Once found only in boutique coffeehouses, cold-brew coffee has grown up: One in five Americans say they drink cold-brew coffee regularly or occasionally, according to a 2019 report from the National Coffee Association.
Starbucks and Peet’s now sell it by the cup in their shops, and you can buy ready-to-drink bottled cold brew from brands such as Califia Farms, Chameleon, Stumptown, and Slingshot at many grocery stores.
Not surprisingly, several appliance makers eager to cash in on the trend sell low-tech systems that take the mess out of mixing up a batch of cold-brew coffee at home. Read our review of cold-brew coffee makers, which covers the Bruer Cold Bruer, Oxo Cold Brew, BodyBrew The Bod, Toddy Cold Brew System, and Fellow Duo Coffee Steeper.
Cold-Brew Coffee 101
Cold-brew coffee is a very different beast from either iced coffee or the bottled coffee products (cappuccino, mochaccino, and other coffee-based drinks) sold at the supermarket. All of those start with standard hot coffee that’s then chilled, creating a drink that has all of the bitterness and acidity of regular coffee, just minus the heat.
To mask that bitterness, many coffee drinkers (and manufacturers of the bottled beverages) add heaps of sugar and glugs of milk or cream—and plenty of calories with them. Cold-brew coffee, on the other hand, is brewed in cold or room-temperature water over many hours (usually 12 to 24 hours) and yields a brew that tastes smoother with less bitterness and acidity.
Cold brew is made with the same beans you’d use for regular coffee, but they’re ground more coarsely. To avoid a weak, watery drink, cold-brew coffee also requires at least twice the grounds needed for traditional hot brewing, which explains why cold-brew coffee can be pricey, whether you buy it at a coffeehouse or supermarket, or whip up a batch at home.
“If you’re buying bottled or canned coffee, check the label to avoid added sugar, sodium, or other ingredients,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a Consumer Reports nutritionist. “Making it yourself will put you in control of what’s in your coffee.”
To capitalize on the cold-brew craze, some coffee maker manufacturers have attempted to speed up the process. For example, Ninja makes a model that brews a lukewarm “cold brew” in just 15 minutes. Our expert taste tester said that while it doesn’t taste like true cold brew, it does make for good iced coffee.
Make no mistake: Do-it-yourself cold-brew coffee makers aren’t a necessity; they’re essentially steeping chambers for the water and grounds. But they make preparing and filtering the coffee neater and less cumbersome. (Trying to make cold-brew coffee using, say, a carafe and cheesecloth can be a messy and tedious affair.) The machines also make it easier to experiment with the ratio of water to coffee until you find the one that produces the cup best-suited to your tastes.
What comes out of most cold-brew coffee makers after all of that steeping isn’t ready to enjoy. It’s a thick concentrate that you dilute with cold or hot water or milk, depending on the desired temperature and strength, before drinking.
The Bitter Truth
Why bother with all of the added time and expense of cold brew? Because of how it goes down. Fans say that cold brewing makes for a far smoother drink, without much of the bitterness and acidity of traditional coffee. In fact, a cold-brew coffee and a hot-brew coffee made with identical grounds will have a completely different flavor profile because compounds in the beans react very differently to cold water than they do to hot.
Cold brew might also be a healthier choice than traditional iced or chilled coffee drinks. Because of its distinctly mild flavor, drinkers are less likely to load up cold brew with milk and sugar—and all of the added calories they bring.
Another selling point of cold-brew coffee is its extended shelf life: It will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Regularly brewed coffee doesn’t store well in the fridge and starts to go stale shortly after it’s made because of an aromatic compound that degrades as it cools—all something to keep in mind this summer when you’re looking for a pick-me-up that will also cool you down.