What is Cold Brew Coffee and Why You Ought to Know
Smooth and less bitter than drip coffee and iced coffee, cold brew is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States.
Sales have more than tripled since 2015, with sales expected to reach almost $372 million this year, and almost a billion dollars in 2025. That’s a lot of $4 coffee, the going price for a 20-ounce cup at Starbucks. A 40-ounce container of Stok’s cold brew coffee costs almost $5 at the grocery store.
What is cold brew coffee? Is it really that different from iced coffee? How do people get so hooked on it? Sometimes it just takes that first Starbucks cold brew, and they are all in. It’s that good.
“Hot coffee takes too long to drink and there are so many ways it can go wrong. Cold brew is more consistent and I can drink it right away,” said Susan O’Neil, a project coordinator for the city of Chicago. “I drink 20 to 40 ounces a day since I stopped drinking soda.”
With the majority of commercial cold brew sold in plastic containers, why add more plastic to the environment? Reduce waste and get better taste when you make cold brew coffee at home.
What is Different about Cold Brew Coffee Anyway?
What is cold brew? It is deceptively simple. Cold brew is coffee made from water and ground coffee. Instead of brewing it hot, a concentrate is made by steeping the grounds in water for 8 or more hours. Then it is filtered and ready to thin with water or milk, and enjoyed hot or cold. Coffee shops often use a 1:4 ratio of concentrate to water.
The charm of cold brew is the absence of acid. Not only does cold brew have a smoother feel while you drink it, no acid means it is less bitter and the other natural flavors are more pronounced. Cold brew also allows added flavors to really shine. Some coffee drinkers might find cold brew bland without the complexity of the acid.
Does cold brew coffee have more caffeine? Depends on who you ask. Coffee retailers claim it does, but drilling into the details often shows that they are referring to the cold brew concentrate, which gets further diluted for the drink.
Hot brewed coffee grounds have more of everything extracted because of the heat: flavors, acid and caffeine. Cold brew doesn’t extract as much as all of these because the ratio of coffee to water is higher. People drink larger servings of cold brew than hot coffee.
Decaf coffee drinkers need not despair — you can make cold brew with decaffeinated coffee beans. It is much better tasting than the aged hot decaf coffee poured over ice that you usually end up getting from a shop.
How is Cold Brew Coffee Different from Iced Coffee?
Iced coffee is hot coffee cooled down. It might have been brewed hours before, and then refrigerated, or poured over ice to serve. Since it was hot brewed, all of the oils and acids in the coffee beans are extracted and end up in the brew.
Cold brew is more expensive to buy at a coffeehouse because it requires more attention. Calculating the right amount to make for the next day without running out too early requires trial and error.
“We use a specific coffee for our cold brew (Vesuvio blend from Batdorf auf Bronson),” says Teresa Vidal Chalkley, owner of The Chelsea St. Pete, a coffeehouse that opened in the middle of the pandemic in St. Petersburg, Florida. “There is a pound of coffee to a gallon of nice spring water, with a little bit of minerals in it. Then we filter it with bamboo and cloth filters.”
Make Cold Brew at Home
Buying cold brew every day can end up costing more than $1,400 a year. If you like drinking cold coffee and are decent at planning ahead, make a cold brew concentrate at home and save 50 percent or more.
You can make your own cold brew in ways that fit every budget. Go all out and buy an excellent coffee bean grinder, water filter, French press pot, and high-end coffee beans. This equipment could set you back $250, even higher if you opt for top-shelf equipment.
Before you splurge on a $100 Fellow Clara French press, for example, look around your house and see if you have a pint or larger Mason jar, some coffee filters, ground coffee and water. That will do to start.
Three Scenarios for Cold Brew at Home
We are going to give you three scenarios to fit your budget so you can make cold brew coffee at home. There’s a system for every budget and taste. Once you know how to do it, you can create your own recipes.
Chalkley uses a pound of coffee in a gallon to make cold brew concentrate. You can play with the ratio for a taste you like. Cold brew can last up to two weeks refrigerated without losing any flavor. Don’t want to make a concentrate? Use 3 ounces, or about two and a half scoops, to a quart of water.
(Almost) No Budget
The absolutely least expensive way to make cold brew uses stuff you have around the house. No need for a cold brew maker. You’ll need a lidded jar (ideally a Mason or spaghetti sauce jar cleaned well), coffee filters, a sieve, ground coffee, and of course water. The basic cold brew ratio is 1:4, or 1 part coffee to 4 parts water. It isn’t necessary to use cold water, but filtered water is good.
Use coarsely ground coffee beans (most grocery stores have grinders there). Put your coffee in the jar, add the water, and shake it up well. You can either refrigerate it or leave it out. Let it steep for at least eight hours.
Once enough time has passed, put a coffee filter in the sieve and place over a wide-mouthed glass or jar. Slowly let the coffee filter through (squeeze gently if it is taking too long). Taste and add more water if it is too strong.
Cost: $388 for coffee and filters for a year.
Filtering the coffee is the least fun part of making cold brew coffee. Using a French press eliminates most of the angst. The French press not only makes it easy to clean up the coffee grounds, but you can make a cold brew concentrate that will last several days. A French press can cost $10 to $40. Make sure you buy one that holds at least 20 ounces.
There are numerous appliances made specifically for cold brew coffee. The Toddy (named so by Todd Simpson, who first popularized cold brew coffee in the US in the 1960s.) starts around $40. Similar systems like the $18 Primula Burke come with bottoms that unscrew, so it is easier to dump the coffee grounds.
Grinding your beans freshly for each batch of cold brew coffee will result in brighter and tastier coffee. Coffee grinders cost from $16 to hundreds. Using filtered water also helps make a more delicious cup.
Experts recommend against using expensive coffee beans for cold brew coffee. This isn’t the time to break out the Kona. However, using decent coffee beans only makes your morning coffee better.
Cost: $500 to $780 a year (including equipment)
Money is No Object
“Coffee tastes better at coffee shops like ours because we have better equipment,” says Chalkley of The Chelsea St. Pete. You also can have a superior cold brew system at home with Toddy’s Pro Series for $500.
If you need your cold brew NOW, look for the Cuisinart cold brew coffee maker which promises cold brew coffee in 25 to 40 minutes by shaking the coffee grounds. Retail price is about $200 but you can find it for sale online for about half price at Amazon and other retailers.
Cost: $1,020 for a year (not much less than buying at a coffee shop).
5 Tips for Making Cold Brew Coffee at Home
When using a French press, first put the coffee grounds in a jar and shake it up really well. Then pour it into the French press. It is less messy.
You don’t need to use cold water. Room temperature water is fine. Using filtered water is better.
Let the mixture sit uncovered for a few minutes so naturally occurring gasses can escape.
Get creative with your cold brew concentrate! Add a cinnamon stick, chili pepper, or other flavoring to the water part while it steeps.
Add hot water to your cold brew concentrate for a smooth hot drink with a 1:3 ratio of concentrate to water.
Codetic contributor JoEllen Schilke writes on lifestyle and culture topics. She is the former owner of a coffee shop in St.Petersburg, Florida, and has hosted an arts show on WMNF community radio for nearly 30 years.