Anyone who has spoken to me prior to 10am only to be confronted by a bewildered glance followed by unsettling silence, knows that I am not so good at the morning.
Like many other adults, at a certain age, coffee became less an excuse to drink some frozen, blended, caramel milkshake thing and more of a simple necessity to make basic human function possible. Because luxury gave way to necessity, over the course of a few years, sugary, creamy, flavored “coffee” drinks, gave way to tried and true coffee-no-sugar-with-a-hit-of-cream, which finally gave way to the unadulterated black brew.
Along the course of this journey, it became increasingly clear that ever more converts would join my black congregation if there existed an increased understanding of the mundane details of grinding and brewing that affect the quality and flavor. As one begins to drink more black coffee, one begins to realize that only thoughtfully produced coffee is enjoyable without the crutches of sugar, cream, or other adulteration.
Now, I was about to go on a cliché tirade about the evil empire of Starbucks and its indoctrination of the unsuspecting masses into the cult of corn syrup and whipped cream, but I will refrain. (Don’t get used to such self-control.) Instead, I should simply state that I’m no Dr. Coffee Ph.D., but I’ve learned a few valuable lessons. Those lessons center around the aforementioned mundane details of the bean, the grind, and the extraction.
First: the bean. Maybe it’s my misconception, but it seems everyone is convinced that over-the-top dark roasts indicate some fancy level of European quality or some such nonsense. Evidently, that extra dark roasting is often used as a method for covering up inconsistent bean quality. And for cold brewed coffee in particular, a medium or lighter roast may be the preferred canvas because the dark, roasty quality can overpower the subtle floral and fruity notes that come out really beautifully from slow and gentle steeping. It comes down to individual taste, but I like a medium roast.
And as a bonus, lighter roasts have a higher caffeine content because caffeine is released in the roasting process. Added voltage!
It should be obvious that quality coffee beans are a necessity, but beyond that starting point, grinding and extraction should be the focus. I’ll spare you the granular and excruciating details for how to tackle these tasks, (especially since I’m still a novice myself) but I’d be pleased to provide an overview of a few things I’ve learned. A great resource for the minute details of grinding and extraction is The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee.
Before I talk about grinding, I should pause briefly to advocate for the purchase of a burr grinder. I have a personal disdain for that muddy sludge that results from the fine, dusty particles settling to the bottom of the cup; it is positively disgusting. That alone is a reason a burr grinder is worth the investment. It creates a consistent grind size, which means no large chunks, no chalky dust, no muddy sludge. Of course there's also the even extraction that results from consistent grind size, but the sludge is my personal pet peeve.
Yes, burr grinders are expensive, which is why I have a (still relatively expensive) $60 ceramic hand crank model instead of a pricey electric machine. The hand crank effort is worth the trouble compared to a crappy blade grinder, but it will most certainly result in your significant other shaking his or her head in bafflement when you spend five minutes each night whaling away at your coffee beans. That's okay! You’ll enjoy the smug knowledge that you have a greater connection to your food.
Also, you’ll enjoy your kick ass new Popeye-sized forearms.
Now, a lot of people will tell you that coarse grind is preferred for cold brew, and maybe they know a secret I don’t, but after much trail and sampling, I’d respectfully disagree. I go more toward the medium portion of the spectrum, which is large enough to avoid the aforementioned evil sludge, but small enough to theoretically improve extraction rate. Again, this is probably something that, for the amateur brewer, will require some experimentation to find a proper balance.
The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee is a bible for all things extraction, including some pretty esoteric methods, but it strangely does not include a section on cold brew. Their recipe for New Orleans Iced is available online, but it veers more in the direction of coffee that asks for cane sugar and cream. Fortunately, cold brew doesn’t require a recipe so much as it requires a little patience.
Some people make a concentrate and then dilute it each day as they pour their drink. I have veered more in that direction of late, but for a time, I was essentially brewing the drink-ready proportions. This is, once again, a situation where experimentation will serve your own distinct tastes and conveniences.
The extraction process couldn’t be more simple. You grind your beans, cover them with tepid water, and let the vessel sit on the counter overnight. That’s it.
Not only is it simple, but it’s elegant. You’ll detect notes of ripe fig, tart cherry, tobacco, dark chocolate. You’ll be surprised by the lack of astringency. You’ll certainly love the efficiency of brewing one large batch and having enough coffee for four or five servings.
Simple but elegant.
And let’s face it—simplicity is what the unwashed masses want from their caffeinated beverages. That's why people drink freeze-dried grinds that have been sitting in their cupboard for four months. That’s why the ocean will soon be a floating soup of empty K-cups and anthropologists of the future will believe that 21st century humans worshiped some kind of green mermaid.
We can do simple better.
Cold Brewed Iced Coffee Concentrate
Probably due to its ubiquity, It's easy to forget that coffee is likely the most complex beverage that many of us are going to make at home. Because brewing coffee is a complex chemical process, we should admit to ourselves that it may require some practice and some trial and error to achieve proper results.
If you give this method a try and adjust to your taste. Not what you want? Try any combination grinding finer or coarser, increasing or decreasing water-bean ratio, increasing or decreasing extraction interval.
And seriously, if you've never tried a pinch of salt in a solid cup of iced coffee, I implore you to do so. It absolutely makes the flavors sing.
- 4 oz. freshly ground medium or light roast coffee*
- Filtered water
- Kosher salt
*I bought a crummy digital scale to portion coffee beans by weight because variation in grind size will cause imprecision if coffee is measured by volume. It cost about eight bucks online and it works fine. If you don't want to bother, that's fine. Just start with about 3 cups of grounds for an 8 cup french press and adjust based on results.
Pour freshly ground coffee into 8 cup french press. Fill french press almost to the brim with filtered water and stir to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to steep for a minimum of 12 hours but up to a full 24. If extraction goes for the full 24 hours, liquid will be more concentrated and will need to be combined with more water to serve.
Using french press plunger, press grounds firmly to separate liquid. Line a fine-mesh strainer with a coffee filter or paper towel and rinse with water to remove any off flavors that may be present in the paper. Strain coffee concentrate into a bowl or other storage vessel such as a mason jar. You'll end up with about four or 5 servings of concentrate that can be stored in a sealed container for about a week.
To serve, fill a tall glass with coffee concentrate and water in approximately a 1 : 1 ratio, adjusting to taste. Sprinkle with a pinch of kosher salt and stir to dissolve.
Sip and enjoy.