One Man's Campaign Against Cold Brew

Updated October 15, 2016

I am having a hard time getting on board with the latest trend to hit coffee; cold brewed coffee. Coffee shops from Starbucks to Stumptown and several in between offer their version of ready to drink (RTD) cold brewed coffee and it's popular enough to be a thing—and that confuses me.

Every cold brewed coffee I've tasted has been one-dimensional and flat and that's because, without heat, you can't extract the full spectrum of solubles necessary to generate the typical "coffee" flavor. You also don't get any decent aroma off of a cold brewed coffee for the same reason; you need heat to volatilize aromatics. Sure, this happens briefly and on a much smaller scale as the coffee passes down the back of your throat, but don't be fooled; the time it takes a sip of iced coffee to pass through your 98.6° throat isn't enough to generate much of a desirable aftertaste.

There are many who laud cold brew coffee as a low-acidity alternative to hot coffee and this is true; cold brew coffee is a lower acidity version of its hot brew predecessor. The reason its lower in acidity is because you need heated water to extract the solubles that give a coffee its acidic character. Unfortunately, cold brew throws the baby out with the bathwater; in avoiding the acidic character you also avoid a lot of the complexity that makes coffee a great beverage.

There is an alternative!

Japanese iced coffee is a great, cold version of coffee that can be enjoyed during summer months. The advantage of Japanese iced coffee is that hot water is used to brew the coffee but it is immediately chilled with ice. There are several gadgets you can get specifically for Japanese iced coffee. We sometimes use the Fretta V60 from Hario, pictured below, or  we'll put ice cubes in our Chemex and brew right into the ice. Just adjust your water ratio to accommodate for the ice (my recipe: Summer Favorites: Iced Coffee).

hario iced coffee

I've found that cold brewed coffee is flat and one-dimensional but that doesn't mean it's the only option for cold coffee drinks during the summer. Japanese iced coffee is the way to go for flavorful, summer coffee drinks!

Update: October 15, 2016

After a brief exchange on Twitter with Andy Newbom (@Brewbom), I have updated my opinion of cold brew, somewhat. Andy puts forward a valid argument that, while cold brew isn't going to showcase a coffee's more subtle nuances (I'm putting words in his mouth here), it is still a product in-demand by a great-many customers. As such it deserves a rethink by cafes who are hesitant to add it to the menu. At the end of the day, cafes need to evaluate their product line against their core values and most importantly, their bottom-line. If providing cold brew coffee provides additional resources that a cafe can spend on showcasing a very special coffee, then it might be worth it.

And I'll be the first to agree that my stance on cold brew is potentially a snobby one. But a man has got to have standards, no?


Michael C. Wright

Michael is a licensed Q Grader, licensed Q Processor Pro, an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST), and most recently, a graduate with a degree in horticulture and a concentration in horticultural business management. He has over ten years experience in the coffee industry operating on both the supply and demand sides of the value chain.