The Reason Canned Coffee Always Tastes Weird

When Wired writer Ramona Emerson asked her coffee-lover buddies why coffee in a can tasted "terribly sweet" and like "Swiss Miss and metal," the answer was not a simple explanation — it was a guffaw. Coffee in a can? Gross. Obviously. Why even bother asking?

That was in 2012. Today, Beverage Daily reports that Gen Z consumers are drinking more canned and bottled coffee these days than fresh brewed. Fortune Business Insights writes that the global ready-to-drink coffee market is blowing up, and is conservatively projected to hit a $42 billion crescendo by 2027. Evidently, a lot of people really love the stuff. Either that, or we're becoming aficionados at settling for shoddy coffee and pretending it's good.

Suffering through bad coffee for the sake of convenience is nothing new. For example, World War II Navy veterans sprinkled salt into their coffee to mask its bitter taste, but that was coffee burnt from brewing all day on their ships. So why the weird taste in modern canned coffee?

Coffee Break Lovers explains that it essentially comes down to the shelf-stabilizing measures that cans of coffee have to adhere to before being distributed to your friendly neighborhood grocery store. That includes the "retort" process, in which the coffee is sealed in its packaging (in this case, a lightweight metal can) then heated with steam or water. The good news is, solutions for better flavor may be on the horizon.

Which ready-to-drink coffees are starting to get it right?

Are there ready-to-drink coffee brands that actually deliver flavor without pouring in the usual suspects like extra fat and sugar? 

Former World Barista Champion James Hoffmann thinks so. As the current mega-influencer and social media darling of all things coffee, Hoffmann's endorsement of a canned coffee might sound like a stretch. He is very particular about how coffee is made, from using a French press correctly to making espresso without a machine. However, Hoffman has admitted that ready-to-drink canned coffee Taika has "seriously good" flavor without a bulk of sugar.

The folks at Food Network also spoke positively about some canned coffees, like Starbucks' Nitro Cold Brew, which they say actually pulls off a "hint of sweet cream" while avoiding "overly acidic and bitter" flavors.

Sounds nice, but it remains to be seen how open ready-to-drink brands are to upgrading their recipes, considering they're already raking in billions of dollars. After all, the prevalence of vending machines (stats say there's a ratio of one vending machine to every 23 Japanese citizens) is how canned coffee got its boost in Japan, which is reportedly where the stuff was invented in the first place. Our best bet may be to set the expectation for our canned coffee to taste about as good as anything we get out of a vending machine — and be pleasantly surprised as the market keeps improving its formulas.