You’ve just spent the last 45 minutes squeezed into a metal tube with hundreds of other sweaty people, hurtling under the streets of London in searing 30˚C heat. As you plod towards your favourite independent cafe all hot and bothered, is there an alternative to your usual flat white? Next time you’re in this scenario, ask your barista for a cold brew coffee.
Far from the sugary sweet, mocha-choca-frappuccino guzzled by hordes traipsing down Oxford Street, cold brew is a more subtle coffee drink, generally producing a fresher, cleaner, sweeter taste. Last year, at Caffeine magazine (I’m the title’s founder), we dubbed it “the summer of cold brew” in London. Cafes were selling out within hours of opening their doors as the public lapped up this smooth, chilled beverage. With no clear brand leader, most cafes were making it themselves and bottling it to look like moonshine complete with handwritten labels and a caffeine kick to match.
Unlike hot coffee, which is brewed in a matter of seconds or minutes (depending on your method), cold brew is created by steeping ground coffee in cold water for up to 24 hours, then double filtered to clear any particles or cloudiness and even pasteurised for a longer shelf life. This long, slow brewing time brings out different characteristics in the coffee such as low acidity and mellow flavours. Many attribute acidity with bitterness in coffee but because of its slow brewing time, this doesn’t happen. Be careful though: draining a small, 200ml bottle is estimated to be the equivalent to necking four espressos. That’ll give you wings.
Nothing stands still in London for long and the coffee scene is no different. Straight-up cold brew is now in every quality cafe across town, but what you may want to seek out is the pimped version. Just over a year since they sold their first bottle in TAP Coffee, Sandows is forging ahead with its nitro cold brew. “We’ve taken inspiration from the beer scene,” says Sandows co-owner Luke Suddards. The coffee is kegged, then nitrogen is forced through the line and into a valve to create a Guinness-y head.”
It produces a very smooth, thick, almost buttery drink, quite different in texture to the standard brew. Reinforcing its position as the market leader, Sandows is already being stocked by Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Fortnum & Mason, and nationwide distribution is now in place. Until now, Sandows has been buying coffee from many of its friends at London’s artisan coffee roasters but it is teaming up with Hackney-based Climpson & Sons and creating its own blend specifically to be used in its cold brew.
The Achilles heel of cold brew is its shelf life, generally limited to a few weeks. Last year saw the emergence of another cold-brew brand, Minor Figures. It has come at things from a different angle and pasteurised and Tetra Pak-ed its drink in a bid to hit a bigger market, boasting both high quality with a long shelf life. In principle, brewing coffee like this is a pretty simple affair, something anyone at home can experiment with. Minor Figures is going all hi tech with a view to the future: “We are hugely interested in flavour,” states co-founder Stuart Forsyth, “so have built into our system the potential to improve by varying temperature, capturing aromatics, ability to brew inside vacuum chambers and using supercritical CO2 fluid extractions.”
Proving Minor Figures is covering all bases, at the recent London Coffee Festival, it teamed up with premium gelato maker Gelupo and created cold-brew granitas to combat those scorching heatwaves we’ll experience this year. We’re hoping that Gelupo will continue to make its granitas available to their customers throughout the summer, perfect for lounging in the park on a summer day.
The obvious third way to drink cold brew is with alcohol and again this can be approached in a number of ways. Sandows latest wheeze is to team up with Fourpure Brewing Company in Bermondsey to create a coffee pale ale. There have been many coffee beers in the past but these usually are the heavier stouts and porters. The coffee pale ale is much fresher and cleaner with the bitterness of the hops leading to an almost blood-orange taste. We found the coffee not to be overpowering but complemented by the hops. “We brewed the beer exactly the same way and then Luke Suddards brought the coffee down and introduced it to the beer,” says Max Meighen from Fourpure.
Looking for a more sophisticated twist? Innovative cocktail bar Whyte Lyan has been busy creating an ironic twist on the Zoolander-famed orange mocha frappuccino, mixing a Mast Brothers cocoa-nib syrup with nitro cold brew and orange distillate to create a luxurious drink. Imagine blending a Terry’s Chocolate Orange and you come close to the taste. Cold brew is making a niche for itself and is a great ingredient to be exploited by the capital’s mixologists. We hear that mixing it with gin and tonic creates a fantastic blend that’ll keep you going all night while still enjoying the party.
Mixed, brewed or drunk straight, cold brew is proving that the industry does not intend to stop innovating, so give it a try as an alternative to your regular cup o’joe when the mercury climbs. ML
Scott Bentley is the founder of Caffeine magazine; available at caffeinemag.com and in good independent coffee shops.