BY NATION’S RESTAURANT NEWS – As temperatures cool down, operators turn up the creative heat on tempting coffee beverages that combine such tantalizing ingredients as exotic fruit syrups, bold, spicy flavorings, fresh herbs and non-sugar sweeteners. Consumers are all-in, and experimentation is the order du jour.

“Salted caramel and cookie butter are gaining traction as consumers look to sweet and savory flavors,” says David Commer, president of Commer Beverage Consulting. “Combination flavors such as s’mores are also popular. Pumpkin and peppermint obviously come to mind during this time of year. Chocolate is always a favorite, particularly when paired with another flavor like peppermint. Cinnamon, hazelnut, vanilla and caramel are as popular as ever.”

Among coffee drinkers in the United States the average consumption is 3.1 cups per day, according to the National Coffee Association. Specialty coffee sales are increasing by 20 percent annually and account for nearly 8 percent of the $18 billion U.S. market.

Indeed, specialty coffee drinks are becoming ubiquitous. To that end, coffee choices on menus are more competitive than ever — featuring ingredients such as maple syrup, honey, cardamom, tarragon, banana reductions, pumpkin spices, caramel flavorings, malt powders and lavender. Herb-and botanical-infused coffees are also gaining traction at restaurants.

California’s Vitality Bowls

Restaurants do best when the beverage menu works well with the food offerings. The Pitaya Latte at Vitality Bowls, the San Ramon, Calif.-based superfood café with more than 50 units, is a case in point. The drink is a blend of pitaya with organic espresso, coconut milk and organic coconut sugar.

“We knew we wanted to come up with a superfood coffee menu to coincide with our existing offerings. We started testing a variety of superfoods infused with organic espresso and came up with the Pitaya Latte,” says Uriah Blum, vice president of operations.

The restaurant also menus the Açai Almond Milk Latte, açai blended with almond milk and coconut sugar, and Superfood Mocha, which is organic superfood drinking chocolate and steamed milk. The chain’s best-selling coffee beverage is the Superfood Mocha.

Today’s coffee beverages are a far cry from yesterday’s basic offerings. With such creativity it’s anybody’s guess what tomorrow will bring. “The sky is the limit,” says Commer.” I think marketers’ and operators’ pursuit of the next new thing is endless.”