Cold Brew – The New Kid in The Coffee Cup

Homemade cold brew coffee to drink for breakfast.
Cold brew - a new trend for the beverage industry. Copyright: bhofack2 / 123RF Stock Photo

Having just listened to one of my favourite radio comedies on UK’s Radio 4 “Ed Reardon’s Week” who decides he should become ‘educated’, I also realised that if he wanted to get down with the students, he should be drinking his cold brew coffee on campus. They say that when Starbucks runs out of cold brew, life is wrecked for some-one. In the States, they take to placing their woes on Twitter or Facebook or so the papers claim and coffee is no exception.

It’s an interesting concept- cold brew, which has put iced coffee on the backburner for a while but may well be the same product for anyone who cares. Cold brew is coffee grounds steeped in water at chilled or room temperature, which allows the goodness in the coffee to infuse out. A traditional iced coffee is simply made with hot-brewed coffee that has been cooled down. Connoisseurs say the cold brew method results in a mellower, less acidic coffee and we who get heartburn from coffee tend to find it a little easier to digest. Heating also causes coffee to oxidise and generate those bitter aromas and flavours we rather hate. In some cases the cold steeping can take up to 36 hours if there is to be a decent flavour release. Some experts forego the sugar and cream it’s that good !

So, we have a simple process for manufacture which compared to many other types allows for interesting ranges in intensity and flavour. We also note how there is a merging of the cold and hot beverage concept which is similar to what happened to RTD teas nearly 20 years before. We also see a range of strengths with some claims that the coffee created in an RTD is 70 to 100% stronger otherwise it is offered as a concentrate. The steeping to release caffeine is of interest and in some regulatory circles should be stated on the package.

It really is a beverage for young people, particularly the hipster fraternity and for summer. I guess we just drink hotter versions whilst winter comes round ! The Millennials have also gotten hold of the concept because of its portability and for many, its versatility because its ready-to-drink.

The Speciality Coffee Association of America is keen to emphasise it should be taken seriously rather than as an add-on in this world. It also lends itself to short stubby bottles and fantastic logos.

Apparently, mixing hot water with coffee grounds is the most efficient way to extract its oils, acids and fragrance, all of which contribute to its flavour. Coffee brewed hot will have a stronger flavour and smell but when it’s brewed at a lower temperature, it’s less aromatic or fragrant. More ground coffee is needed if the flavour is to be allowed to come out.

Market Research

Cold brew has been a rapid riser because research published in 2015 by market analysts Mintel found retail sales of ready-to-drink cold brew coffee growing by 115 percent over 2014, and similarly in 2015 which is an extraordinary 339 percent since 2010. And though Mintel found cold brew claims just a 0.4 percent share of the overall ready-to-drink coffee segment, it’s become the main headline in beverage magazines and an increasingly popular choice among millennials. In the USA, current sales level is $7.9 million. It seems though that everyone has yet tried it – a study by the National Coffee Association found that only 15 percent of consumers have sampled it. It would seem there is still a considerable market out there to be tapped. In 2016 through to 2017, the trend for new innovation in this particular sector just seems to keep on growing with an increase based on our market research of growth of 125%.

Nowadays, most cold brew companies offer a concentrate as well as their ready-to-drink (RTD) offering and the flavour range has also shot up. In most cases it is about the coffee and the offer is simple and easy to understand and for that matter to brand. Degrees of bitterness are in the tastebuds of the beholder but it’s generally the case that the less bitter the better. 

There is also a trend to have concentrates available for a kegerator or to nitrogen infuse it so that it is available on tap. That helps extend the range, the shelf-life and the availability. You don’t have to drink in a couple of days when a week is possible.

Preparation: The Traditional Method

Hot brewed coffee is chilled to below 55ºF and then served over ice. Most of the time we add milk and sugar to lessen the bitterness and improve the mouthfeel. This process extracts more flavour so it has a higher flavour intensity with a fuller body. The coffee also has an increased acidity and sourness. The bitter taste is due to the increased temperature of processing.

The downside is that with high temperatures used in brewing, there is a release of undesirable flavour compounds. These can be due to bitter oils and harsh fatty acids. It explains why so many of us need sweeteners with cream or milk to reduce the bitter an acidic bite that comes with this type of iced coffee. 

In analytical terms, traditionally brewed cold coffee has a pH of between 4.3 and 4.8, a total solids content of 1.2 to 1.5 and the caffeine content is anywhere between 90 to 150mg per 8 fl. oz. It all depends on how it is brewed.

Preparation: The Cold Brew Method

A cold brew is as the name suggests a process where cold or room temperature processing and not hot extraction is used to generate extracts. It is ideal for those who want a very traditional raw coffee flavour or just something completely new.

To make cold brew then, coffee beans are ground coarsely, steeped in water held at room temperature or even chilled slightly for 12 to 24 hours, filtered and then cooled further.

The minimum steeping time is 10 hours. Some baristas  steep in a refrigerator, but since water’s viscosity increases slightly when chilled, flavour extraction from the beans slows markedly. Baristas commonly start batches the day before and keep them steeping overnight.

In this process,  it means less of the natural acids are released. That produces a sweeter and smoother, even more rounded flavour profile simply because less of the coffee’s natural acids are released into the brew. So we have a rich aromatic flavour of each type of coffee bean without any of the off-flavours.

Because less flavour extraction occurs, you need more coffee to produce the same degree of flavour impact as the traditional process.

In analytical terms, the pH is between 4.9 and 5.6 which is wide, the total solids is 1.0 to 1.4 and the caffeine content can be anywhere from 90 to 250mg per 8 fl. oz.

The Origin Of The Coffee Beans Truly Influences Flavour

 Where those coffee beans come from has a big bearing on the flavour of cold brew. About six countries produce the type of coffee bean which is ideal for this product. Most brewers choose high grown coffee.

If you choose a Mexican bean then one of the best flavour characteristics for cold brew is the chocolate and cocoa note that comes from this bean. A number of producers in the USA have gone for beans sourced from the Chiapas region and ideally this is a high grown coffee.

Go to Brazil and whilst there are many different varieties, these are generally dry but fruity with a slightly nutty and bitter flavour. It does however have a sweet chocolate note but with a less clean aftertaste. 

We like Colombian coffee beans for their citrusy fruity, almost kiwi berry like notes. These are quite bright notes but with a slightly less obvious thin or light texture. The Sumatran coffee bean is always toasted and earthy, a slightly herbaceous and almost spicy overtone. One effect is to lend cold brew a full body mouthfeel.

Beans of a lesser note in cold brew are from Guatemala which should be better known because they are sweet and fruity, almost cistrusy with a cocoa and chocolate finish. The other is Peruvian which has a moderate to bright acidity, slightly floral and fruity with a light body. 

Product Comparisons

A number of private label and mainstream brands have entered the market place especially in the USA and to a smaller extent the artisanal makers in the UK. Canned coffee is probably the easiest to understand because of its range and is much less weighty compared to the equivalent glass packaging. In late 2016 there was a sudden increase according to Innova Market Insights into nitrogen-infused coffee. There is also strong interest in concentrated versions which are intended for dilution and for different flavour variants. In most cases no caffeine content is ever registered which highlights the variable nature of this particular energy ingredient.

We’ll have a look at a few now.

Full frontal shot of Secret Squirrel's dark Chocolate Mocha cold brew coffee.
Dark Chocolate Mocha cold coffee brew with added milk. Photo courtesy of Secret Squirrel/Kayla Joyce.

The small but growing Anaheim, California based business, Pure Steeps Beverage LLC have their Secret Squirrel brand which offers concentrate and ready-to-drink products. The RTDs include Dark Chocolate Mocha, Caffe Latte and Vietnamese Latte which of course need milk. These are currently available in most of the South-Western states. They use handpicked organic coffee beans which have been roasted before cold brewing for 18 to 24 hours, double filtering to remove as many particulates as possible and then bottled into  dark clear plastic bottles with screw-tops. The offerings are 16 oz. and 32 oz. sizes for their concentrates which means 6 and 12 servings respectively. To achieve the Dark Chocolate Mocha flavour requires some cane sugar for sweetness and to achieve the creaminess in the Vietnamese Latte needs condensed milk.

A full frontal shot of a bottle of Black Coffee cold brew.
Secret Squirrel’s Cold Brew Black Coffee. Photo courtesy of Kayla Joyce/Secret Squirrel.

Moving further East to the other side and you hit Georgia. In Atlanta, we come across Wanderlust Cold Brew Coffee which produces a straightforward, simply marketed product.  They have brought out their ‘bar’ which means their coffee can be served regular or nitro cold brew style for any function. Its a very local offering !

Nitrogen-infused coffee in cans which we earlier mentioned took off in 2016 and have been pioneered by Black Medicine which has produced its Pressure Brewed options. We are not sure if they use just nitrogen gas or a 30:70 mix of nitrogen with carbon dioxide. The head produced depends on the type of gas used. Nitrogen does not dissolve well in solution so we are interested to see how well it creates such a head. Any thoughts ? What we have seen in the US are flavours such as unsweetened iced coffee, iced latte (no added sugar) and iced mocha. All these cans need to be refrigerated but also to enhance the pouring experience and create the smooth stout like head. Incidentally, Black Medicine also produce an unsweetened Concentrate and a Mocha Concentrate in a 10-ounce plastic bottle with screw top. The claim on their iced coffee is that it is 50% ‘stronger’ than a typical brewed coffee with 50% more caffeine.

We also see dairy-free variants with Califia farms Nitro Cold Brew  using the same canning technique.

We also know of cold brew coffee probing the outskirts of the beverage market. Tillamook Creamery produced Tillamook Stumptown Cold Brew Coffee as a high-end premium ice cream with their coffee partners Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland Oregon. Tillamook Creamery is a famous dairy in that state on the coastal road.

N.B. This article contains links to products listed by our affiliate marketing partner. Please read our affiliate disclosure.

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