As the weather warms up around the country, the allure of cold coffee becomes more pronounced. Iced coffee fanatics are many, and the recent rise of cold brew at local coffee shops and on store shelves is an indicator that the chilled stuff is more popular than ever. Both Stumptown and Blue Bottle have introduced shelf-ready cold brews to help proliferate their brands, and even Starbucks announced recently that it would begin offering cold brew in stores, too.
But here's the thing. If you have the right tools, there's absolutely no reason why anyone can't make cafe-quality iced coffee at home for a fraction of the price. While the work that goes into making great iced coffee might seem complicated, it's really not that challenging once you understand the techniques. Here now, three foolproof ways to make great iced coffee at home.
What You Need:
- A burr mill grinder, preferably a Capresso Infinity or Baratza Encore, or maybe even something with some more features. If you're masochistic, you could always hand-grind your way, but if you want to viably brew iced coffee on a daily basis, go with an electric machine. Your arm muscles will thank you.
- One of three brewing devices: a pour-over dripper like a Hario V60, Beehive, or Kalita Wave; Toddy or Filtron cold-brew bucket; or an automatic coffee brewer like a Bonavita BV1800.
- Depending on the method, a sturdy glass or mug that can handle changes in temperature.
- High-quality roasted beans, preferably single origin because they tend to show off a coffee's unique terroir, but good blends will work just fine, especially for cold brew. I tend to like medium-to-light roasted stuff by Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Four Barrel, or Sightglass, though it's smart to pick a coffee you equally enjoy as hot brewed java.
- Having a small kitchen scale helps keep the bean to water ratios precise so you have consistent brews from batch to batch. I like this scale, though there are plenty of other larger scales that'll work.
The Old Fashioned Hot Brewed Coffee on the Rocks
For most people, the notion of iced coffee is pretty darn simple. Brew coffee, then add ice. It's great in theory, until you realize that doing so often results in extreme swings in temperature. Those fluctuations produce a very bitter, often difficult-to-drink concoction which some might be tempted to mask with milk and simple syrup. However, depending on brew quality, it's possible to capture the optimal moment to convert hot coffee into reasonably good iced coffee, and that is when the brew is right above room temperature. I won't get into the details of the chemical differences, but suffice to say that this brute force method is the least refined, and the least delicious approach. But, hey, it's still iced coffee, and you can certainly drink it.
- Brew double-strength coffee (just double the amount of coffee you'd normally use) with your automatic machine. In this case, I'm using a pretty awesome Bonavita BV-1800, which has a 1400 watt heater to brew at close to optimal temperature (say 195 to 205 degrees). A standard ratio for normal strength coffee might call for 12 parts water to one part coffee, or even 14 parts water to one part coffee. We're eyeballing this one because we're trying to be foolproof, remember? So, try six parts water to one part coffee.
- Take your brewed coffee and let it cool off. Coffee is already optimally ready to drink at a 155 to 175 degrees, though high quality roasted coffee tends to show off more complexity at a lower temperature. I let mine sit until it's just barely drinkable. That's when I pour the whole lot over ice cubes. I've found that you get the least amount of astringency and bitterness when you do this, as well as the least amount of dilution. Like I said, this isn't ideal (we'll get into the better methods below), but I've enjoyed plenty of cups like this in a pinch. The key is to wait until the right moment to cool off the coffee.
- Make sure you're using heatproof drinking vessels, like mason jars, so that your cups don't shatter with the temperature change. Throw in some milk if that's how you like it. I've found the result is slightly bitter, but still transparent enough to show a modicum of flavor complexity. Just remember to drink right away: you won't get much use from holding on to this style of brewed coffee in the fridge.
The Big Batch Specialist: Cold Brew Coffee
For those who spend three to four dollars a day on a plastic cup of cold brew, do your wallet and the environment a favor: make your own! It's shockingly easy, and very consistent from batch to batch. Plus, it's way cheaper. If you buy a $16 twelve ounce bag from your local shop, grind it up and turn that into cold brew, you're looking at about eight to 10 servings. I've found that I can easily produce 10 servings from a full pound of ground coffee, which should last a single caffeinated addict a whole week, though I'm sure there are people, like my photographer Stan Lee, who consume that much in a few days.
The real tedium here is trying to grind through a pound of coffee. Depending on your grinder (the Baratza Encore is better with this), you'll probably spend five to 10 minutes grinding up a 12 to 16 bag of coffee, the size you're most likely going to find at a local roaster or shop. I would tentatively endorse grinding a bag of coffee at your local market, or kindly asking your neighborhood barista (Stumptown will do this) to employ the shop's commercial grinder (assure them that you're making cold brew at home—baristas usually hate pre-grinding coffee knowing that those volatile flavors will be mostly gone after half an hour of grinding).
