The search for a better iced coffee

Posted Aug. 23, 2011, at 4:27 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 24, 2011, at 8:12 p.m.
Forget just dumping the morning leftover brew into some ice, special cold brewing iced coffee makers elevate the flavors.
Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT
Forget just dumping the morning leftover brew into some ice, special cold brewing iced coffee makers elevate the flavors.

If you’re still making iced coffee by dumping the morning’s tepid leftovers into a cup of ice, then I have three words for you: “Stop. It. Please!”

Like you, I used to think this thrifty move was a nifty way to turn morning coffee into an afternoon pick-me-up, even if it did taste stale, watery and sour.

But just as cafes have become much more serious about their iced coffee brewing — most no longer just transfer the day’s leftovers into a pitcher — so have many home iced coffee brewers.

In response, Starbucks, Seattle’s Best and Keurig have all recently launched new blends specially designed for those who want their iced coffee at home to taste as good as the stuff they get at the cafe.

Iced coffee brewing aficionados, however, don’t always see eye to eye on how to achieve this feat. In recent years, they’ve divided into two distinct brewing tribes: cold brew fans and Japanese iced coffee fans.

To many, Peter Giuliano, co-owner of North Carolina-based company Counter Culture Coffee, is the American father of the Japanese iced coffee method, which he honed in the early 2000s after a palate-changing visit to Japan.

As the current president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, he admits, with some embarrassment, that he grew up in a household where iced coffee was made with stale leftovers. “But then I went to Japan in the late ’90s and tasted iced coffee like I’d never had before.”

Giuliano would spend the next few years cultivating a relationship with Japanese coffee master Hidetaka Hayashi and trying to figure out just what made Japanese iced coffee so different and delicious.

Eventually the “Coffee Kid” would discover the key.

“I learned that the secret is to brew the coffee right onto the ice so it’s hot for a second or less,” said Giuliano. “Since the ice melts, you also have to do a little bit of math to make sure you are not watering down the coffee too much in the process.”

In 2004, he introduced this technique — using precise timing and measurements of coffee, ice and water — to the American coffee world, where it has attracted a loyal following for the vibrant flavor spectrum it captures in a cold beverage. While the hot water activates a full bouquet of flavors, the immediate cooling slows oxidation and reduces flavor deterioration.

Giuliano disciples can be found at Counter Culture Coffee cafes and classrooms across the country, and Starbucks prescribes Japanese-based technique for its new iced coffee bean packages.

While Japanese-method fans revel in the vibrant flavors it delivers, cold brew (or Toddy method) fans celebrate the fruity, smooth, low-acid and lower-caffeine java they make without heat.

Cold brewers can either buy a Toddy machine or simply mix a cup of coarsely ground coffee in a half-gallon jar of cold water, seal it and let it sit at room temperature for 12 or more hours. Once strained through a coffee filter, the resulting coffee syrup can be bottled, refrigerated and used for up to a month. It’s good in cold milk or over ice, but many also mix it with hot water for a smooth, hot cup of joe.

A third method calls for brewing double-strength coffee and simply pouring it over ice. And Starbucks’ line of instant powdered coffees produces a decent cup of iced coffee in a pinch.

But which one of these methods tastes best?

We recently conducted a blind taste, offering samples of all four methods. Tasters consistently chose the Japanese iced coffee, calling its flavors rich, bright and bold.

Cold brew, with its lower acid and fruity drinkability came in second, with tasters noting its sweetness and similarities to iced tea.

But whichever of these methods you choose, we can guarantee you one thing: They’ll taste a lot better than those nasty leftovers we’ve all been chugging with ice for years.

Tips

For iced coffee, skip darkly roasted Indonesian coffees for lightly roasted, fruit-forward African or Latin American beans.

Regardless of how you brew your hot coffee, make it strong, optimally double strength, then dilute to taste.

Chill hot coffee as quickly as possible to slow oxidation and the formation of quinic acid that can turn the coffee sour.

The Japanese method

Drip cone or Chemex maker with appropriate filter

Equal amounts (by weight) hot water (195-205 degrees) and ice

Fresh-roasted coffee beans: 1.8 grams coffee (about 1½ teaspoons ground) to ½ ounce water and ½ ounce ice; or 14.4 grams ground (just shy of ¼ cup) for 4 ounces water and 4 ounces ice

Weigh ice to ensure it equals half the total liquid you will use. One ounce of water by volume weighs 1 ounce, so it’s easy to weigh the ice and then measure the water by volume. Grind coffee just before brewing. Brew coffee directly onto ice using the pour-over method: Set a drip cone over a pitcher or cup with the ice (or use a Chemex maker); soak grounds with a little of the hot water; wait 30 seconds; pour in remaining water.

Source: Counter Culture Coffee

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