How did I become a cold brew coffee fanatic? I’m an odd case. I took a sip of my mom’s coffee when I was about five years old and decided it was the most vile, disgusting beverage imaginable. Sure, it was brewed to German standards and was strong enough to strip the chrome off a Harley (or BMW), but I was terrified by its taste. Terrified enough that I didn’t revisit drinking coffee again until my early 40’s. With kids, a never-ending to-do list, and, especially, working as a real estate agent, I realized I needed to extract more productivity out of myself. The solution? Coffee. But not just any coffee.
I eventually realized cold brew coffee actually tasted great, without the bitterness that still haunts me from my first childhood sip. Luckily for me (and you), making an amazingly delicious cup of hot or cold cold brew coffee is remarkably easy and requires almost no gear. Granted, it doesn’t involve power tools (unless you count the bean grinder), nor does it involve sawdust. . . but I think you’ll still find this cold brew coffee guide very useful. And, thanks to my trial and error, I’ll get you setup to make a great cold brew right off the bat, all for under $20.
It doesn’t take a math wizard to realize if you have a daily caffeine habit that involves going to a coffee shop, you’re probably spending a ridiculous amount of money on what ultimately is a relatively simple hot or cold beverage. Contrary to popular belief, “cold brew” refers only to the technique used to brew, NOT the beverage temperature (cold brew can be served up hot or cold). After my wife suggested we try going the DIY route with my blossoming caffeine addiction, I started to do a little research of my own. What I found was a myriad of devices and techniques.
My first cold brew coffee attempts were with the setup you see below (right side), which uses a stainless steel infuser to brew the coffee. While this setup worked, I found the lid did not seal very well, which is important to the cold brew staying fresh in the refrigerator. I also found that even with a coarse grind of beans, (more on that below), bean particles easily worked themselves through the porous stainless mesh.
Since I’m about efficiency, having to filter the coffee after brewing was an annoying and seemingly avoidable step. I also flirted with the idea of a fancy-pants drip style cold brew rig (seen to the right here), but that seemed a bit extreme. I like simplicity, so I eventually settled on a simple filter called CoffeeSock and a typical mason jar. With that simplicity came delicious results. You don’t need to spend well over $200 on a cold brew rig to get great tasting cold brew.
Cold Brew Coffee Equipment, Simplified
To cold brew, all you really need are two basic pieces of equipment; a closeable filter and a container. The nice thing about these is they are scalable. You can brew a small batch to make just a few cups, and there are commercial brewers that brew in five gallon buckets. I have settled on a half gallon setup which uses about 6 ounces of ground coffee. This lets me brew enough to get me through a typical work week (at least five or six 16 ounce iced coffee drinks, once diluted).
While you can use something called a nut milk bag (basically a giant mesh tea bag), I am a fan of the CoffeeSock. The CoffeeSock is sized according to different mason jars, making it easy to add the coffee grinds, and to get the last drips out of the filter once you’re done brewing. Believe it or not, the CoffeeSock is hand-sewn in Austin, Texas!
A Word on Water
As magical as the taste of a good cold brew coffee can be, it’s not capable of masking all other flavors. If you live in a city where your tap water smells like it just came out of the sewage processing plant in Chernobyl, (Phoenix, I’m talking to you), then tap water probably isn’t your best choice for cold brew. Regardless of where you live, filtered water is your best bet for a delicious cold brew coffee.
Cold Brew Bean Selection
I’m still in the bean selection phase, and have a feeling I might be in that phase indefinitely. Just as a wine connoisseur doesn’t typically pick a single grape variety and drink only that, a coffee aficionado also has a myriad of beans available to them. Coffee beans come from all over the world and they bring with them unique flavors specific to the land they originated from. Some taste fruity or even citrusy, others rich and chocolatey. My advice on bean selection is to keep experimenting long enough to find a favorite or two. As long as I have been using fresh, quality beans, I have yet to brew a really bad-tasting cold brew coffee.
Cold Brewing – Light, Medium or Dark Roast
Another question related to the coffee bean selection relates to light, medium or dark roast beans. Generally, conventional coffee wisdom says that coffee flavor is more nuanced and complex in light to medium roasts, and less so in dark roasts. The coffee ranges from more acidic in light roasts to almost not acidic at all in very dark roasts.
If your concern is acidity being too high, you will be happy to hear that cold brew coffee by it’s very nature tends to be less acidic. As a result, you might find yourself able to go with a lighter roast than you typically might want due to acidity levels. Like the actual beans themselves, bean roast level will come down to personal preferences. My advice is to experiment until you hit on a roast / flavor profile you like best.
Proper Grinding for Cold Brew
Cold brewing coffee relies on the water to be able to happily comingle with those tasty coffee grinds. If you do a fine grind on your beans, they’ll tend to clog (and in some cases, go through) your filter. A medium to coarse grind is ideally what you want to shoot for. There are two general types of coffee bean grinders; a blade grinder (as shown in this article) and a burr grinder (as seen to the right). With a blade grinder, getting the right grind is mostly a matter of timing. I run the grinder until the whole beans are no longer visible and maybe a second or two longer.
