Northern California’s Central Coast—home to popular tourist destinations Big Sur, Monterey, and Santa Cruz—is prone to thick, early morning and late evening fog. The mists that roll in regularly from the Pacific Ocean are part of what gives this region its charm. It makes for excellent wine growing, enchanting redwood groves, and breathtaking photography. It also makes for chilly, wet winters. Wetsuits are a hot commodity in these parts.
In contrast, this part of California also enjoys plenty of the sunny summer days that the state is known for. Beach towns turn into paradises once all that morning fog burns off. In Santa Cruz, summer life is what fuels the town, economically and spiritually. For Santa Cruz’ beachfront Verve Coffee Roasters, the region’s changeable weather means two things: winter and misty early mornings are gangbusters, but when things warm up its time to get creative.
Head of product development Jesse Crouse knew that Verve’s summer menu needed a facelift. The company’s identity is just as much Santa Cruz-centric as it is coffee-centric, but Verve’s cold-brewed coffee, brewed in-house at each of their three locations, was prone to oxidization that affected flavor and freshness. It wasn’t doing the season justice.
“We noticed aging flavors after a twenty-four hour steeping,” says Jesse. “That made us go, ‘We can’t just brew this in a typical, standard way and stand behind this product.’”
Seeking the atypical, he and co-owner Ryan O’Donovan took to the lab and eventually came up with a proprietary cold-brewing process to ensure a consistently delicious product. What’s more, they kegged the coffee, keeping flavors intact post-distribution, and once the cold brew reached the baristas, they nitrogenated it, like a Guinness.
Dark and dense, Verve’s answer to the summer months has a creamy edge regular iced coffees can’t hope to compete with. The inventive brew is not only a huge hit with Santa Cruz regulars, it’s a drink with clout across the industry. A recent Instagram plug for their Streetman Espresso cold brew received more than 800 likes in a day, with dozens of comments on the drink’s presentation. The photo of a fresh-poured tulip glass of the coffee, nitrogen half-dispersed, had mouths watering on the other side of the country. What’s more, the new cold brew is weather-resistant. “Sales of beers like stouts and porters do really well in cold weather, and the texture of this is so similar to that,” says Brit McCorquodale, head of marketing at Verve. “There’s a weightiness to this that makes it an appropriate cold-weather drink, and a lightness to it that makes it a really great warm-weather drink.”
Verve isn’t the first company to take the industry’s hottest menu item—cold-brewed coffee—and make it their own. Something in this drink is turning heads, sending baristas and roasters on a mission to cold brew with identity and style. Their experimentation comes with a bevy of rewards, from increased sales, to craft coffee cred, to a better-tasting summer beverage.
Cold brew, often called toddy, is coffee brewed in cold water for half a day or longer. It’s by no means a recent addition to the specialty coffee scene, but it’s a category that is steadily replacing old-school iced coffee. Cold brew is rapidly becoming a beverage staple for most third-wave shops, and as coffee retailers and roasters work to keep up with high demand, they’re finding new ways to highlight this drink’s characteristic flavor and massive third-wave appeal.
There are a number of reasons for cold brew’s spike in popularity, but for most consumers it seems to boil down to taste. The argument for cold brew begins with the assertion that hot coffee should not be poured over ice (with the widely approved exception of the Japanese iced coffee method), nor brewed hot, then chilled for cold consumption. The reason being that when recycled in this way, hot coffee just doesn’t taste as good. With the loss of steam and aromatics, and the addition of ice, a great coffee quickly becomes watery and unremarkable.
In contrast, a slow, patient extraction gives cold brew enviable flavor and body. Typically sweeter than hot-brewed coffee, cold brew is also usually smoother, thicker, and less acidic. There tends to be less caffeine intensity with cold brew, so you can drink more of it, but not feel overly buzzed. And today’s craft cold brews, many made with specially roasted, single-origin beans, are charged with flavor complexity to rival the best Chemex or espresso. That’s a lot of pluses for a distinct menu item, and cold brew is quickly forging a subcategory all it’s own.
