In the late aughts, back when I started drinking coffee in earnest, an iced coffee meant a few shots of espresso poured over ice water—or in less scrupulous establishments, piping hot drip coffee pumped into a cup overflowing with ice cubes.
After moving to Seattle five years ago, a new piece of nomenclature entered my vocabulary: cold brew. A terse and tantalizing little term. Not beer, but coffee. Brewed somehow without heat. I had to try it immediately.
The unbridled joy of that first taste was followed immediately by the shame of my previous ignorance. Hot coffee over ice? How barbaric in its acidity. Such an unpleasant aftertaste. Oh, but cold brew. That velvety mouthfeel, the clean flavors, how it hugs the ice cubes rather than obliterating them on contact. And so much caffeine. It was the most-coffee coffee I’d ever tried.
When I started working for a coffee shop, I made huge batches of the stuff. It was a wonderfully sensual experience. I’d grind five-pound bags of our darkest beans, oily from roasting, dump it all into a plastic tub plugged by a thick cloth filter, and pour gallons of cold water onto the grounds, like watering a thirsty plant, which bubbled up intoxicating, earthy smells. The mixture would steep until the next morning, when I’d let the concentrate flow into glass pitchers. So much work to produce so small a thing.
Over the next few years, Seattle at large also discovered its attraction to cold brew. From June to September, sandwich boards lined the sidewalk promising delicious brews, so cold, at every shop from Greenwood to Georgetown. It didn’t matter that, yes, we all made our brews essentially the same way—any summertime coffee drinker worthy of their loyalty punch card had to pick a favorite.
But perfectly simple pleasures rarely stay that way. Before long, coffee shops from tiny Porchlight to bigtime roasters like Stumptown began to bottle and label their own cold brew. Other shops began shaking it, served foamy and short with a twist. Roasters started adding nitro to cold brew and dispensing it from a tap. Others thought it might be a good idea to throw in some hops so it tasted funky like beer (it wasn’t). Tillamook recently released a cold brew coffee ice cream. Now cold brew’s in the grocery store, presweetened and served in milk cartons, with the consistency of a melted milk shake.
Starbucks started selling it this year, the recipe probably perfected on the molecular level to mass-produce peak flavor and body. I regularly sit through Starbucks cold-brew ads before YouTube videos, my coffee coming-of-age-moment succumbing to porny streams of half-and-half making patterns in a cup of black behind the forever grin of that mermaid.
All there is left to do, cold brew, is dream about that summer when we first met—when things felt so fresh and new, uncorrupted by a desire to always be moving things forward. I can’t fault Seattle coffee shops their call to nerd out on coffee. But the period of time between discovering something and it becoming a Thing seems to be getting shorter and shorter. With that, I’ll be getting back to my espresso tonic.