23 August 2010

Why Making Iced Coffee at Home Is Such a Grind

The Wall Street Journal

Is caffeine, like revenge, best served cold? It certainly seems so in August, when even people who adore their hot morning coffee often take it over ice.

But in a nation overrun with frozen latte drinks, shockingly few people know how to make a respectable iced coffee at home. And with good reason: It's hard to get it right. Simply refrigerating a pot of hot coffee will certainly produce cold coffee, but you probably won't want to drink it.

The ideal iced coffee is both strong and smooth—rich enough to stand up to ice, milk and maybe a sweetener, yet also somewhat thirst-quenching, without any jarring bitter tastes.

Some 1.2 billion cups of iced coffee were served outside the home in the 12 months that ended in May, a 6% increase over the previous 12 months, according to NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y. market-research firm. Yet only 1% of all coffee consumed at home is iced. "We don't have a clue" how to make good iced coffee at home, says Harry Balzer, NPD's chief industry analyst. Only restaurants can do it, he says.

Seeing the potential for a better do-it-yourself brew, manufacturers are selling several new iced-coffee systems and gadgets for home use. "The U.S. market for iced coffee is bigger than any other market in the world," says Thomas Perez, president of Bodum USA Inc., a unit of Bodum AG of Switzerland, which released a cold-brew iced-coffee maker in May. "The taste and demand for iced coffee is already there. We want to be in this niche."

To step up your home-brew technique, first you must first decide: Hot-brewed or cold? Traditionally, most specialty coffee shops have used the hot-brew method, which involves pouring extra-strong hot coffee over ice. But energy-efficient cold-brewing, where ground coffee steeps for 12 hours in water at room temperature, is gaining ground, already in coffee chains such as Caribou Coffee and Seattle's Best.

Several cold-brew systems for home use have come on the market, including the Hourglass Coffee system, with a distinctive blue-plastic brewing vessel. Bean Logik, of Vancouver, Wash., which introduced the product nationally last year, says it produces coffee that is "69.9% less acidic" than hot-brewed coffee. "A lot of our customers have sensitive stomachs, and they understand the low-acid benefits of cold brewing," says Kim Kapp, Bean Logik president.

We tried four ways to brew iced coffee at home, including three cold-brew systems and one old-school, hot-brew appliance, all using Illy medium-grind coffee. And for comparison, we included a fifth way, one we hoped would be idiot-proof—Starbucks Via, the instant iced coffee that has been available since June in Starbucks shops and online.

For tasting, we enlisted two experts with sophisticated palates, both from the New York specialty grocer Dean & Deluca in Soho (which brews about five gallons of coffee, hot or iced, every half hour). Michelle Aleman, manager of the coffee department, and Queenie Fok, espresso-bar manager, say they both prefer hot-brewed, the method Dean & Deluca uses, but allow it's a matter of taste.

They were agnostic on the questions of coffee-bean type, roast and origin. But they said a coarser grind works better for cold-brewed coffee. And one thing we learned about iced coffee is that quantity is critical: Less is definitely not more. Ms. Aleman suggests doubling the amount you'd use for hot coffee.

For our first batch we used the Bodum Bean ($39.95 at bodumusa.com), which works just like a French press, only with cold water: Ground coffee and water go into the glass beaker; stick it in the refrigerator overnight, and depress the plunger when you take it out the next morning. The instructions recommend doubling the usual proportion of coffee—so instead of one tablespoon per cup, we used six or seven for three cups of water. That wasn't enough, though. "It's a little on the light side," Ms. Fok said, sipping the coffee poured over ice. Ms. Aleman concurred. "I think it has a good coffee flavor, but it's not very strong." She added, "I also feel like the coffee needs to be exposed to the water a little bit more."

This revealed a potential downside to cold-brewing's claims about low acidity. Removing acidity also takes away some more-desirable flavor notes. "The different flavor notes including brightness—which means acidity—really add to the complexity of the coffee and to the flavor," Ms. Aleman said.

