Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but three words run through my head whenever I make cold-brew coffee: What. A. Waste.
The words first worm their way into my brain when I measure out the beans for a recipe. To put it bluntly, cold brew is a bean hog, demanding twice the amount of grounds (and often more) than your typical batch of hot-brewed coffee. I can’t help but cringe after committing an entire 12-ounce bag of freshly roasted, single- origin beans to a drink that deprives me of at least two fundamental coffee pleasures: a warming heat and a small wave of bitterness for balance.
Which brings me to the second moment those three words pop up: when I’m dumping the bucket of spent grounds into the trash and taking my first sip of diluted cold brew. (Yes, I know, you can spread the grounds in your garden or dump them in your compost pile, but as a dude who eats out 99.5 percent of the time, I have neither.) Without warmth and a bitter backbone, cold brew frequently has all the pleasure of drinking room-temperature beer without hops.
Don’t worry. This isn’t a rant against cold brew. I’m just stating my bias upfront, so you know how high a mountain I had to climb to develop a recipe that I would actually make again. I’m not alone in this bias. Underneath its hip and placid facade, the specialty coffee industry secretly squirms with baristas, roasters and the like who reject cold brew, even as they sell house-made versions to customers who swear by the drink’s smooth, chocolaty flavors.
“Yeah, we just don’t like it,” laughs Ryan Jensen, co-owner of Peregrine Espresso with his wife, Jill.
“When you brew it cold, you’re not going to get the same acidity, the good acidity or the same fruit flavors” of hot-brewed coffee. Jensen adds. “You end up with a different beverage. . . . It just doesn’t hit all the marks for me.”
Cold brew should not be confused with iced coffee. The former is brewed in a large container with cold (or room temperature) water and a ton of coarsely ground beans over a long period, typically between 12 and 24 hours. The low-temperature water and the long steep tend to create a sweet, low-acid drink without much of the bitterness common to hot-brewed coffee, which is why so many love cold brew. It’s the milk chocolate of coffee.
Iced coffee is a different animal altogether. It’s usually prepared in one of two ways: One is brewed with a lower ratio of grounds to water than with a typical pour-over; the resulting hot coffee is then immediately dumped into a pitcher of ice. The other version — the one preferred by countless baristas — is the Japanese method, in which hot coffee is brewed in a pour-over system directly into a carafe filled with a precise amount of ice.
The benefit of the Japanese method, its supporters argue, is that it gives you the full range of coffee flavors (unlike cold brew, which extracts fewer) without diluting the concentrated coffee with an ungodly amount of ice (as the other iced-coffee method does).
But I am not concerned with iced coffee. I wanted to tackle the tougher challenge of cold brew.
So I collected recipes and tools to make home batches. The odds are good that your local specialty coffee shop relies on a Toddy system to make its cold brew, but I found that in consumer tests, the Oxo Cold Brew Coffee Maker often outperforms the Toddy. So I got my hands on both. (The truth is, you don’t need either; with the proper ratio of water to coffee, you can make cold brew in a French press; see the sidebar.)
The ratios were the first things to alarm me about cold brew. Once I started breaking down the numbers in recipes I solicited from Swing’s Coffee in Alexandria and Colony Club in the District and comparing them with recipes supplied by Oxo and Toddy, I was taken aback by how much coffee was needed for cold brew. The average ratio of water to grounds was about 6 to 1. Compare that to the generally accepted ratio for hot-brewed coffee, which is about 16 to 1. You begin to understand my alarm.
But, as you probably know already, cold brew is a concentrate, not a ready-to-drink beverage (although I’ll have more to say about that in a second). Most people cut it with one to three parts water, milk, cream or ice. This very act, of course, dramatically dilutes the flavors extracted in the long steeping process, which is one reason Joel Finkelstein, owner and roaster of Qualia Coffee in Petworth, relies on a blend of coffees for his cold brew. He’s more interested in a cold brew with a consistent body and sweetness than one with unique flavors that will be diluted with cream or milk.
“People who want cold brew want it to taste similar over time,” Finkelstein says. “They don’t want it to constantly change.”
This was not my approach. I wanted a flavorful, distinctive cold brew, the kind you would prefer to drink straight or at least poured over one of those spherical ice cubes that melts slower than the devil’s heart. I brewed a variety of beans, all freshly roasted and ground: a light roast from Honduras Comsa; naturally processed (or fermented) coffee from Brazil Carmo de Minas; a dark roast from El Salvador San Miguel; a naturally processed coffee from Costa Rica San Diego; a naturally processed coffee from Ethiopia Banko Dhadhato; and a medium-dark roast from Sumatra Dolok Sanggul.
The dark roast from El Salvador was the only clunker, an intense, moody liquid that steeped for 24 hours in the OXO brewer. It had some dark-chocolate sweetness but mostly tasted like the inside of a roaster’s drum. The natural coffee from Brazil, steeped 13 hours in the Toddy, provided the most unusual drinking experience: Uncut with milk or water, it had an almost bourbonlike quality. The medium-dark roast from Sumatra, steeped 12 hours in the Toddy, was excellent when cut with one part cream, which played down the cold brew’s roastiness and emphasized its fruitiness.
But my favorite, and the one I would drink again, was the cold brew made from the natural Costa Rican beans. I loved it on first sip. I drank it straight, and it tasted like chocolate-covered grapes, like the kind made famous by the late Michel Richard, chef, owner and genius behind Citronelle and Central. Even when diluted with just one part water, its pleasures were diminished. I would drink this cold brew only over a large sphere of ice.
The Costa Rica coffee came from Qualia, and when I told Finkelstein the results of my test, he was not surprised.
“That coffee has a crisp and bright berry note versus the often fermenty notes with a lot of natural-process coffee,” he said via email. “I like naturals for cold brew, at least as a component, but they also tend toward the sour. The balance of acidity with light body (that is accentuated in cold brew) and clean fruit in the Costa Rica is what, I think, makes it come across nice in cold brew.”
Then Finkelstein dropped the bomb: He was nearly out of the Costa Rica, which just underscores the problem of creating a cold-brew recipe with single-origin beans. They’re seasonal. They don’t stick around long. The roaster said his naturally processed coffee from Colombia will likely make a good replacement. But based on my limited tests, I found all naturals produced idiosyncratic cold brews, each emphasizing a different fruit — sometimes strawberry, sometimes orange, sometimes blueberry.
These kind of coffees are, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, a natural for cold brew.
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