Ice-Cold Java Revolution
Steeped in the past, cold-brew coffee is the beverage du jour.
The latest trend in the world of coffee is cold brew, finding popularity all over the country from specialty independent roasters to household names like Starbucks. While cold-brew coffee is by no means a new way of sipping java, it took a while to gain popularity in the United States, and only in very small pockets and increments. Those who have been the biggest proponents of the trend have one major thing in common: a love of coffee. “I had my eyes opened to the possibilities of coffee in the early nineties, working in a coffee shop in Missoula, Montana,” says Joel Pollock, owner of Panther Coffee in Miami, Florida. “I realized I had a pretty decent palate because I was able to describe the differences in coffees pretty clearly. Within six months, I got offered the position of roaster at this little company, and as an eighteen-year-old, I was super excited about it.”
To truly understand cold brew, it’s important to recognize what it is and what it isn’t. First of all, it doesn’t use heat, a method as old as bean consumption itself, which dates back to the Bronze Age. Early brewing methods left the grounds in the cup during consumption, a practice still seen in Arabic and Turkish brews, and when the drink made its way to Europe, filters and milk were added. Today, there are dozens of ways to brew coffee, from drip-filters to Bunsen burner vacuum pots.
Cold brew also isn’t iced coffee, which uses hot or chilled espresso-based coffee, served over ice and often mixed with milk and syrup. So why is cold brew different? The grounds are left to steep in room-temperature water anywhere from nine to twenty-four hours, depending on each brewer’s preference. The result is a concentrated coffee product, which is then diluted with water and served chilled or iced.
“Without the heat, you don’t get so much of that high acidity, you just get a hint of it,” says Pollock. “That’s one of the things that’s different, and the other thing is we have access to a lot of really chocolaty, sweet coffees that really lend themselves to that brewing process.”
While this method may seem revolutionary, it’s actually old news to the Japanese. Cold brew, also known as Kyoto coffee, has been popular in Japan since the seventeenth century. Many believe that Dutch traders from Indonesia introduced them to the method. They possibly made cold-brew concentrates for long sea treks, which they would later reheat or serve cold.
In the United States, it might never have caught on if not for two things: First, coffeehouses started serving it cold, offering smoothness and strength with flavors shining through far better than iced coffee; and second, third-generation roasters started avidly sourcing quality coffee. With a farm-to-cup philosophy, they aimed to work with farmers personally and source beans directly from them.
“In 2000, I moved to Portland and I had a couple of jobs, and ended up working at a very prominent coffee company, and we were considered leaders of this new movement in coffee,” says Pollock. “I started traveling to coffee producing nations, I went to Bolivia, Brazil, and Honduras in the same year and it just completely opened my eyes. I had never been to Latin America before and it continued to inspire me to want to participate, to feel at home in this industry.”
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the popularity of cold brew without mentioning Stumptown Coffee Roasters, who introduced the beverage in its now iconic stubby bottle in March 2011. Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, and making up one of the “Big Three”—the coffee industry leaders, which also includes Intelligentsia and Counter Culture—the company helped popularize the method, and over the past few years shows no sign of slowing down—in March of 2015, Starbucks added cold-brew coffee to its menu.
As for the future of cold brew, some think nitrogen is where it’s at, a method that allows you to enjoy coffee like beer: cold, bubbly, and with a thick head of foam. Stumptown started experimenting with draft-style cold brew in 2013 in their shops, and in 2015 they released a canned version of the nitro cold brew, no tap required. Panther Coffee has also been playing with the new method.
“It’s interesting because [the nitrogen] enhances the body, it changes the drink a little bit,” says Pollock. “I was a little skeptical at first because I thought it was going to carbonate the coffee, but it doesn’t. Something about that nitrogen just enhances the body and makes it creamy, and it’s really pleasant so I think that’s something that we will be playing with a lot here, too.”
Whether the future of cold brew is nitrogen or not, one thing is for certain: those who really care about coffee can expect more great things.
“For us, it’s about continuing to experiment and keep tasting—you never want to figure out that you’ve arrived,” remarks Pollock. “There’s a lot that continues to happen and creative ideas that are floating around, and the only way to test that stuff is to taste it.”
Oh, The Varieties
Just getting started on your coffee journey and don’t know where to begin? Here are a few top varieties to get acclimated with, whether you’re going for hot, cold, or nitro brew.
Sweet, complex, and lush in taste, the plants are fragile and produce less than other varieties, but the taste is well worth the effort.
These are wildflower varieties, which means they descend from the coffee forests of southwestern Ethiopia.
With a delicate, black-tea taste, this coffee is picky and will only grow in tiny microclimates.
Floral and light, you might even get a hint of citrus. Brought to Indonesia in the seventeenth century by Dutch traders, look out for notes of plums, apricots, and peaches.
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