Every day that a Starbucks runs out of cold brew is a day that is ruined somewhere in America. We know, because every day a plaintive soul cries out into the wilderness on Twitter:
“The Starbucks is out of cold brew excuse me while the basic white girl in me dies.”
“One of the Starbucks on campus ran out of cold brew I’m transferring.”
“Starbucks: we’re out of cold brew *metaphorically stabs me in the heart*”
We are too fancy for iced coffee anymore. Now we drink cold brew, the magical caffeinated elixir that is suddenly everywhere, from your fussy, independent coffee shop to the most proletarian of Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s the drink of young people. It’s the drink of summer.
“It’s iced coffee taken seriously, rather than iced coffee as an afterthought,” said Peter Giuliano, senior director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
If only everyone ordering it actually knew what it is.
“It’s like when people ask for a Kleenex when they want a tissue,” said Josh Brodey, a manager at Slipstream, a Washington coffee shop. “The word’s just floating around. I think about 50 percent of our customers that use the words ‘cold brew’ don’t think of it any differently than iced coffee.”
But it is different. A traditional iced coffee is made with hot-brewed coffee that has been cooled down. But cold brew is steeped in room-temperature or chilled water, allowing the coffee to slowly infuse over time. Fans say the method results in a mellower, less acidic coffee.
It has to do with chemistry: Mixing hot water with coffee grounds is the most efficient way to extract its oils, acids and fragrance, all of which contribute to its flavor. Coffee brewed hot will have a stronger flavor and smell. But according to the UCLA Science and Food blog, heat can also cause coffee oils to oxidize, and its acids to degrade, which can give it a sour, bitter flavor.
Making cold brew coffee
In a less enlightened era, iced coffee was made with leftover hot-brewed coffee that had been sitting out too long. But the ’90s brought us Starbucks and incredible demand for its iced frappuccinos and lattes. That paved the way for third-wave coffee shops that brought coffee geekdom, with its Chemexes and Aeropresses, into the mainstream. As coffee companies perfected their technique, the next big leap came from the brand Stumptown, which bottled its cold brew in 2011.
“They put the cold brew in these stubbies bottles, like a Red Stripe,” Giuliano said. “That played on the sort of cold brew pun — is cold brew a coffee or a beer? — and that really engaged people. … If you’re a 24-year-old living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, what cooler thing is there [than] to be cruising around town holding a beer bottle in the morning?” From there, other coffee shops hopped on the bandwagon, and for the past two years, the trend has continued to trickle up, culminating when Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts rolled out their versions of the drink nationwide in July 2015 and August 2016, respectively.
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“Our Coffee Excellence Team had been working on cold brew for a few years,” Jeff Miller, executive chef and vice president of product innovation for Dunkin’ Brands, said in an email. “Given the increasing popularity of iced coffee and cold brew we felt it was the right time.” And Starbucks, following in the footsteps of La Colombe, Compass Coffee and other independent shops, is rolling out the next frontier of cold brew, colloquially called nitro. The cold brew is infused with nitrogen, which gives it a slightly effervescent, creamy texture.