What Is Cold Brew Coffee? It’s Not Iced Coffee – And It’s Not Always Cold

Marketers spend a lot of time searching for new “hooks” with which to advertise their products: “New and Improved!” “Twice the Cleaning Power!” “Now With [sciency-sounding ingredient]!”

Another common marketing approach is to tout a landmark new process or feature: “Better Living Through Chemistry!”  “First With 5G!” “Ice beer!” “Bluetooth-enabled!”

The new product being advertised may or may not be exactly the same as the old one (some ice beers are actually quite good), but some of the claims may simply be dumb. Honestly, who really needs a Bluetooth-enabled toothbrush? And even if the improvement or feature really is something special, repeated exposure to marketing hype makes consumers less likely to pay attention to it.

Beverages are certainly front-and-center when it comes to marketing claims. “No calories, same great taste!” and “Tastes Great, Less Filling!” immediately come to mind.

So what do we make of relatively new and heavily advertised products like cold brew coffee? Is it something special, or just a marketing term for iced coffee?

Here’s the truth: cold brew coffee isn’t really new, it’s just new to America. It’s a completely different beverage than iced coffee. And like ice beer, it can be really darned good.

Let’s unravel the story behind cold brew.

What Makes Cold Brew Coffee and Iced Coffee So Different

We all know how to make an iced coffee. Prepare your favorite brew (or the easiest one to make, depending on how much time you have), pour it over ice, and you’re done. Or, of course, just visit any local restaurant or drive-thru; they all make it. Ahhh. Pouring coffee into a cup of ice makes it a refreshing summertime beverage.

Cold brew coffee isn’t iced coffee, though. It usually isn’t served over ice. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be served cold.

That’s because “cold brew” doesn’t refer to the way that coffee is served or the temperature it’s served at. “Cold brew” simply describes the actual brewing method.

How Coffee is Cold Brewed

You start in the usual way, with ground coffee beans. After that, everything changes.

First of all, forget about the boiling water. You don’t even need hot water. Cold brew gets its name from the fact that it’s made with either cold or room temperature water. The ground coffee is left to steep in the water for at least twelve hours (many companies steep it for 16-24 hours), and then filtered to remove the sediment. What’s left is a very flavorful coffee concentrate.

Think of the process as being similar to making sun tea on your back porch, but without the sun – and without the porch, since there a number of cold brew coffee makers like the Oxo, the Filtron and the Toddy. 

What’s the point of cold brewing?

Well, it’s certainly easier to make cold brew coffee than hot brew, since you just put the coffee into cold water and let it sit; it just takes more time for the finished product to be ready. More importantly, the taste and body of coffee depend on the solids that are dissolved in it; steeping coffee for 12+ hours maximizes those solids, particularly the extracted coffee oils.

Cold brewing results in a smoother, richer coffee, with less acidity and more sweetness than a hot cup of coffee. One self-funded study by Toddy shows that cold brew has between one-third and one-half the acid of regular coffee. That’s a huge benefit for those with IBS, heartburn or other gastrointestinal problems. One important qualifier: the acid’s only reduced if the coffee isn’t over-extracted.

There’s another good reason to try cold brewing. Coffee’s flavor normally changes over time, because temperature changes affect the liquid’s chemistry. Cold brew has never been exposed to hot temperatures, so it’s a more-stable solution which should taste just as good several days after you make it, unlike bitter day-old coffee that’s essentially undrinkable.

And if you’re comparing cold brewed coffee to traditional iced coffee, perhaps the best advantage is the most obvious one: cold brew won’t get watered down when the ice melts.

However, one often-claimed advantage for cold brewed coffee apparently isn’t true. Proponents and manufacturers say that there are more antioxidants in cold brew, but researchers at Thomas Jefferson University have found that the levels of healthy antioxidants in cold brewed coffee and drip coffee are just about the same. In fact, hot coffee has more antioxidant properties than cold brew when dark roast beans are used.

To dispel another widely-held belief while we’re at it, cold brew doesn’t necessarily have more caffeine than espresso. Caffeine levels are completely dependent on the beans you use and how you make your coffee.

Even so, properly-brewed cold brew is a terrific coffee. Where did it come from, and why did it take so long to get here?

