Good iced coffee is one of life’s greatest pleasures. The best varieties are silky, robust, and simple to enjoy black, and they may be worth the price (typically $4 for a 16-ounce cup). Cold brew coffee is no longer a niche product, however. The name and brewing process of cold brew have been adopted by Dunkin’ Donuts, Tim Hortons, and that other multinational coffee chain. You can also find it in the grocery store’s beverages section, with bottled or canned options from Grady’s, Stok, and Starbucks.
But how similar are these packaged items to their counterparts in coffee shops?
Obviously, there are some obvious distinctions: Store-bought cold brew is frequently modified with sugar, flavourings, or dairy or plant-based milk, whereas coffee shop cold brew is almost always served black and unsweetened by default. A 48 oz bottle of Stok cold brew costs between $5 and $6 at retailers such as Target or Walmart, whereas a single 8 oz bottle of undiluted Grady’s or Stumptown cold brew can cost up to $4 at Whole Foods or your local market.
What about the flavour? Others consider the taste of store-bought cold brew to be a major sticking point, whereas many individuals, such as the author Jesse Hirsch, who, as he explained via email, essentially buys whatever is cheapest, value over quality.
Amanda Reece, a regular consumer of cold brew, stated via email that the quality of store-bought cold brew varies greatly depending on the brand, whereas coffee shop cold brew is almost always of high quality. “Cold brew made in coffee shops typically has more complex flavour notes, whereas cold brew purchased from stores is almost always flavourless.”
Comparing good and bad cold brew
Good cold brew may be worth the higher price, but bad cold brew is, well, pretty rough.
“Drinking whisky out of a dirty shoe” is how Jenna Gotthelf, National Wholesale Education Manager at Counter Culture Coffee in North Carolina, describes bad cold brew. This is frequently the result of oxidation, Gotthelf explained, or “from ageing.”
Reece stated, “The worst cold brews I’ve tried typically taste like old coffee or earthy in the worst way.”
However, this “whisky from a dirty shoe” flavour may not be the fault of the brand. Gotthelf stated, “You could purchase a cold brew that began excellently but is still on the shelves after its sell-by date.”