Latest innovation from La Colombe: Self-heating coffee cans

For now, they’re only available in Fishtown.

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Enjoying the summit after a hike. Stuck in traffic on a commute. At a Little League game in extra innings. In a meeting that’s gone long. There’s plenty of times when a hot cup of coffee would come in handy, but no stores or brewing equipment are nearby.

Enter the latest product from La Colombe: self-heating coffee cans.

Just twist the bottom, wait two minutes, and boom — you’re holding a tasty steaming beverage with a welcome jolt of caffeine. The cans are the latest development to come out of the company’s Philadelphia R&D lab, according to La Colombe communications director Alicia Gentile.

Brewed from single-origin Brazilian beans and available in two varieties, black or with milk and sugar, a limited number of the cans are available for purchase at the flagship cafe on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, she said.

“We don’t have a huge amount of information we can share at this point,” Gentile told Billy Penn. “The product is in the testing phase.”

Todd Carmichael, La Colombe co-founder and CEO, posted a pic of the new cans on Instagram earlier this week. They’re powered by technology developed by HeatGen, which kicks off an exothermic (heat-producing) chemical reaction when activated. Packaging for the tech is recyclable, the company says.

La Colombe, which started in 1994 with a single cafe in Rittenhouse and has since expanded with more than 30 shops around the country, has seen huge success in the cold canned coffee market.

In 2017, its “Draft Latte” was the fastest-growing ready-to-drink coffee product, zooming from zero to 1% of a $2+ billion industry that includes global giants like Starbucks and Nestle. Several other varieties have since been introduced (caramel, coconut milk mocha, oatmilk, etc.) and the brand is now available in more than 7,200 Walgreens, 2,000 Krogers and 1,500 Targets coast to coast.

But cold canned drinks are not the same as hot canned drinks. The self-heating can concept has been tried in the past — and flopped each time.

Nestle was the first to market in 2001, with Nescafe Hot When You Want. The brand was discontinued a year later. In 2004, celeb chef Wolfgang Puck gave it another try, with Kroger stocking the cans in several thousand stores nationwide. Puck’s endeavor stalled within two years, ending with a cascade of lawsuits and cans pulled from shelves.

Will La Colombe be more successful? Carmichael has been talking about the idea since 2017. Gentile, the company spokesperson, wouldn’t comment on past failures, but there are a few things differentiate this effort.

One is taste. From the popularity of its cold cans, it’s obvious La Colombe has made a breakthrough with a recipe for pre-brewed coffee that many people find delicious. Then there’s addressing something that made customers angry when this was tried before: the liquid doesn’t get very hot.

That’s still true — but it’s addressed by lowering expectations. Said Gentile, “We leverage HeatGen’s patented technology to heat the coffee up to ~130°F in just 2 minutes, allowing guests to enjoy warm cafe quality coffee anywhere.”

Note the operative word there: “warm.” Not “hot.”

Regular coffee is usually brewed at 185°F, and during a taste-test at the Fishtown cafe earlier this month, the difference was obvious. But it wasn’t off-putting, especially with the milk and sugar version. It was like a cup that’s been sitting on your desk for 15 minutes or so.

If you’re someone who likes burning the roof of your mouth with your hot drinks, the self-heating cans will disappoint. But if you’re one of those coffee fiends who thinks a warm cuppa is better than none, the La Colombe self-heating cans might be right up your alley. Especially for those times when you’re stuck with no other options.

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