What is cold brew — and why?

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What is cold brew — and why?

We have reached peak cold brew.

I know because some guy behind me ordered one at the Europa Cafe. I know he ordered cold brew because he pointed to my giant iced coffee and said “cold brew, I’ll have that.”

Nope, nope, nope. Except who am I kidding? Dude might not be getting actual cold brew at the Europa Cafe, but, holy cow, it’s everywhere else. At swanky cafes with too-cool-for-school names like The Artful Roaster, Pensieve Grinds or Baby Salt Cake’s Coffee Salon & Brewery. On Starbucks storefronts. At Dunkin’ Donuts — yes, Dunkin’ Donuts. In the PolicyGenius fridge.

So yeah, good-bye, iced coffee. Like selfies, cat memes, and Republicans voting over and over again on health insurance, cold brew is the new normal.

What is cold brew?

Cold brew is coffee that never gets exposed to heat. Iced coffee, on the other hand, is hot coffee that gets cooled. Iced coffee is served over ice. So is cold brew, usually, but maybe not, depending on how much of a coffee snob you are and/or how caffeinated you want to be. Cold brew is generally made with a higher grounds-to-water ratio. Plus, the grounds steep much longer and (obviously) at a lower temperature, so what you’re left with at the end is concentrate. And, unless you cut it with water (recommended) or milk (not recommended apparently), you’re getting more caffeine.

Why cold brew?

So I had some cold brew this morning and I guess it tastes different than iced coffee. I mean, it is different from a molecular perspective. Per trained chef and PolicyGenius contributor Constance Brinkley-Badgett:

There is a chemical difference between the two, so it's not just a marketing ploy. The heat breaks down some of the chemical compounds in the coffee grounds, just as cooking changes the flavor and texture of meat. If you don't like the bitterness of coffee, the cold-brewing method can eliminate some of that, allowing the coffee's subtler nutty and chocolaty characteristics to take center stage.

So, yeah. Science.

But why the cold brew trend?

Well, cold brew is more expensive — or is socially accepted as more expensive, because it takes longer to brew, sometimes gets made with a darker (and more costly) roast, and even comes in bougy packaging.

I want to say the higher price point has something to do with why your local cafe or mega-chain is pushing this idea that iced coffee is basic. Cold brew usually costs a 50-cent to $1 premium. And that’s just the standard stuff. Apparently, there’s also high-end cold brew that costs even more. (Stay tuned for the follow-up: What is single-origin cold brew — and why?)

Honestly, though, at least some of the cold brew trend is on us. (Or maybe just Millennials. It’s always on Millennials.) We’re forcing cafes and mega-chains to stock biodegradable to-go cups and mason jars, because we’re just 2Cool2DrinkIcedCoffee.

How to save on cold brew

If you legitimately like the stuff, cold brew is worth the money. That’s according to Constance, not me, but I drink coffee for the caffeine more than anything, so what do I know?

I will say this: Not all cold brew is created equal, so at least make sure you’re getting what you paid for. Or that you know what you’re ordering. (Ahem, guy from the Europa Cafe.) If you can’t taste the difference, the roast seems too light, or your cup is made of plain old plastic, question the markup and consider buying cold brew from someone else.

Or here’s an idea: Make cold brew on your own. It’s simple and will save you a ton of money, says Constance. She provided the recipe below because I don’t know how to make anything.

  1. Grind coffee.
  2. Let it steep in cold or room-temperature water for a day or two.
  3. Strain coffee.
  4. Put in cup.

The mason jar is optional.

Image: Satoshi-K