From Asia in the 1600s to Starbucks in 2019, cold brew has always had its followers. The Japanese made cold brew tea in the 17th century. Then the Dutch introduced them to cold brew coffee. That was the start of a centuries-long love affair with coffee for the Japanese.
The Dutch made cold brew coffee by pouring cold water over coffee grounds and letting it steep. They drank it at about room temperature which eliminated the danger of a live fire on their trading ships. The Japanese improved the taste of the coffee by adding the water one drop at a time and steeping it for six or more hours. Today, coffeehouses can charge as much as $20 a cup for Japanese-style cold brew. The English and North Americans of the time put their own spin on the brew: They plunged the steeped coffee briefly into a pot of boiling water before serving.
Today U.S. shops make cold brew the traditional way by steeping ground coffee in cold water for several hours. Rich Nieto, owner of Sweetleaf Coffee Roasters with four locations in Long Island and Brooklyn, New York, uses a 50-gallon drum with a filter at the bottom for making cold brew. The coffee is ground and allowed to steep in cold water for 18 hours. “Then we check the strength and dilute it to the strength we want,” he explains.
Some coffeehouses also serve nitro cold brewed coffee, which is infused with nitrogen and served through a tap. The result is a slightly fizzy but very creamy beverage often compared to stout beer. Cold brew tea, made much the same as cold brew coffee is another popular menu item. So are cold brew sodas. For these, cold brew coffee is combined with simple syrup or another sweet flavoring and tonic, sparkling water or club soda.
The reasons people choose cold brew coffee are varied. It is high in antioxidants which make it healthier than hot brewed coffee. It’s also high in caffeine. However, like coffee which has long had a bad health rap, it also has been associated with a lesser risk of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic health problems. “Cold brew is a smooth summer beverage,” Nieto says. “We sell more of it in the warm weather.” Generally, Millennials and other younger people are more apt to order a cold brew. Older patrons tend to stick with traditional iced coffee. Whatever the season, cold brew outsells iced coffee in Nieto’s cafes.
With about 14,000 shops in the United States alone, Starbucks is a major player when it comes to cold brew. The menu is extensive including nitro cold brew with cream and nitro cold brew with foam. The company unveiled its pumpkin spice-flavored cold brew in late August — presumably to capture customers who are excited for fall flavors, but are still wearing shorts.
Smaller operations like Sweetleaf also offer a variety of cold brews, too, and many are turned into frappes and other special drinks. Among Sweetleaf’s signature beverages are Rocket Fuel made with cold brew coffee, chicory, Vermont Maple flavoring and milk. Voodoo Child is another signature drink. It combines cold brew with condensed milk and sweet cream. Rocket Fuel, introduced in 2009, was Sweetleaf’s first cold brew and is still the cafes’ most popular.
At Dairies Coffeehouse and Cold Brew Bar in Atlanta, Georgia, cold brews outsell house coffee. There, customers have a lot to choose from. One of their most unusual cold brews is an affogato, an Italian-style beverage/dessert made with their signature cold brew poured over dark chocolate gelato.
Founder Michael Jones started selling cold brew when the coffeehouse opened in 2019. The most popular item on the menu is the Nitro Oat Milk Latte, a combination of the signature coffee blended with oat milk and infused with nitrogen when served from one of the coffeehouse’s 14 taps. Other taps offer cold brew coffees, nitro lattes and nitro matcha lattes made with green tea.
Jones and Nieto agree that a key to a successful cold brew program is the quality of the coffee. Jones is co-founder of Thrive Farmers Coffee in Roswell, Georgia. “We work directly with coffee and tea producers to ensure that everyone, from the farmer to the customer, can thrive,” he says. “We believe people receive a new level of satisfaction when sipping our coffee knowing it’s ethically sourced.”
In 2014 with four coffeehouses open, Nieto knew it was time to have complete control of the coffee he uses. He taught himself to roast. “We are always looking for a certain coffee flavor for our cold brews,” he explains. By roasting his own, he gets exactly what he’s looking for.
Starbucks and other coffeehouses also sell bottled cold brew which is growing in popularity. Neither Jones nor Nieto have bottles on the menu yet. Both, though, have something in the pipeline to meet the needs and tastes of all cold brew drinkers.