Originally published at phillyvoice.com.
by Brandon Baker
Starbucks, Saxbys, Dunkin' Donuts — at this point, just about every shop in town, artisanal or not, is pushing out some version of cold brew. And, generally, is advertising it (if you haven't noticed by the price) as better than their iced coffee.
But what's the deal? What's the difference between the two, and is one actually better than the other? We reached out to Ross Nickerson, the mechanical-engineer-turned-coffeemaker who opened the Italian Market's Function Coffee Labs in May.
Cold brew is everywhere now, and everyone seems to generally be accepting that it's better than iced coffee. But what's the difference? And is it better?
In a non-specialty coffee shop, 'iced coffee' might simply refer to their normal drip coffee — hot – being poured directly into a cup full of ice. This results in a very watered-down drink.
In a specialty coffee shop like Function Coffee Labs, 'iced coffee' is done by brewing a stronger version of hot coffee directly onto ice. This is sometimes referred to as the Japanese method or the flash-cooling method. The ice melts as the hot coffee drips onto it, but since the coffee is stronger in the first place — achieved using more coffee grounds but the same amount of water, and/or grinding the coffee finer — then, when the ice melts, the resulting drink is at the 'correct' strength. Making a batch of flash-cooled iced coffee takes the same amount of time that brewing a batch of hot coffee takes, or roughly five minutes. So, it can always be served fresh, and there will be some of the pleasant aroma that a regular hot coffee has.
Cold brew is a completely different thing. The coffee beans are generally ground very coarsely, and brewed in a full immersion method, like a French press, for 16 to 24 hours. The brewing water is cold, not hot. Unfortunately, many of the complex molecules in coffee that provide flavor are less soluble at lower temperatures. This means that less of the unique, interesting flavor that each coffee naturally has — which depends on where it was grown, the weather, how it was processed, etc. — ends up in the cup. So, most cold-brewed coffee tastes basically the same: sort of chocolate-y and caramel-y.
'Hot bloomed' cold brewed coffee is an attempt at getting the best of both worlds. A small amount of hot water is poured onto the coffee grounds and allowed to steep for a short amount of time, maybe 30 seconds, then the majority of the cold brewing water is added. This does allow some of the more interesting, unique flavor compounds to end up in the final beverage, but not nearly as many as using the flash-cooled method.
Here, we actually very much enjoy the taste of cold brewed coffee, but we feel like it is a waste of the potential of a great coffee bean. On the flip side, if you have some cheap commodity-grade coffee beans, cold brewing them is a great way to make them taste not terrible.
We brew a small batch of hot-bloomed cold brew each day so that we can let customers taste the difference. The vast majority prefer our iced coffee.