The Right Way to Brew Iced Coffee


Photo by [cipher]/Flickr CC

It's still summer here, 100 degrees this afternoon, and I'm thinking about cold coffee refreshment. Maybe it's the heat; I suddenly remembered the comment to my iced coffee post a few weeks ago, extolling the virtues of cold water extraction. I let it pass at the time. I prefer to write about things I like, and let you infer the rest. But I do want you to enjoy true coffee flavor in your iced coffee, just as I do.

There are two well-known "systems" for making cold coffee extract, Toddy and Filtropa. You can also use a presspot or some other vessel. The process is simple: coarsely ground coffee is steeped overnight in room-temperature water. Then the extract is filtered to remove the sediment and put in the refrigerator. Pull it out when you want coffee. Dilute the extract by adding hot water or cold depending on your mood.

I find the extract to be weak and insipid. Low-temperature brewing (see below) doesn't make for a satisfying, flavorful cup. Diluting it makes it weak in the extreme. If I were to drink cold-water coffee, I would drink the extract undiluted. It's not strong at all. This makes for more expensive coffee. You only get about 29 fluid ounces, undiluted, from a pound of beans, compared to 225 fl. oz. from a pound brewed at 200 degrees.

My point is that I want some acidity in my coffee to help me perceive all the flavors. I find cold-water coffee to be lacking in acidity and therefore in flavor.

One of the claimed benefits of cold-water extraction, in addition to convenience, is the lack of acidity, so those who have sensitive stomachs can still enjoy coffee. Since one's stomach produces hydrochloric acid for digestion, and the stomach naturally is an extremely acid environment (pH under 2), and coffee pH averages 5 to 6, I'm not sure coffee is the culprit. But I'll leave that to the gastro-intestinal doctors.

At least one writer claims it's a myth that coffee causes an acid stomach. More important to me is that acidity is a required part of the structure of taste. I distinguish between palate acidity and stomach acidity so I can focus on taste, leaving the stomach part to the experts. The presence of some acidity in the taste greatly enhances the appreciation of other flavors. This is especially true with some sweet things. Fruit jam, for example, may just coat your taste buds with cloying, fruity sweetness. Smart jam-makers add some lemon juice for acidity. Then your mouth lights up: the cloying quality diminishes, and the fruit flavors become more prominent.

It's the same with wines. I notice it particularly with white wines. If there is some acidity, we will enjoy the floral qualities of Sauvignon Blanc or of Riesling much more than if the acidity is missing. When the acidity is missing, most people taste sweetness--even if in fact the wine is not sweet but floral. When the acidity is present, the wine is in better balance and your palate is enlivened.

But I digress. My point is that I want some acidity in my coffee to help me perceive all the flavors. I find cold-water coffee to be lacking in acidity and therefore in flavor. Perhaps the enthusiasts of cold-water coffee are using sugar or milk that might mask the lack of flavor. It's well known that the temperature of the water is crucial to good brewing. The lack of temperature is what causes most coffee made in inexpensive automatic drip makers to be either insipid, from too low a brewing temperature, or bitter, from too long in the brew chamber.

Brewing is the method we use to extract the good soluble solids from coffee. Not enough extraction leaves an insipid brew, as in cold-water extraction; too much extraction from brewing that is too long or too hot produces bitterness. But brewing the correct grind for the maker at the right temperature (195 to 205 Fahrenheit) and the right time (3 to 5 minutes) gives you what we have all been seeking these last 1,000 years: a good cup of coffee.

For a good cup of coffee--hot or cold--brew it hot for flavor, then serve it at any temperature you want.

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Jerry Baldwin is co-founder of Starbucks in Seattle, where he was the first roaster and coffee buyer. More

Gerald Baldwin purchased Peet's Coffee and Tea in Berkeley, California, in 1984, and worked diligently to sustain the vision of the founder, Alfred Peet. He remains involved as a member of the board of directors. Jerry was a co-founder of Starbucks in Seattle, where he was the first roaster and coffee buyer. He remained involved until 1987 when he sold the company of eight stores. He accepts no credit (or blame) for the ensuing twenty-odd years. He also serves as a member of the board of TechnoServe a non-profit NGO working to alleviate poverty in Africa and Latin America. He has also been Chairman and Trustee of Coffee Quality Institute and President and Director of Association Scientific Internationale du Café (ASIC). Baldwin is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, where he served as a director of the SCAA, and the the founding chairman of its Technical Standards Committee. Jerry was honored as Coffeeman of the Year for North America by Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, and he is an honorary member of the Kilimanjaro Specialty Coffee Growers Association, known as Kilicafe. Baldwin was a founding director of Red Hook Ale Brewery and a founding contributor of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He writes in Sonoma County, California, a few miles from M.F.K. Fisher's home in Glen Ellen, looking over his small vineyard. Jerry and his wife, Jane, produce small crops of olive oil and Zinfandel in the Valley of the Moon.

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