My kids love visiting Starbucks for their cold-coffee sweet treats, but I’ve found myself preferring the bitter side of things as I get older. When a friend praised local roaster Dark Horse Coffee’s cold brew, I picked some up, and talked to sales manager Eli Carter while I was at it.
“What cold brew does is effectively make a really smooth and low-acid coffee. Hot-brew coffee can be brighter and more fruity; cold brew has a more mellow flavor. If you brew coffee hot and then pour it over ice, it gets diluted. You lose flavor. We make our cold brew by mixing coarsely ground coffee with cold filtered water. Then we let it sit for 24 hours. Some people brew for 12 or 15 hours, but we find 24 gives the best flavor. We use a blend of Brazilian and Guatemalan coffees. It’s very chocolate- and almond-forward. The result is a concentrate; we recommend a proportion of two parts coffee to one part water.” Dark Horse sells a 32 oz. growler of cold-brew concentrate for $20; if you bring the growler back, you can get it refilled for $15.
I grabbed my growler and then hit a few markets to set up a cold-brew tasting with my husband Patrick. We started with Stumptown ($3.99 for 10.5 oz. at Vons). Patrick: “It smells like coffee beans, but the flavor is citrus fruity — not as mellow as I’d hoped.” And weirdly, it was much redder than the Kona Red cold brew ($3.99 for 12 oz. at Vons), which was more of a murky greenish-brown. “Delightfully low-acid,” I said, “and I love the deep roasty smell. There’s molasses at the core, but the finish is very light — it hits and disappears.” We got another light finish from the Chameleon Organic Cold Brew Espresso ($4.04 for 10 oz. at Whole Foods), but Patrick said, “It’s both sour and bitter at the core. Makes you screw up your face. I can smell a little cocoa, but that’s the only real virtue.”
Lucky Jack Organic Nitro Cold Brew ($4.04 for 10 oz. at Whole Foods) provided a change of pace, fizzing up as we popped the top. “The froth makes it look like a nut-brown ale,” I noted. “And the fizz makes the fruity nose spread throughout my sinus.” We agreed there was a tropical note under the dominant roasty flavor and that the super-long finish was aided by the bubbles on the tongue. Alas, the next two entries were stinkers. Ground Works Organic Cold Brew ($3.04 for 10 oz. at Whole Foods) had a pop top but no fizz, a vegetal smell, and a taste reminiscent of wet wood. And Venice Cold Brew ($4.99 for 12 oz. at Whole Foods) smelled and tasted like cheap diner coffee. “I get orange peel acid, but no fruitiness,” I said. “Kind of a failed cold brew there.”
It was followed by a super success, and a local one at that. Modern Times Cold Brew can be had at Whole Foods in a can ($4.34 for 12 oz.), or on tap ($2.95 for 16 oz.), or in a growler ($7.95 for 32 oz., $5 refills). “Wow, but that smells like blueberries,” said Patrick. “And it tastes like blueberries, too,” I added, “with a chocolate finish. And it’s so well balanced: there’s acid, but it’s just enough to give zing, not sting.”
We finished up with the concentrates and scored another local success with the Dark Horse Cold Brew Concentrate. We both admired the hazelnut note on the nose that seemed to turn into toasted almonds on the tongue, and the slightly bitter chocolate finish. Oddly, we didn’t find any nutty flavors in the Secret Squirrel Organic Cold Brew Concentrate ($9.99 for 16 oz. at Whole Foods), but we did enjoy the unusually round and mellow texture. Good thing, because there wasn’t much in the way of distinct tastes, and just a slight pine note on the nose.
We had high hopes for a classic Trader Joe’s bargain in the concentrate department, but we were disappointed. The regular ($7.99 for 32 oz.) smelled acrid and finished burnt, and while the more expensive French Roast ($9.99) offered a richer flavor, it finished with a lingering taste of stale grounds.