Cold brew, they told us. Cold brew is better than iced coffee. It cropped up in coffee shops, on blogs, in grocery stores, and in DIYs on sites like this one. Google searches for both "cold brew" and "cold brew coffee" both peaked in July 2015. The buzz was palpable. You could get a cold-brewed coffee nearly anywhere you went; iced coffee fell from its pedestal. We sneered. We'd found something better, and it was inky-dark and chocolatey tasting. Anyone asking for plain old iced coffee might have been told that the shop only carried cold brew.
But in the past few years, iced coffee seems to be creeping back into beloved status—a return championed by coffee nerds and baristas, though seeming to go buck what the coffee trends had been indicating (i.e. cold brew all the way). Why?
A few weeks ago, I ran into a friend outside of Darleen Scherer's Bushwick, Brooklyn coffee shop Supercrown. "Their coffee is really good—but they don't have cold brew," he said, disappointed. Twenty minutes later, talking to Darleen, she reiterated this: iced coffee only; no cold brew. And she has a real philosophy on why.
But first! We should define some terms. Cold brew is what you get when you grind beans medium-coarse, soak them in cold water for 12 to 24 hours, strain out the grinds, and then dilute the resulting concentrate with water or milk and serve over ice. Iced coffee has a less clear definition, but has traditionally been coffee brewed just as you would were you going to drink it hot, left to chill before adding ice and doctoring to the drinker's preference.
But it should be said that Darleen—and a whole host of other coffee experts who sing the praises of iced coffee over cold brew—aren't making iced coffee that way. "If you brew hot coffee and put it to the side, after 30 minutes, it starts to break down and oxidizes," Darleen told me over the phone. That is, the flavor changes and starts to become what we might call "stale."
To minimize this oxidization, Darleen and other iced coffee lovers have turned to the Japanese method of making iced coffee, wherein ice is substituted for half the water used to make a cup of coffee, and you brew the coffee right over the ice. (So, for example, if you would ordinarily brew a pot of coffee with 600 grams of water, you would instead put 300 grams of ice in the bottom of your Chemex or other pour over method, and pour 300 grams of not-quite-boiling water over the grounds. More on the process here.) This is also the method of choice for Lem Butler, Counter Culture's wholesale customer support—who is fresh from winning the coveted title of 2016 U.S. Barista Champion.
Darleen, who brews a huge variety of beans at Supercrown, chooses to make iced coffee using the Japanese method because "those nuanced flavors come out when you brew with hot water." As a result, Japanese-style iced coffee is fruitier, more acidic, brighter, and more aromatic than cold brew, which she describes as "almost like a rubber mallet" that mutes the flavor of the beans you're brewing with.
This isn't to say that cold brew doesn't taste good—the method makes a drink that's creamy, chocolatey, and rich-tasting. (Lem attributes that creaminess to oxidization.) It's just that when you make cold-brew coffee, you're not so much tasting the nuances of the beans as you are tasting the cold brewing method. Japanese-brewed iced coffee, on the other hand, is "what hot coffee tastes like," said Lem, "but cold."
Ultimately, one isn't necessarily better than the other; as with all things coffee, what you choose to make comes down to what you prefer. That's why Joe Coffee, a chain of coffee shops in New York and Philadelphia, offers both iced coffee and cold brew on their menu. Drinking iced coffee and drinking cold brew are two "totally different experiences," Joe's director of training and quality control, Caleb Ferguson, told me. (He personally prefers iced coffee, which Joe makes by brewing hot coffee and then immediately adding ice—a method slightly different from the Japanese one.)
Caleb suspects that cold brew rose in popularity because it is really easy to drink: It's chocolatey, it's creamy, and it's enjoyable to nearly any palate. Darleen agrees—but also thinks its popularity has to do with the marketing around it. Since cold brew is more stable than hot coffee is, it can be bottled or canned and sold. But Darleen has also noticed a macho spin on cold brew: Many coffee shops are putting it on tap, or infusing it with nitrogen so that it foams up when served, a lot like Guinness. And bottled cold brew? "Stubbies are basically in Red Stripe beer bottles," she said of Stumptown's bottled cold brew.
To see how Darleen's and Caleb's theories sat on a wide range of palates, I made three cups of cold coffee (all served black, with ice) and asked the Food52 team to come sample them without knowing how they were different. Here's how they described them:
Hot coffee left to sit for an hour: "Leftover coffee-tasting—filtery"; "Kind of watery, not very strong, tastes like Starbucks"; "Tastes like watered-down coffee. Not bad. I’d drink it" ; "Tastes bitter, almost like a really strong iced tea" ; "Okay, but thin"
Japanese-style iced coffee: "Toasty and yummy"; "A little burnt smelling, but I like it"; "The integrity of the bean has been maintained"; "Acidic. Smells like there are grounds in it, but tastes good"; "This one smells gooooood!"; "Builds up in flavor—you get a real coffee burst instead of a fade"
Cold brew concentrate, diluted 1:1 with water: "Not bitter at all"; "I like it! Very drinkable"; "Tastes the fanciest"; "Smells really good, like chocolate. Don’t like how it tastes, though—like it has grounds in it. Too rich of a taste"; "This one is super strong! Forward flavor"; "Cinnamony! But mellow"
The winner in our office? Most people voted for the Japanese-style iced coffee—which means that the theories might just be true, even for lovers of cold brew.
This article originally ran in April of 2016.