It’s unsurprising that, for most people, the concept of cold coffee has long been associated with huge coffee chains, vats of whipped cream, sweet artificial syrups and other such miseries. This summer, however, the great city of New York introduced me to the cold brew method – a very different, far more refined creature that made me realise the unique magic of cold coffee, just in time for the pleasant English summer.
We have it easy, believe me; the crowds and sweat of New York City in the height of summer are no joke. It’s dangerously hot; so much so that long, cold coffee is not so much a component of the daily summer routine as it is tool for survival.
My first experience of cold coffee in America wasn’t all that great, however; an iced coffee – a very different thing from cold brew, which we’ll cover shortly – from a bodega in Bushwick, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn. It was cheap (a dollar, in fact) and over-bitter, so as I dragged myself through the blistering heat, sipping slowly and grimacing, I cursed all those who’d gotten my hopes up.
The next day, however, I was taken to a nearby café for breakfast, and a “proper” cold coffee. I ordered a warm bagel stuffed with cream cheese and tomatoes and dripping with hot sauce, and a black “cold brew” coffee. It was served in the same clear plastic cup as the previous day’s disappointment, with the end of the paper wrapper covering the protruding end of the straw (as is the style), and over ice. I sipped, and gasped – it was subtly sweet, rich in flavor but not overwhelming, ice-cold but far from watery, utterly refreshing, and boy, was it delicious and absolutely unlike anything I’d ever tasted.
Glorying in the respite from the heat, I chatted to the chaps running the café about the process, and, of course, it turned out to be as simple as great coffee should be: cold-brewed coffee is literally ground coffee steeped in cold water, and iced coffee is generally brewed hot and poured over ice. Elementary.
The difference in flavour brought about by the brew is immense. Iced coffee is a fast process, but has to be brewed stronger than standard coffee because of the dilution caused by the hot liquid over the rapidly melting ice. This often makes it more bitter, because of the intensity of the flavour-extraction from the beans by the hot water. Cold brew, on the other hand, takes a solid 18-24 hours, but the much gentler infusion process produces a drink of lower acidity, which is why cold brew coffee is naturally sweeter. It can also be served over ice without such extreme dilution because it’s already cold. For these reasons, cold brewing is generally regarded as the better method for producing cold coffee.
There are a couple of home methods for this, and they are all variants of a basic formula: cold water, coarse grounds, and an overnight brew. Changing a variable will produce slightly different results, from a longer brew or stronger coffee-to-water ratio producing a stronger cup, and a finer grind producing a cloudier drink.
There are things you can buy designed for the cold-brew process, such as the monstrous Yama Drip Tower – something you may have seen act as the centerpiece in trendy cafes. This fascinatingly intricate invention, while absolutely delightful to look at in a very Wallace-and-Gromit way, is actually absolutely unnecessary for home brewing (unless you really do have a glut of cash and space). The other, far more practical, tool is the highly regarded Toddy system – the Volvo of cold-brew methods. Like its hot-brew cousin, the AeroPress, the Toddy is ugly as sin, affordable, remarkably simple in process and produces a consistently superb cup of coffee. You can even brew cold in a cafetière (or French press, to our American friends) by following the guide below and simply pressing down with the plunger after the brew is finished – the only negatives being how much you can make at one time and the effectiveness of the steel filter.
However, you actually needn’t buy anything to brew cold coffee at home, as you probably have everything for a DIY version already: all you really need is a big jar, a big bowl, a sieve, and either a sheet of muslin or a roll of paper towel.
How to cold-brew coffee at home
Set your grinder to its most coarse setting, and check its output before doing the full grind – you are looking for roughly the same consistency as breadcrumbs. Any finer and you risk cloudy, grimy-tasting coffee.
Sterilise a large mason jar (or any large receptacle with a lid). Working to roughly a 1:8 coffee-to-water ratio, place your grounds in the bottom of the jar, and cover with cold water.
Stir gently until well combined, cover, and leave to steep for 18-24 hours, either in or out of the fridge.
When brewed, strain into a large bowl through a sieve to remove the larger grounds. Discard these (ideally into compost), and then, tucking either your muslin or a few sheets of paper towel into the cleaned sieve, strain back into the jar.
Repeat two or three times, until you are seeing no murky residue at the bottom as you finish your pour. If you cannot seem to sift it all out, don’t worry – it simply means your grind was too fine. Practice makes perfect with these things.
Serve over ice, with milk and sugar if that’s your thing (I’m not a fan of either, but the white stuff sure looks pretty as it combines). Cover and refrigerate the rest – the wonderful thing about this stuff is that, if stored properly, it will stay good for a month due to the low acidity in the brew.
You can also do wonderful things with your cold brew, like the Coffee stout (1:12 coffee-to-Guinness). Check out a few ideas from Grady’s – Brooklyn’s famous cold-brew specialists.
Be sure to enjoy in the sun, and hey, let me know if you have any other methods for serving your cold brew – I’m all ears!