“Notes of chocolate, a lack of bitterness, fewer tannins, acidity which doesn’t translate to the palate but brings in that rounded richness . . .” These are attributes the brewers at Chameleon Cold Brew in Austin, Texas, look for in a coffee before crafting it into their signature cold-brew concentrate, according to president and CEO Chris Campbell. “We believe that, for a variety of reasons, it makes a better cup of coffee,” says Chris, who in the mornings prefers to heat up smooth-drinking Chameleon, rather than brew hot coffee.
Unlike roasters who have designated this drink as a side venture, Chameleon is all about the cold brew. Born in a land where cool drinks are mandatory on hot, dry days, bottled cold-brew is all they do. The company began out of co-founder Steve Williams’ passion for fresh-brewed toddy. A longtime member of Austin’s coffee scene, for ten years Williams brewed and slowly perfected his cold-brew recipe. When he and Campbell set out to bottle that recipe for mass consumption, the slow-brewing process inherent in the drink weaved its way into the company’s philosophy of taking its time and “doing things right,” as Campbell puts it. “A lot of people can make a hot cup of coffee in a matter of minutes,” he says, “but with cold brew you just can’t. We thought, let’s do that work for our customers.”
As cold brew grows up and out of the café, into products like Chameleon’s three-flavor ready-to-drink line, that “slow beverage, fast” mentality is becoming a model for the drink’s next phase.
The same philosophy is at the heart of Birch Coffee’s cold-brew program. The Manhattan roaster-retailer began cold brewing more than four years ago, pouring its half Brazilian, half Honduran blend in house and selling it in sixty-four-ounce growlers. The coffee was such a hit that Birch soon came up with a third option—bicycle delivery. Three days a week every spring and summer, Manhattanites can call up Birch, order cold brew over the phone, and have growlers delivered to their office or home via one of the company’s custom-built tricycles. Some weeks the roaster goes through more than one hundred pounds of cold-brew-dedicated beans.
“Cold-brewed coffee is an experience,” says Birch co-founder Jeremy Lyman. “Simply taking hot coffee and pouring it over ice is a mere afterthought. We craft our cold brew with the same care and attention that we put into every shot of espresso we pull and every Aeropress we push.”
Shifting that experience from a time-consuming and space-hogging process to a lucrative menu option can be tricky, but cafes and roasters are finding creative ways to make cold brew work in-house. One option is to purchase cold-brew in kegs, from companies like Chameleon or Stumptown Coffee Roasters; Verve hopes to begin distributing cold-brew kegs to their retail accounts in the coming months. Joyride Coffee, which started as a food truck in New York City, specializes in installing cold-brew kegerators in offices. Opting for cold brew on tap allows retailers to keep the beverage fresh, it frees up fridge space, and it highlights the product in a way that excites customers.
As Verve and several other roasters have discovered, nitrogenated cold brew takes the concept one step further and sets retailers apart from competitors. “The flavor of this, the texture of this, and the nature of this are three things that catapult [nitro cold brew] into a product line that people really want to come inside and experience,” says Jesse at Verve.
Bottled cold-brew concentrates like Chameleon’s, where water is added before serving, also take up less space, so there is less chance of running out on sweltering days. Meanwhile RTD cold brew is finding its way into cafés and grocery stores, with brands competing for edge with new takes on the drink (like cold brew blended with almond milk and chocolate-flavored cold brew). Stumptown’s kegged cold brew can even be found in bars, where it is enjoyed in cocktails.
Lest we forget, there is always the old-fashioned way to brew.
Though it takes time, preparing big batches to brew overnight says a lot about your dedication to your customer’s tastes. So invest in a durable brewing container and paper or cotton filters, and brew as many gallons as you need in-house. Toddy is one of the original cold-brew brands, with a legacy that dates back to the 1960s. They offer devices, tools, and directions for exact cold brewing.
Part of the fun is choosing which roasts cold brew best. As some will work much better than others, experimentation is a proud part of bringing cold brew into the café. (Though your coffee roaster may carry a cold-brew-specific blend.) But never fear: cold brew is a drink category with lots of wiggle-room, as its continuous evolution has proved.
—Regan Crisp is Fresh Cup’s associate editor.