An Introduction to Cold Brew Coffee

Cold brew coffee is having a bit of a moment, surging into the public consciousness as a premium drink, with customers willing to pay a premium price. In fact, cold brew coffee sales shot up between 2011 and 2016, with the majority of that growth coming from millennials. With so many coffee variations to choose from, frappuccinos, iced mochas, and caramel macchiatos to name a few, it’s difficult to keep track of which coffees are truly different and which just have new names – but summer is just around the corner, and it’s the perfect time to start thinking about why cold brew is such a hot commodity.

What Is Cold Brew Coffee?

Cold brew coffee refers not to the temperature at which it’s served, but to the method with which it’s brewed. Instead of traditional brewing, pouring boiling hot water over ground coffee beans, cold brew coffee uses cold or room-temperature water to extract the essence of the coffee. Instead of letting the grounds steep in hot water for several minutes, cold brew grounds must steep in cold water for 12 to 36 hours. Steeping the grounds slowly at a low temperature produces a smooth, low-acidity coffee concentrate that can be imbibed plain or reconstituted with water, ice, milk, and other additives to create flavorful cold brew coffee drinks.

Where Did Cold Brew Coffee Come From?

Cold brew coffee can keep for weeks without spoiling, compared to hot brew that loses its appeal after a few hours, so it makes sense that cold brew coffee first gained popularity in Japan in the 1600s as an import from Dutch sailors who used the method to have drinkable coffee on long sea voyages. The Dutch sailors would reheat or serve this coffee concentrate cold, and the Japanese adapted their cold brew techniques to produce a slow-drip variant of cold brew called Kyoto coffee.

Fast forward several centuries, and cold brew coffee, which has existed in some form or other since Dutch sailors were negotiating treaties with the Emperor, has exploded in popularity. Cold brew coffee can be found prepackaged in cans, mixed with specialty drinks at restaurants, coffee shops, and brunch spots, and in residential settings, with decorative cold brew systems dripping away as coffee lovers get ready for their morning cup.

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Cold Brew vs. Regular Coffee

Cold brew coffee has no shortage of disciples ready to spread their beliefs, but is it really better than hot brew? Well, as anyone who took an intro to philosophy class could tell you, we would first have to agree on what “better” means here. Cold brew coffee is certainly different from hot brew in more than just the way it is produced. Below are some cold brew coffee benefits that help explain its popularity.

Is Cold Brew Coffee Less Acidic?

Two of the most highly touted cold brew coffee benefits are a sweeter taste and lower acidity. The more acidic chemical compounds in coffee are not extracted without the extreme heat of a hot brew, letting other flavors shine through. Proponents enjoy the fruity or nutty notes than can be extracted through the cold brew process, which are typically overshadowed by the hot brew’s bitterness. Cold brew has as much as 70 percent less acid content than hot drip or espresso coffee. The lower acidity makes cold brew coffee ideal for those with sensitive stomachs, acid reflux, and frequent heartburn. Acidic drinks can also stain or damage your teeth over time, but cold brew coffee is two-thirds less acidic, meaning it is a tooth-friendly alternative to traditional coffee. If you are concerned with the yellow staining effect of regular coffee but also can’t reliably get out of bed without the promise of coffee, see if cold brew satisfies your coffee-thirst.

Is Cold Brew Stronger Than Regular Coffee?

This is a tricky question that depends on how the coffee is made. Typically, per part of ground coffee bean, cold brew coffee extracts less caffeine, however, cold brew coffee usually uses more grounds than regular coffee. Then we have to factor in the dilution typically used with cold brew coffee, which determines how much caffeine is in each ounce of the final drink, and the best answer we can come up with is – it depends. The finished cold brew coffee concentrate is usually packed with caffeine because of the total amount of grounds used in production. But if you mix this concentrate with water, as most drinkers prefer, the caffeine content is diluted. Overall, the cold brew process extracts less caffeine from the ground coffee beans than a hot brew process, but your cold brew drink may well have more caffeine than a cup of hot brew. If you’re drinking coffee to get that shot of early morning caffeine (and who isn’t?), you can craft your cold brew to be as strong as needed to kickstart your day.

Is Cold Brew Coffee Healthier?

Because cold brew coffee is sweeter and less acidic than regular coffee, most drinkers don’t feel the need to add as much sugar or creamer to their beverage. The process of cold brewing is gentle and leaves some of the harshest parts of the coffee grounds behind. For some coffee enthusiasts, it’s not really coffee without the acidity and bitterness, but cold brew is a great way for drinkers who prefer a smoother taste to have coffee without added calories from sweeteners.

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How Do I Get Started with Cold Brew Coffee?

Since customers see cold brew as a premium drink and are willing to pay a little more per cup for cold brew vs regular coffee – or even traditional iced coffee, which has been a go-to premium coffee beverage – both coffee connoisseurs and opportunistic restaurateurs are interested in getting their hands on a cup of cold brew ahead of the next warm weather season. KaTom offers cold brew systems to help businesses begin serving cold brew coffee. Some of these options can also produce nitro-brewed cold coffee, another highly-marketable variant. These machines produce concentrated cold brew you can mix into appetizing cold (or hot) drinks to suit your customers’ tastes.

For residential users, there are a wide variety of cold brew systems on the market, from beautifully decorative glass Kyoto coffee systems to efficient cold brew stations that produce gallons of concentrate for use over the course of a few weeks. Each individual cold brew unit has specific instructions on how to make the best coffee with that unit, but we’ll go over the general process below.

How to Make Cold Brew Coffee

Every aspect of this process can be personalized to produce the brew you like best. Our suggestions are below, but we recommend experimenting with the process to see which version you prefer.

  1. First, acquire your favorite whole coffee beans.
  2. Using a conical burr grinder, grind the beans coarsely.
  3. Combine the grounds with filtered water. It’s recommended to use 1 ounce of grounds for each cup of water (or, for larger batches, 1 pound of grounds for each gallon of water).
  4. Stir the water and grounds to ensure saturation. All the grounds need to be wetted before steeping.
  5. Cover the steeping coffee tightly and let it sit in the fridge for 12 to 24 hours.
  6. Filter the grounds with a fine mesh strainer, cheesecloth, or coffee filter. If using coffee filters, start out using more than one at a time, as the higher concentration of grounds in cold brew can tear the filter and make a mess.
  7. Take your cold brew concentrate and store it in an airtight container. Refrigerated, cold brew concentrate can last two weeks.
  8. Use your fresh concentrate to make iced coffee! The concentrate can be poured over ice and mixed with an equal amount of water to create a simple iced coffee, but there are thousands of recipes out there for making cold brew mixes. You can start with the cold brew coffee recipe below, courtesy of our friends at Service Ideas!

S'mores Cold Brew Recipe

David Austin
David Austin

David grew up in East Tennessee under the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains. He graduated from Carson-Newman College with a degree in English, then moved south to get a Master's in English (and a wife) from the University of Montevallo. The Austins moved around the south for several years before finding their way back to Knoxville, where they now live with a permanently perturbed Maine Coon named Nala. When he's not working, David enjoys writing fiction, watching soccer, hiking, and playing any game that can fit atop a table.