The Background of Cold Brew Coffee

The first record of cold brewed coffee shows that it was being made in Japan about five hundred years ago, and that the drink was especially popular in Kyoto where it became known as Kyoto coffee. The Japanese supposedly didn’t originate the technique, though. It’s said that they learned it from Dutch traders, who created cold brew as a way to transport large amounts of coffee on their trips from Indonesia to Japan.

Cold brew has flourished in Japan ever since. One artistic and popular technique used there involves water being dripped through the grounds drop by drop. It’s called Kyoto-style coffee and it’s terrific, if you have the time to make it or wait for it to be made.

There’s limited evidence of cold brewing in Indonesia and Latin America after that, and the concept of concentrating coffee for transport was used by armies around the world in the following centuries. Notably, a beverage called Mazagran was supplied to those in the 19th century French Foreign Legion (and named after the fortress where they were stationed); it was sweet coffee concentrate that was mixed with cold water before being drunk. The legionnaires supposedly brought the idea back to France with them, where cafés are said to have served it.

How did we get from there to today’s ubiquitous cold brew coffee? A nursery owner (with a chemical engineering background) says that he’s responsible. Todd Simpson was visiting Latin America in 1964 when he tasted a delicious cold coffee concentrate. After he returned to the States, he invented the Toddy cold brew system still being used in restaurants and coffee shops today, as well as a home brewing version.

Starbucks, Dunkin’ and an enormous number of coffee shops took it from there – and cold brew became a “thing.” A good one, too.

What is Nitro Cold Brew?

It’s rare when someone doesn’t try to improve on an innovation. In the case of cold brew, that happened around 2010. Credit for inventing nitro cold brew is variously given to three different coffee shops: The Queen’s Kickshaw in New York, Cuvee Coffee in Austin, and Stumptown in Portland, Oregon.

No matter who was first, Starbucks hopped on the bandwagon in 2016 and nitro cold brew became a big deal to coffee drinkers. Now, you can pick up nitro cold brew coffee concentrate at your local grocery store.

Exactly what is nitro cold brew? It’s cold brewed coffee that’s been infused with nitrogen gas. In short, the nitrogen creates a brew that’s even smoother and sweeter than regular cold brew, and creamy like a latte with a thick, foamy head on top. 

This is one of the harder coffee drinks to make at home, of course, since few people have the equipment needed to infuse coffee with nitrogen. But if you fall in love with it and have one or two thousand bucks to spare, you can buy professional-style gear on Amazon. There are also less expensive units that cost $100-200 and come fairly close to producing nitro cold brew.

It’s a lot easier just to make regular cold brew coffee at home, though.

How to Make Your Own Cold Brew Coffee

You’ve probably gotten the idea that making good cold brew coffee is pretty simple. You’re right.

  1. Start with a large pitcher (two quarts is big enough) or a Mason jar. You can also use a French press to hold the coffee and water.
  2. Next, add your ground coffee; if you have your own grinder, coarse ground is best.
  3. Add cold water, in a three-to-one water-to-coffee ratio. In other words, use three cups of water for each cup of ground coffee. This coffee/water ratio is important.
  4. Cover and shake the container so the grounds are fully-saturated.
  5. Let the mixture steep at room temperature or in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours. Don’t let it steep for longer than that.
  6. Filter out the sediment with a coffee filter. Paper filters or cheesecloth stretched over a mesh sieve or strainer will work fine.

That’s all there is to it. Just remember that you’ll end up with coffee concentrate, so it may require dilution with water, or if you desire, milk (or nut milk). You can also put ice into a glass and use the cold brew as a pour-over. One hint: granulated sugar won’t dissolve in cold brew, so if you want to add a sweetener, use liquid sugar. Another hint: it’s also delicious when heated up. Don’t worry, heat won’t destroy the characteristics of cold brew once it’s been made.

Cold brew concentrate can be used for more than a beverage, too. It’s smoother than regular coffee when used in baking recipes – and for a real treat, try making some cold brew coffee ice cream. You’ll thank us later.

Fact Checked by Jordan DeCicco

Written by Joel Fuster

4 min read

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