After grinding beans, follow these steps:
- Fill a large paper filter with 12 or 16 ounces of coffee. The Filtron has a handy measuring device in its upper reservoir to help measure water. Make sure to secure the rubber stopper in the bottom hole (or else your refrigerator or countertop will be flooded with coffee), and then secure the cloth filter. This filter is really helpful with making sure your brew is sediment free, though make sure to rinse it out and store in the fridge between batches.
- Place coffee plus filter inside the bucket, then fill upper reservoir with cold filtered water. Some people suggest using iced water here, others throw in some boiling hot water to "bloom" the coffee and kickstart the brewing. I'm not a particular fan of either method because it adds a level of unnecessary fussiness. The real variable here is whether or not you want a fruity and bright flavor-forward cold brew, or something that tends toward the realms of chocolatey. I tend to prefer the former, but there's nothing wrong with the latter either, if that's your jam.
- For the brighter cold brew, put the entire bucket right into your fridge, which will attenuate (if slightly) the oxidation process in the coffee. For a more chocolatey brew, leave the bucket on a countertop at room temperature. The length of time the grinds steep is more about minimum than maximum; at least 12 hours. Brews I've left for longer, up to 24 hours, have turned out fine, though leaving the bucket in the fridge is a surefire way to reduce oxidation. A note about oxidation: This is that sort of astringent, bitter flavor that's just inherent in nearly every cup of cold brew. As a definition, cold brew coffee extracts the soluble parts of coffee through time as opposed to heat, which is what boiling water does when it hits coffee grinds.
- Once you've let your cold brew sit, place the bucket carefully over the decanter or a jug and allow the brew to flow out. Give it time, say half an hour. You're left with a concentrate at this point, one that you'll want to dilute by at least one to one, though I've always enjoyed higher ratios of two to one just fine. Just mix in filtered water to the strength of your taste. If you plan on
sullying the brewadding in some cream or milk, I suggest keeping the one to one ratio.
- It's best to store the brew as a stronger ratio, though having it pre-diluted and ready to drink in your fridge is just fine if you plan on finishing it within a week. If you end up storing it in your fridge undiluted, you could theoretically keep it for a longer period before it becomes undrinkable, but I'd recommend no more than two to three weeks maximum.
The Ideal Method: Ice Brew
This last technique seems like it's the fussiest, but in my mind, tastes the best, especially for the person who likes to enjoy hot brewed coffee. What you'll be doing is essentially making a double-strength pourover (which means more grinds and less water—the technique is in the section below) and brew it right over ice cubes, hence the moniker "ice brew." The final drink is both complex, sweet, smooth, and minimally bitter. It doesn't take well to milk, so if that's your preferred finishing sauce, stick to cold brew. But if you really want to enjoy the subtley of great coffees from, say, high elevation Central/South American beans, or fine processed stuff from Africa, you'll be elated by ice brew results.
- Use a scale to measure out 35 grams of ground coffee at about the same fineness that you'd use for a standard cup (I see "standard" as 25 to 28 grams of coffee to 380 to 415 grams of water, or about one ounce grinds to 14 to 15 ounces of water). So you're using more coffee here, but about half the water.
- Place the pourover brewer atop a heat-resistant glass or mug with a fairly large capacity. Fill the glass with about 200 grams of ice.
- Start brewing by slowly pouring 50 to 60 grams of near-boiling (or just off boiling) water to "bloom" the coffee. Then finish the brew by very slowly pouring another 150 to 200 grams of water. I need to emphasize slow here because you're brewing more coffee with much less water, which means you'll need to maximize the brew time. Keep the water stream at a mechanical pencil lead girth, if you can (that's probably impossible unless you're just amazingly skilled).
- When done, feel free to add a few extra ice cubes to make sure the coffee has cooled down completely. Sip, and enjoy. Notice the complexity of coffee comes through much better using this method, with an innate "freshness" that often makes this approach beat cold brew on a side-by-side taste test.
A Note About Kyoto Drip
Why didn't I include Kyoto drip in this roundup? Well, first off, there aren't any affordable Kyoto drip devices, although little known Nispira is coming out with a semi-reasonably priced one on Amazon at $105 (plus shipping). Others can range $265 and even more, if you're really into showing your Walter White-level devotion to coffee extraction. Compare that to your average Toddy/Filtron home brewer, which cost around $35 to $50.
Second, Kyoto drips are wildly inconsistent and an absolute pain to set up. Sure, the thing looks straight out of a laboratory, but the amount of effort required to create a great, or even adequate, cup of coffee isn't nearly worth the work.
Iced coffee is just about the perfect beverage for summer mornings, when it's just too sweltering to sip on a cup of hot brewed java. The above three methods will ensure high quality stuff throughout the warm months. Practice the techniques, tinker with ratios as your palate prefers, remember to grind fresh, and always find a solid source for quality roasts. All of this is for naught if you're opening up a canister of stale roasted beans of dubious origin.