Over the past 5 years, Cold Brew coffee has taken the Specialty Coffee industry by storm, and only recently has anyone stopped to think if it’s any good. Let me start at the beginning.
Cold Brew coffee first started brewing in 1600’s Japan. It evolved into what is now known as Kyoto Drip Cold Brew. This is a full-immersion brewing method that, over a long period of time (typically 4-6 hours), drips the coffee through a paper filter and down some artfully crafted glass tubes. It can still be found today in cafes across the world, however the Toddy method has more traction in the Cold Brew market, especially in the United States. This method seems slightly more primitive; it is essentially a bucket that your throw coffee and water into, and let brew for 12-24 hours. This creates a more concentrated beverage that can be cut with water, having the capability of doubling the yield.
Starbucks then popularized Cold Brew with their introduction of the drink in 2015. Utilizing the Toddy method, they created a demand for this drink which then forced most smaller coffee shops to embrace the trend. Now, 4 years later, it is rare to enter a cafe that doesn’t offer the caffeine-filled beverage.
So why is there a controversy? People seem to like it, and it filled to the brim with drugs. Caffeine, that is. Caffeine is both the reason that people like it, and also why most professionals in Specialty coffee hate it.
The reason that coffee is brewed hot is because heat is required to extract many of the compounds that make coffee taste great. However, caffeine does not need that specific prerequisite. In most cases, Cold Brew coffee has double the amount of caffeine than a typical cup of coffee. That sounds great for another night shift or a struggling college student, however caffeine is one of the main reasons that coffee tastes bitter. So, if you don’t have all of the other compounds that contribute to a naturally flavorful cup of coffee, your coffee will taste bitter.
Another problem with this method stems from coffee’s worst enemy; cream and sugar. Just kidding, it’s oxidation (but we will get to that). From roast to brew, coffee has an epic battle with oxygen, which stales coffee. Read more about how to keep your coffee fresh here. If you don’t want to read that, the TL;DR version is that oxygen steals most of the flavor from coffee. So if it is brewed over a period of 4-24 hours, oxygen has already done its job-- and you, my friend, get some stale coffee.
If you have read this far, you are probably wondering why people like this stale, bitter coffee.
The secret is in the sugar. Just like any bitter coffee, the solution is to add cream and sugar to make up for the lack of sweetness in the coffee. If your go-to coffee order is cold brew, I’d be shocked if you don’t request a plethora of sugar, or that delicious Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew from Starbucks (btw, that is a blend of whole milk, heavy whipping cream, and 13 pumps of vanilla). Hey, if that is your drink, I don’t blame you. It’s delicious. However you probably are starting to realize that the main buying point is not the actual coffee.
So what is Nitro Cold Brew? Nitro was invented in Austin, TX by Cuvee. It is simply Cold Brew coffee, put in a keg, and infused with nitrogen, much like a Guiness. It gives the coffee a foamy head, which makes people feel cool, so they ignore that the coffee is still pretty bitter. The nitrogen does add a bit of sourness that adds slightly more complexity, but still.
So what is the alternative? Thanks for asking, there are two-ish others; Batch Brew Iced Coffee and Japanese-Style Iced Coffee.
Batch Brew Iced Coffee is coffee brewed hot in a batch brewer at a more concentrated brew ratio, then poured into a bunch of ice to cool it down. This extracts the coffee’s good flavor compounds, while giving the people what they want: cold. However, there is a little problem that can occur when producing this large quantity. Brewed coffee usually oxidizes after 45min, so unless you have a lot of cold-coffee drinkers in your line, it will be hard to use up quickly. Most cafes will let it sit in the fridge for up to 12hrs, but that is up to your discretion.
Japanese-Style Iced Coffee is basically the same thing as Batch Brew Iced Coffee, however it is done on the Slow Bar, one cup at a time. The trade off for good, fresh cold coffee is speed. However, this is still a whole lot quicker than Cold Brew, and a lot easier to clean up too.
There is one more option that I did not mention, which is an Iced Americano. The only reason I do not recommend this for a cafe is so that the drinks can be more evenly spread out between espresso bar and slow bar. That being said, it is not a bad way to make iced coffee.
A good Cold Brew is attainable, but only when compared to other Cold Brews. This is still largely up for debate, but the science looks like it is leaning one way over the other.