Western Washington claims three of the top 10 cities for per capita coffee bars. We know coffee, we love coffee, and we have strong opinions about coffee. Then we experience a few days of 80 degree temperatures and so much for our standards — all that matters to our wilted minds is refreshment. Cold-brew coffee stands at the ready with smooth and frosty comfort.
Cold brew is a different beast than the cafe standard of espresso poured over ice and diluted with cold water or milk. You may have had it even if you think you haven’t, because once upon a time, it was generally on the menu as toddy. In the early ’90s, some higher-end cafes like Olympia’s Batdorf & Bronson and Seattle’s Diva Espresso offered toddy iced-coffee drinks, but these weren’t a big deal or sold at a higher price. If you encountered a chatty barista, they’d explain their method as a superior choice, with a smoother flavor profile than icing hot espresso.
Toddy is actually a brand name for a patented cold-brewing device with reusable felt filters; it’s been around since the late ’60s with occasional flares of popularity for home use, but those filters make for substantial cleaning and mess when used for commercial quantities, which kept it something of a rarity. Then in 2011, Stumptown revised and scaled their method to introduce a ready-to-drink cold brew. Cutely modeled on the bottle size and shape of Olympia Brewing’s “stubbies” (first introduced in 1935), the new bottled coffee combined vintage style with a substantial hit of caffeine and was a huge success.
That success was only the starting point. Today, there’s nitro-charged cold brew, served by the pint full of dense, magically creamy bubbles (Guinness was the first to make this texture famous), costing up to $6 per glass at popular brunch spots. Grocery stores carry numerous ready-to-drink variations that range in cost from $3 to $5; meanwhile, the freezer case offers cold-brew ice cream (the one I tasted was indistinguishable from standard coffee ice cream). Starbucks sells a Nitro Cold Brew with Cascara Cold Foam, a complicated beverage that tops nitro-charged coffee with a thick, sweetened foam flavored with extract from the coffee fruit. Even if the trend subsides, it’s not likely to disappear.
Brewing coffee with cold water instead of hot fundamentally changes the beverage, but not always in predictable ways. Hot water is more efficient at extracting numerous compounds. Cold brew can steep anywhere from 8 to 20 hours — generally, the longer the steep, the more like hot-brew coffee it becomes, but some flavor notes remain subtle. For some, myself among them, cold brew equals smooth, mellow flavor. To others, it means insipid, flat-tasting coffee. This perception relates to its acidity, or brightness. Many coffee brands and aficionados swear that cold brew is lower acid than hot brew, but researchers at Thomas Jefferson University found just four published studies comparing pH levels between brewing methods, and determined that the results were inconclusive.
Then there’s the caffeine. Hot water excels at caffeine extraction and simple lab tests show that hot-brewed coffee has more caffeine. However, cold brew generally begins as a concentrate, and how much it’s diluted can vary considerably. The Stumptown 10.5-ounce stubby, meant to be drunk straight or poured over ice, has 279 milligrams of caffeine, more than twice what a 12-ounce can of Red Bull supplies. A tall Starbucks cold brew has 200 milligrams, much more than the 75 milligrams in their tall iced latte.
Both flavor and caffeine level can be customized by making your own cold-brew concentrate, a process no more complicated than making sun tea. You can use inexpensive beans, which makes the price comparable to standard drip coffee, or fancy single-varietal beans, which lets you play around with flavor profiles. You can adjust steeping times, or blend in decaf beans.
As far as equipment goes, you can buy a countertop cold brewer, but all you really need is a big pitcher or pot, and something to strain the brewed beverage through. Some tie the coffee grounds into a paper filter, like an oversized tea bag; a large, sturdy French press will also work. I store the concentrate in a growler, since it pours without dripping and fits nicely in the door of the fridge.
I prefer my cold brew with nothing more than a few ice cubes and a generous pour of milk, but these days that preference is so old-fashioned it’s nearly dowdy. For something more modern, dilute the concentrate with your favorite tonic water, or use a mineral water like Topo Chico.
Makes 1 quart concentrate; this recipe may be doubled or tripled.
1 cup (2 ½ ounces) coarsely ground coffee, any roast, decaf or regular
4 cups water, divided
Put the coffee grounds in a one-quart pitcher. Add half the water and let sit for two minutes, until the grounds have absorbed much of the liquid. Add the remaining water, swirling gently to blend. Cover the pitcher without pressing down on the grounds, and let sit at room temperature for at least eight hours and not more than 20; the longer it steeps, the more complex and bitter (like a standard cup of coffee) the flavor will become. Strain the grounds using cheesecloth or a fine mesh sieve. The concentrate will keep for about two weeks in the refrigerator. After that, it will be safe to drink for several more weeks but its flavor will slowly deteriorate.
For flavored coffee, add two green cardamom pods or half a split vanilla bean with the grounds. For a cold-brew mocha, add 1/3 cup crushed cacao nibs.
For serving, a good starting point for diluting this concentrate is 1:1 with milk or water. To sweeten, use a liquid sugar like honey, agave or simple syrup.