With a burr grinder, you can actually pre-set the coarseness prior to grinding the beans. Blade grinders tend to be cheaper, with a simpler design. Burr grinders are a little spendier, but offer far greater precision. Regardless of what grinder you use, be sure to grind just the beans you need right before brewing to maximize flavor and freshness in your cold brew.
How to Brew the Cold Brew
Cold brewing is about as easy as it gets, however, there are a few key details to optimize your cold brew coffee. Once you have your perfectly-ground beans into the filter, you’ll want to add just enough water to soak the beans and then wait a minute. This is referred to as the bloom. Magical, flavorful things happen during this minute of time as miniature unicorns nuzzle each granule of coffee, coaxing out rainbow-flavored deliciousness. Once the minute has elapsed and the unicorns are finished, slowly pour your filtered water over the beans until your container of choice is full.
Then just close up your filter so the grinds don’t spill out, and then seal your container. You can either let the coffee brew on your countertop, or in the fridge. I have done it either way with good results, but I typically see brewing in the fridge as most recommended. Here’s a quick overview of the process from our friends at CoffeeSock:
How Long to Brew When Cold Brewing
The answer to how long to cold brew depends on the size of your brewing container, amount of beans, etc. however for most personal use brews, a time of 12 to 24 hours is recommended. For my brews, I have settled on about 14 hours as my ideal. Unlike conventional brewing, cold brewing coffee is not an instant gratification process. You will need to plan ahead, however once you have your brew underway, no labor is required. Depending on how easily distracted you might be, setting an alarm can be a good way to make sure you don’t forget about your brew.
How to Serve Cold Brew Coffee
Once you have masterfully brewed your cold brew, it’s time to serve it up. With the brew completed, you’re left with a container full of golden tastiness. While you may be disheartened at the amount of cold brew coffee you produced, keep in mind in cold brewing you actually produce a concentrate. For most tastes, you’ll want to serve your cold brew about 50% cold brew concentrate, and 50% water and/or cream of some kind. Again, experimenting for your preferred strength is encouraged, however if you’d rather keep it simple, just go 50/50.
Cold Brew Served Hot
For reasons unknown to me, most people drink coffee hot. If that’s your “cup of tea”, then simply dilute your cold brew as specified above and heat your cup in the microwave (or stovetop if you’re old-school). Once heated, add your preferred cream and sweetener if desired. Stir, drink and enjoy!
Cold Brew Served Cold
My preferred way to drink just about anything is cold, and that goes for cold brew too. I like to start my glass with a healthy dose of simple syrup (more on that below). Then pour in your cold brew, filling about 50% of the glass. Since ice has an annoying tendency of melting, I factor in my ice into the 50% dilution. I’ll add some filtered water, a good amount of ice cubes. Finally, I finish it off with a splash of half and half. Although I have tried everything from rice milk, to powdered non-dairy creamer, to whole milk, half and half is my preferred cream. I also plan to try sweetened, condensed milk which happens to be one of the ingredients in my favorite cold brew beverage at Peet’s Coffee. Once you have your perfect ingredients, stir and enjoy!
Sweetener – How to Make Your Own Simple Syrup
Prior to discovering the joys of simple syrup, I tried stirring sugar directly into my iced cold brew coffee. As you might recall from high school chemistry, solids don’t dissolve well into cold liquids. The solution? Simple syrup. As the name implies, making simple syrup is wicked-easy. Even I can do it! I take two cups of water, heat to a boil and stir in two cups of cane sugar. Once the sugar is fully dissolved, let it cool down and then pour it into a sealable container which you can keep in your fridge.
The shelf life on this stuff is long, so make up a batch in whatever quantity you want, just keep it equal parts sugar and water. If you want to get fancy, you can infuse the simple syrup with flavor during the boil. I like to add a few drops of vanilla. Others like adding chickory. Keep in mind if you’re infusing with anything solid, you will want to filter that out prior to bottling the simple syrup. The beauty of simple syrup for cold drinks is that it essentially dissolves instantly when added to your iced beverage. . . just a quick stir and your good to go.
How Long Does Cold Brew Stay Fresh
Once you make your brew, keep it in a sealable container in your refrigerator. Some folks claim you can keep it for weeks that way, others say drink it within a few days. I regularly store mine refrigerated for up to a week without a real noticeable decline in taste, however that first glass right after the brew always tastes the best to me. Personally, I wouldn’t brew more than you can drink in a week or so.
Final Thoughts on Cold Brew
Unless you happen to be able to grow your own coffee beans and operate your own roaster, you’ll still be forking over some of your hard-earned loot to the likes of Starbucks, Peet’s or your other favorite local coffee shop and/or roaster. By my rough calculations, I’m paying about $1 per icey, tall cold brew coffee vs. closer to $4 at a local coffee shop. Oddly enough, I actually find I prefer the taste of my own brews to those I used to buy at the shop. Although brewing takes a little time and effort, I think I actually spend less time on my coffee since I’m not driving to the coffee shop and waiting in line daily. Although cold brewing has been a growing trend in the last year+, I am still surprised by how few people are aware of it. If you have any coffee-drinking friends, please share this article with them. Their tastebuds will thank you for it.
Whether you’re a cold brew pro or a newbie, let us know about your cold brewing experience and favorite brewing tips in the comments section below. Happy brewing!
Get the complete CoffeeSock Cold Brew Kit (includes the jar, lid and filter) for just under $20: