Cold brew is the hottest coffee in town. Nobody with their travel mug screwed on straight could possibly claim otherwise. But beyond this most basic of points, confusion abounds and misperceptions rage. Come follow the bouncing bean as we set the record straight about this coolest of coffees.
Let’s begin by obliterating the myth that just won’t die: Cold brew coffee is not iced coffee. It’s a method of preparing coffee that can then be used to make iced coffee and hot coffee, too. Not all iced coffee is made from cold brew, and not all cold brew is used to make iced coffee.
Cold brewing is both simple and not. It’s made by soaking ground beans in cold water for hours and filtering the result. That’s it. Yet variations in the amount and type of beans used, their grind, the quantity of water, and the length of time these elements spend together result (for better and sometimes worse) in a wide spectrum of different flavors, which makes cold brew part science and more than a little art.
Here’s your science: coffee’s bitter qualities come from its acidic compounds and oils. And those things need hot water to dissolve out of the bean and into your cup. Because cold brew is created with cold water, most of those acids and oils stay trapped in the grounds. Freed from that bitterness, cold brew tastes smoother, sweeter, richer, fruitier, and more chocolaty than traditional coffee, and flavor differences between different bean types become clearer.
One study found that cold brew is two-thirds less acidic than hot-brewed. Since acids also tend to numb our tongues, we end up tasting even more of cold brew’s coffee essence in their absence. Many also find that less acid means cold brew is easier on the stomach, and doesn’t need as much (if any!) cream and sugar.
Cold brew is happily concentrated. While your mileage may vary, most recipes produce roughly double-strength results. That’s why cold brew is often used for iced coffee—adding ice won’t water it down to insipidness and instead merely mellows it as you sip.
All this flavor has another advantage: Unlike hot-brewed, it won’t change over time. You’ll never get that ugly burned taste, and it won’t go stale as it cools because it was cool to begin with. You can savor it hot without bitterness and keep it in the fridge for as long as month without disappointment. That’s helpful because less acid and more flavor make cold brew ideal for baked goods, marinades, and cocktails in ways hot coffee isn’t.
On the downside, forget about that deliciously seductive hot-coffee aroma. It’s not happening. And cold brew takes a lot more beans to make than hot-brewed. Time, too, and that combination is why cold brew costs more than other coffees.
Is the trade-off worth it? That’s a question few who taste this magical balm ever ask. It’s coffee as coffee was meant to be, and that’s just the kind of cup we crave.