I first wrote about better iced coffee a few years back for The Atlantic when the upgraded stuff was first moving from an abstract idea onto the radar of discerning, everyday coffee drinkers. The espresso revolution of the past two decades had awakened Americans to better coffee of the hot kind as daily joy and expectation, rather than a hit-or-miss proposition. Those better-developed palates were growing weary of substandard iced coffee. Where “pour over” meant not an open filter cone and glass carafe, but rather, the unforgiveable act of pouring hot coffee over ice cubes and pushing it across a counter; or, pulling a bulk container out of a fridge without understanding the dynamics of coffee gone cold.
While reliable growth data is hard to come by, anecdotal evidence of better cold coffee’s upward trajectory over the past few years abounds. Cold brew, the method of choice for new-breed American aficionados and wildly popular in Japan for years, has gone from behind the bar to retailers’ shelves with bottled cold brew from the likes of Stumptown and La Colombe available outside those high-end chains’ own shops. My own company’s illy issimo ready-to-drink coffee has become a worldwide hit with growing placement in refrigerated aisles.
With iced coffee season hitting full stride, let us hit the reset button on types and methods starting with cold brew and a definition of terms. The name “cold brew” is often wrongly applied to another method called cold steeping. The two are closely related, each relying on time rather than heat to perform the magic of extraction and creating a beverage with more caffeine per ounce owing to long extraction times. Both produce something less aromatic than heat-based methods, which coax certain elements from beans that cold methods cannot. The tradeoff, however, can be wonderful: an almost sweet concentrate, often chocolaty, clear tasting, and neither acidic nor bitter.
Cold brewing is somewhat akin to filter coffee, and it requires special gear ranging from $45 to the hundreds of dollars and beyond. The other investment: coffee, where you’ll need twice the typical amount per ounce of water for typical drip coffee. In a nutshell, ice-cooled water drips from the upper part of a glass tower. A valve regulates its speed, which is ideally one drop per second, and a spiral-shaped pipe before running over ground coffee housed in a clear cylinder covered by thin tissue or filter paper. From there, a second filter prevents the grinds from entering the next section of pipe, from which finished liquid drips and collects in the tower’s base.
Expect to invest 12-16 hours in cold brewing, making it best done overnight. You can shave a little time by using a very coarse grind, but it is at the risk of losing some nice aromas. Practice makes perfect, so if you are just starting out, then give your staff time to get it right. With the July and August heat still to come, there is plenty of time to get ready and reap the rewards of the higher margins that cold brew typically commands.
Cold steeping, on the other hand, is extraction by infusion. This method does not take much in the way of fancy equipment. Simply mix cold water and ground coffee, stir gently, and let it steep in the fridge or at room temperature. For fridge preparation, steep for the same 12-16 hours as for cold brewing.
Room temperature steeping opens up the door to high volume preparation when it is done in containers up to five gallons, such as commercial size Toddy, otherwise it may be unfit for well-stocked, non-walk-in fridges. This subset of steeping extracts flavors a little more rapidly, bringing prep time down closer to 12 hours, perhaps slightly less.
After cold water or room temp steeping is complete, simply strain, and filter. If it sounds akin to French press, indeed it is, and press pots are well suited to the task. Accordingly, use a coarser grind and do not stint on the beans. You will need about twice the amount than the basic one-gram of coffee per ounce of water recommended for hot French press preparation. The Toddy device that I mentioned earlier works very well and it is a great value at roughly two dollars per jar.
What About the Beans?
You many have noticed that I have not made any declarations about beans. And that is because, crazy as it may sound from a barista, for cold brewing and cold steeping bean quality and type are not nearly as critical as in hot coffee. Cold water does not extract compounds to nearly the same degree as water almost at a boil, so by definition, many fewer good aromatic components will be extracted. What this means is that you get to save your best beans for hot methods. For sure use good quality, not overly roasted Arabica, and enjoy the extra margin you will earn.
Cold brewing and steeping may not be for you, perhaps due to the time involved, or maybe because you love highlighting the differences among bean origins in every cup. In that case, I strongly recommend using an iced tea brewer for more traditional iced coffee, making sure to use a dedicated basket and carafe, making a concentrate in bulk from hot coffee, and then chilling instantly by adding water and ice to lock in aromas and flavors. This method also requires a high coffee-to-water ratio. Start by doubling coffee and then adjust from there. Use a moderately coarse grind, somewhere in between that for brewed and French press, keep it in the fridge until room temp, pour it over ice, add dairy, and other desired ingredients if needed.
For espresso-based cold beverages, the key is instantly pouring your shot over a certain amount of ice cubes, calibrated to the traditional Italian preparations methods, the “shakerato” (northern Italy) and the “espressino” (southern Italy), to lock in aroma and flavor like with non-espresso brewed iced coffee.
For the shakerato, fill a cocktail shaker with ice cubes (better from the freezer rather than from the ice-machine), add sugar to taste, and then the shots. Shake it vigorously and serve, being sure to strain the ice. For the espressino, simply pull your shot over three or four very solid ice cubes (again, from freezer and not machine). Sweeten it with simple syrup or a liquid sugar substitute for full dissolving and have extra fun by adding a variety of liquors for simple coffee cocktails.
My best wishes for a flavorful — and profitable — summer!
Giorgio Milos is illy’s award-winning Master Barista and illy’s North American Barista in Residence who regularly ventures beyond the cup to study the biology and chemistry of the coffee bean, continually striving to master the beverage that is his passion and profession.