Lifestyle | Consumer Tech: Cold-brewed coffee at home fills a tall order

Iced coffee, how I used to mock you. Make my coffee hot, black and flowing from a French press or espresso machine, thank you very much.

Cream and sugar is fine -- for children. Once you start messing with the temperature and natural flavor of coffee, it's a slippery slope ending in frothy, icy, sickeningly sweet concoctions.

You see, I'm fussy about coffee. I'm the purist sipping a steaming hot cup, even in the dog days of summer.

Then, one particularly sweltering day in Chicago last month, I broke down and had an iced coffee at a local Caribou Coffee; a large with a vanilla soy topper and one packet of raw sugar, to be precise. I was stunned. This velvety smooth, deeply refreshing, richly satisfying beverage was nothing less than a revelation in caffeine delivery.

The Caribou employee explained that this was a typical, if somewhat extreme, reaction to their cold-brewing process.

I had previously heard about cold-brewed iced coffee's popularity in New Orleans, where they add a little chicory to the mix. When I started digging deeper for information, I came across coffee blogs with postings from coffee freaks, all extolling the many virtues of the cold-brewing process.

The most common claim was that the cold-brewed beverage contained little of the acid and harsh taste of its traditionally prepared counterpart. Dozens of folks who could no longer enjoy coffee at all due to sensitive stomachs, acid indigestion or some form of gastroesophageal reflux were back on the java train thanks to cold-brewing.

Even if you have guts of steel, you couldn't get a better tasting brew, they said.

I was sold on the concept. Now I wanted to put the process to the test at home.

Cold Toddy

The most frequently recommended system is the Toddy Cold Brew System ($35, toddycafe.com) available online and at Seattle's Best coffee shops. While home espresso and coffee machines have been getting increasingly complex over the years (witness the rise of the super-automatic espresso machine), the Toddy is the very essence of simple, utilitarian technology. Included in the kit is the brewing container, two reusable filters, a small rubber stopper and a glass carafe.

Setup couldn't be simpler. Wet the filter, fit it in the bottom of the container and follow the steps to add the ground coffee and water. Don't follow my example and forget the stopper in the bottom!

Cold-brewing is not for a quick coffee fix, at least initially. At least 12 hours are required to let the water draw out all the goodness from the ground coffee. I whipped up a batch in the early evening for my hopeful enjoyment the next morning.

Sweat the details

A few words on ingredients. Good tasting water is essential for good tasting coffee. If your tap water tastes like rust, opt for filtered or purified water. The quality of coffee is obviously of critical importance. Caribou recommends a darker roast, though any coffee from a reputable company will do. The grind must be coarse, just like what you'd use for a French press, or you'll end up with a gritty brew.

Being the picky freak that I am, I ground a medium-dark roast Ethiopian bean using the sublime Breville Conical Burr grinder ($100, brevilleusa.com). Each batch of Toddy brew calls for 1 pound of coffee, which will quickly overwhelm one of those little blade grinders. The Breville not only grinds beans with Swiss precision but handles half-pound batches, making measurements a snap.

So let's cut to the chase. Twelve hours later I was yanking the stopper out and watching the inky black fluid slowly drain into the carafe. In about 15 minutes the carafe was full of cold-brewed concentrate.

Toddy suggests a ratio of between 2 to 1 and 3 to 1 (two or three parts water and or milk to one part concentrate). Being hard core, I went with equal parts concentrate and water. In went a healthy dose of ice and a generous helping of vanilla soy milk.

The result was simply intoxicating. I had a flash of my first sip of espresso at the tender age of 14. Velvety smooth, a hint of bitter chocolate and full-bodied flavor enveloped me. The absence of bitterness or biting, acidic finish was nearly as striking as the gorgeous flavor.

Something different

During my research I came across a most curious device. If the Toddy is efficiency, the Coffee Snob Cold Drip Coffee Maker ($85, coffee-snob.com) is pure extravagance (see photo on C1). Coffee Snob's kit looks like a 19th-century mad scientist's prop.

A glass globe is filled with ice, producing a slow, steady supply of chilled water as it melts. The spigot below is adjusted to allow one drop of water per second to drip into the ground-coffee container. This process continues at a glacial pace for six to eight hours as the small carafe fills with concentrate.

The Coffee Snob device is the kind of curio that will catch anyone's eye, and the cold-brewed concentrate is nearly indistinguishable from the Toddy's delectable elixir.

If you're making coffee for more than one, it's worth noting that one brew cycle with the Toddy produces about 48 ounces, while the Coffee Snob batch is half that. Cold-brewed concentrate can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks without losing any of its taste. Running out of my new favorite drink is the last thing I want happening, especially when it takes hours to prepare.

When summer fades, or you're in the air-conditioned deep freeze at work, the concentrate apparently makes equally delectable hot coffee. Just dilute to taste with boiling water and enjoy.

I haven't tried the hot variety yet, but after choking down a cup of office coffee today, I'll be packing a flask of cold-brewed in my bag from now on.

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