healthy indulgence” when it comes time for dessert. “Chocolate’s flavonoids, epicatechin and procyanidin, are phytochemicals that suppress the development of blood clotting activities that lead to cardiovascular disease,” notes Cheryl Forberg, R.D., author of “Stop the Clock Cooking” and former personal chef to George Lucas and his family. “They are also responsible for blood vessel dilation, promoting blood flow and reducing risk of heart disease. Procyanidin also bolsters immune function.”

Case study: dessert inspirations 


Ingredients with certain health connotations—like blueberries and other antioxidant-rich fruits—can form the basis of attractive beverages for children.
Photo: U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council

A regional coffeehouse chain wanted its own drinkable-dessert line. The goal was to sell these items from 3:00 P.M. to close, times when the coffee shops had traditionally experienced slower sales. The drink line included crème brûlée, chocolate mousse, raspberry cheesecake and Dutch apple pie. Tiramisu was the alternate and/or seasonal choice.

Culinary Concepts, Orlando, FL, had designed a shelf-stable crème brûlée base. However, that base was intended for restaurant cooking applications. Hence, the formula had to be adjusted to make it pourable and suited to steam heating to 180°F. The end result was a hot, all-natural crème brûlée base available in a shelf-stable (Tetra- Pak), 32-oz. unit, with a one-year shelf life.

The beverages were designed to be heated with the cappuccino- machine wand, like frothing a cappuccino. The barista would also add shots of flavored syrup to the crème brûlée base to create the different drinkable desserts. Then, toppings further customized the drinks. Amber burned sugar was milled to a size that would melt on the crème brûlée, and it looked like a torch had actually melted the sugar. The original amber burned sugar came from a spice expert, Chef Tim Ziegler of Italco Food Products, Denver. John Namy, vice president of culinary development, Pecan Deluxe, Dallas, also created drinkable-dessert toppings for the beverages, which included encapsulated pie crust, cheesecake bits and tiramisu pieces that would not get soft or melt.

Topping it off 

Toppings come in many forms and serve multiple applications: Pie-crust ingredients, chocolate shavings, dusts, particulates, freeze-dried or encapsulated items, and coated or enrobed items, as well as colored, flavored and/or textured sugar, can help product designers create a wide range of drinkable desserts.

“Sweet drink inclusions, such as crushed Oreos, broken candy bars, malted-milk balls, nuts and candy, have been standard fare since Dairy Queen introduced the Blizzard,” says Ziegler. “Now, however, this craze has increased to include gourmet toppings like caramel-burnt sugar, freeze-dried marshmallows, customized décor candy topping and sweet-rimmed cups or glasses, just like a margarita would be made. Flavors include gingerbread spice, cinnamon sugar, sweet cocoa and sweet nutmeg. Drinkable dessert garnishes are literally endless opportunities for innovation.”

As you can see, numerous options exist in the arena of drinkable desserts. Through various combinations of fruit, dairy ingredients like milk or yogurt, chocolate, coffee, tea, etc., manufacturers can create a huge range of products with varying degrees of indulgence to delight consumers. Often it’s just a matter of waiting for the right level of sweet inspiration—which comes from ordering one of each item off the restaurant dessert menu, and sampling them all! 

Kurt Stiles—a.k.a., “Chef Moosehopper”—is executive chef and C.E.O. of Intelligent Ingredients, LLC, a natural and functional food and beverage product-development company based in St. Paul, MN. He has experience with franchise, chain and independent restaurants; educational and stadium foodservice; hotel banquets and mobile catering. Stiles has worked with dozens of small-to-medium volume food and beverage manufacturers, in addition to major retail manufacturers such as general Mills, Sara Lee, Land O’Lakes, Jennie-O Turkey, Dole and Caribou Coffee, and has created and launched regional and national programs for new products in both wholesale and retail markets. He also owned two Moosehopper bakery/Coffee Cafes in the 1990s. Stiles sits on the advisory boards at both Le Cordon bleu University and Southwest Minnesota State University, and is a member of both the Research Chefs Association and the Institute of Food Technologists. Mark Newman, a flavor chemist and an independent consultant to the food industry, specializes in off flavors and product development.

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