Now, Caribou has taken malt and turned it into the latest coffee flavor trend.
This month, Caribou, based in Minneapolis, began offering malt as an option in three types of mocha drinks.
Customers can try a malted mocha, in which espresso and malted milk power are added to chocolate chips and combined with steamed milk. There is also a malted mocha cooler, which includes malt blended with chocolate chips, coffee and ice. And, malt is available in a crafted press coffee, available hot or cold.
Malt is an old-school flavor that seems to date back to 1883, when William Horlick received the first U.S. patent for a malted drinking powder, which was mixed with hot water to create a beverage.
Horlick’s powder quickly caught on, both in the U.S. and across the British empire. It was easy to transport, and was also touted as an alternative to dairy products for those with allergies. Ovaltine, which was aimed at children, and also promoted as a nightcap, reached the market in 1904.
Walgreens claims that a soda jerk in one of its Chicago stores got the idea in 1922 of adding malted powder to ice cream, creating what’s known as a “malted milk.”
It didn’t take long for malted milk shakes to become an ice cream parlor menu staple, and for malt to become the featured flavor in candies like Maltesers and Whoppers.
Malt’s long history is one reason why Caribou decided to introduce it, said Jenifer Hagness, vice president of marketing and product innovation for Caribou, which is part of JAB Holding Company.
Caribou, which has more than 300 locations in 22 states and 270 international franchise stores, especially likes flavors that will pair well with chocolate, she says, so malt was a “win-win.”
It’s also a flavor that appeals to an increasing number of consumers who see coffee as a day-long option. “Coffee historically used to be a beverage you only drank in the morning,” she says. “People are definitely drinking it in the morning but coming back in the afternoon.”
And, while the Midwest has been hammered this winter with snow, ice and rain, Caribou didn’t hesitate to offer malt in cold beverages.
“The person in a Canada Goose jacket with no socks (who orders) an iced press when it’s 50 below is the new normal around here,” she says.
Hagness says it takes six to eight months for Caribou to test a new flavor before it appears in stores.
“We identify a trend and get obsessed about it,” she says. “What does it pair with? What’s the sweetness level that makes sense? We do focus groups, we talk to baristas, and we talk about it internally.”
For the drinks, Caribou crafted a custom malted powder, making sure that consumers could actually taste the flavor note, in addition to coffee and chocolate.
Like many other food and beverage companies, Caribou relies on limited time only flavors to spark traffic. It introduces something new about five times a year, Hagness said. Each variation stays in stores for about two months at a time.
Currently, malt is scheduled to be in its stores until May, although “if we have enough demand, we could keep it longer,” Hagness says.
I was curious about how it tasted, and since there’s no longer a Caribou outlet where I live, I asked my friend Michael Leland, the news director of Iowa Public Radio, to be my taste tester.
He easily found the malt drinks at a Caribou in the Ingersoll Avenue neighborhood of Des Moines, just west of downtown. There were signs for malt drinks just inside the door, on the menu board above the front counter, and on the entrance door window.
Leland, who is normally a cappuccino drinker, tried a large malted mocha “and liked it quite a bit!” he says. “You could taste the malt in the drink, but it wasn’t overpowering. I thought it blended in nicely.”
Next time, Leland said he might purchase a smaller size. “I don’t get mochas often because of the calories, but the malt is actually enough of an attraction for me to consider it again.”
The small malted mocha (12 ounces) at his Caribou costs $4.69, versus $4.09 for a regular mocha.
If you’d like to get an idea for what the Caribou drinks taste like, Food 52 has this recipe for a malted milk latte.
Hagness says the drinks now seem so logical that she’s surprised that more coffee places haven’t jumped on the malt bandwagon. Starbucks has tested a cold brew malt in its upscale Reserve stores,but not in its mainstream outlets.
“You know the expression, ‘so simple that it’s stupid,'” she says. “We probably should have thought of it sooner, because it’s a great complement” to the Caribou lineup.