I once helped make a pretty big change to a pretty big company in the way they brew and sold ice coffee. It was Toddy cold brew all day every day and it was with a blend of coffee that was 50% of each, a lighter and darker roast of Sumatran coffee. Oof. This was around 2004. The coffee online forums were the place to be and Peter Guiliano just did a brain dump of everything he knew about Japanese-style flash chilled ice coffee brewing. Especially with a fruity floral Yirgacheffe, this kind of cup could easily knock over a 24 hour cold brew Sumat blend. No contest! People got super excited with this new juicy way to make ice coffee, it was an easy switch!
Fast forward many years. I held down firm with my ice coffee beliefs. I think I went years and years without tasting a truly great cold brewed coffee. Origin characteristics were lost, nuances were destroyed and everything seemed so similarly “bold.”
One day I was brainstorming with my buddy Nathan, continuing to wonder if there was something about cold brewing that we were missing. Cold brew, despite our snobby lack of backing, continues to be an incredibly popular way to consume not hot coffee. Then we had the idea that maybe we weren’t grinding coarse enough. To really find that limit, I set to do a cold brew of whole bean Yirgacheffe and compare that with brews which used a regular “coarse” grind setting and then a custom setting, which we obtained by recalibrating our grinder so that the coarsest setting was about twice as coarse as normal. Perhaps we would have saved time by breaking out the sledge hammer. Surprisingly, the custom coarser setting wasn’t all that hot. Even more surprising, was how strange and unique this whole bean brew was. I didn’t really like it, but part of me kind of did. Some said it tasted exotic. People did love it, and it was this other people’s love that allowed me to relax. I realized I needed to ease away from this purist vantage point and have fun brewing coffee for people to enjoy.
Since my days with my new company, Kickapoo Coffee, I’ve had some great cups of cold brew coffee, both Toddy and Filtron styles of brews. My first cup was one I had more to be polite, but after that first sip I was excited to taste something other than “orign characteristics.” I tasted coffee. Yes, coffee. Basic coffee flavor. Dare I say, “generic.” It was so great though, sweet like caramelized things, brown sugar with some molasses thickness but all the while clean and refreshing. No stale flavors, not bland nor muddled. Since this cup I’ve been enjoying a small quest to cold brew various coffees and blends at home.
A DIY cold brew effort at home is not the easiest. I’ve made some terrible cups. I’ve come to realize that the small amount of natural sugars that exist in a jar of water and coffee grounds will slowly ferment. I’ve confirmed what I already know about cloth filters being high maintenance or downright impossible to keep clean and odor-free. I’ve become frienimies with that thin thin, nearly invisible layer of fines that will clog your paper filter and choke the filtering of immersion/paper filtered brews, hot and cold. The fines will always win.
When nobody was looking, I added a splash of milk and even a spoonful of sugar, or maple syrup or even ginger simple syrup. If Nick Cho’s happy to publicly flaunt his obsession with Bud Light Lime, I’m happy to accept that in the event of a craving for not hot coffee it’s perfectly fine to enjoy a cold brew whatever.
This doesn’t mean I don’t care though. Cold brew should be QC’d like everything else. If it’s not clean and sweet, if it’s flabby and muddled it might stand to be tweaked. A while ago I was in the back of house of a great restaurant with a great coffee program. They were in the midst of brewing their cold brew cocktail for the next day. What was described to me included, spices, brewed coffee, espresso, cream, and more. I forced a smile and said wow, unsure if something with all of those things could even be “ok.” Once again, I was surprised and thoroughly enjoyed this “cocktail” of sweetness. I’ll admit that when I first heard Blue Bottle’s boxed coffee had spices etc… I quickly wrote it off as not truly coffee, thinking less of it. After tasting this sweet coffee cocktail I described above it dawned on me that it’s probably the closest thing to that Blue Bottle Box. And yes, it was tasty.
Lately this conversation has been delivered many times altered one way or another to keep me socially efficient. Something I always add to it is that beer parallel. We’ve got craft brews and we’ve got domestics to choose from and I think it’s not surprising to hear me compare some coffee drinks to domestic beers and other forms of coffee consumption to craft brews. I’m not going to elaborate because I don’t think it’s necessary. What I will do is invite whatever purist in you to relax a bit. Even if there’s literally no way you’re going to admit a given low-qual product is “good,” don’t deny it the ability to experiment new realities that might surprise you.