Next up was the Toddy cold-brew system ($37.50 at toddycafe.com), around since 1964 and the method used in Seattle's Best shops. Julia Leach, co-owner of Toddy, based in Fort Collins, Colo., calls it "deceptively simple, excessively delicious." We found it simple, but also a bit awkward. We put 12 ounces of coffee and seven cups of water into a bucket-type container (following directions to add them in layers) and let it sit overnight. In the morning, we removed a stopper from the bottom of the bucket, and the coffee dripped through a filter into a glass carafe.

Our experts were impressed. "Sweeter," Ms. Fok said, taking her first sip. "More complex than the other one for sure." "I think you get more of the coffee notes," Ms. Aleman added.

Hourglass ($59.95 at hourglasscoffee.com) looks like a science project. It's a big, blue hourglass-shaped bottle that houses a metal coffee-filter basket in one end. At night, you put coffee in the filter basket, fit it into the brew chamber, add water and let it steep overnight. In the morning, you flip it over, and the coffee concentrate filters down into the hourglass's other chamber. There's a small carafe that you can use to store the concentrate in the fridge. We used the suggested proportions—two-and-1/4 cups of coffee and three-and-1/2 cups of water. "It's dark," said Ms. Aleman. "It's a lot stronger."

The Hourglass iced coffee also looked different than the others, with an oily sheen. "I think it's letting more of the oil of the coffee bean come through," Ms. Aleman said.

And then there was the taste. "These are the sour notes you don't want," said Ms. Fok, adding that a coarser grind of coffee might have produced better results. (Ms. Kapp, of Bean Logik, said a coarser grind is recommended; she said Hourglass coffee has 82% less cafestol, an oil-producing substance in coffee.)

Our next contestant was the Mr. Coffee Iced Tea Maker ($19.99 at Target); it also works with coffee. Following the instructions for making one quart, we poured water into the gadget's reservoir, put ice in the pitcher and measured six tablespoons of coffee into the filter.

"It looks really light," Ms. Aleman said, when the brewing was done. "Tea-like," Ms. Fok chimed in. Fortunately, the solution is easy. "I think definitely more coffee," Ms. Aleman said.

This batch highlighted the importance of an unexpected variable in iced coffee: ice-cube size. Especially with hot-brewing, "the ice cubes can't be too small," Ms. Aleman cautioned. She recommends cubes the size of those found in home-freezer trays. "They won't melt as fast and will lower the temperature of the coffee faster," she said.

As for sweetener, granulated sugar may not be best. "Since the coffee is cold, and the ice is making it even colder, it's going to take a lot longer for the sugar crystals to melt." Ms. Aleman said. She likes agave nectar, simple syrup or even an artificial sweetener, if it will be added to cold coffee. Or measure the sugar in with the ground coffee before hot-brewing in coffee and espresso makers.

Starbucks Via instant iced-coffee was by far the easiest method—and the most expensive (a box of five servings cost $5.95). We added one packet to 16-ounces of water and stirred; ice is optional. The coffee is lightly presweetened; milk or cream is up to the user, just like at a Starbucks shop.

Our experts thought Via was easy—and they also thought it tasted like instant coffee. "It has a really granulated mouth feel to me," Ms. Aleman said. "This is sugar sweet," Ms. Fok said. (Lara Wyss, a Starbucks spokeswoman, says Via dissolves well in cold water, and research showed people wanted some sweetness. "We think it's a great and innovative new product," she said.)

So what was the verdict? Ms. Aleman voted for the Toddy iced coffee maker. "I thought it was very nice. But I would like to have tasted the hot brew done properly," she said. Ms. Fok chose Mr. Coffee. "Despite the watered down version, I do love the hot-brew," she said. When done correctly, she said, "it definitely brings out the full characteristics of notes you have in a good coffee bean."

1 comment:

  1. I have the Hourglass and I have never had an oily residue, not sure what they did wrong there but my coffee always is delicious. I have tried every which way to cold brew coffee and the hourglass is by far the easiest to use. I love the little container to carry the coffee in, we have taken that little guy on camping trips with us all summer. I also contacted the company when I had a small problem and they got right back to me and solved the issue right away. Great customer service is a lost art and these people know how to run a great business....and make a great coffee maker too.