Iced Coffee: The Expert's Guide


Photo by [cipher]/Flickr CC

Summer is definitely here in Sonoma's Valley of the Moon. After a mild June, we've had several blasts of 95-degree weather. Even when it's so hot in the afternoon, I still get the urge to enjoy the taste of my favorite beverage. But the very idea of hot coffee makes me perspire.

At these times, my love for the taste of coffee is undiminished, so it's time for cold. I'm aware that there are those who think that cold coffee is some sort of crime against coffea. A friend reported that he went into a coffee store on the east coast and overheard a coffee clerk react in horror to a customer's request for iced coffee.

Odd as we might think this reaction in ice-loving America, we should allow for the possibility that the barista was Italian: as Faith Willinger reported recently, Italians may like cold, but not ice. I can think of no cold coffee drink as elegant as Faith's shakerato--though since there is no "k" in authentic Italian words, we can only wonder about the provenance, even as we enjoy the taste and presentation.

Please don't think that cold coffee is a taste compromise. If a coffee doesn't taste good cold, then it's not great coffee.

Without question, chilling an espresso requires more restraint than press pot or filter coffee. And I do mean espresso. Small drinks are a tough sell to Americans. Espresso is a tiny part of the unit volume at an American coffee bar. Large sizes dominate the orders. When I was young and optimistic, I introduced a 6-ounce paper cup, the proper size for a traditional cappuccino. Thud! Later, sobered by reality, I acquiesced in the introduction of a 20-ounce cup. To my emotional dismay and financial advantage, it quickly soared to about 30 percent of our unit volume.

Please don't think that cold coffee is a taste compromise. In our cupping room, coffees are routinely cooled to room temperature for a final taste. Cool coffee reveals many secrets that are masked by heat. If a coffee doesn't taste good cold, then it's not great coffee. Cool coffee is stripped of its facade. It stands naked, revealing either its greatness or its artifice.

The same methods that produce a good cup of hot coffee also make coffee that's good cold or iced. The quickest refresher is an espresso poured over ice, or better yet, an espresso stirred quickly with ice before straining it into a cold glass. The heat of a freshly pulled espresso melts the ice quickly, so dilution of the espresso with melting ice quickly makes an Americano. If you have a cocktail shaker, treat yourself to a shakerato.

For press pot or drip coffee, the heat of freshly brewed coffee melts too much ice to make a satisfying drink. Forward planning is required. When you're brewing hot coffee, make more than you'll drink and make it stronger (You can dilute the morning cup with hot water, but you'll have prepared for a better iced coffee). Leave the pot at room temperature, or refrigerate. When it's time for the cold refresher, you'll be ready.

You already know that I prefer press pot to drip. Paper filter drip coffee at home is just not satisfying to me. This remains true when the coffee is iced. I recommend that you make your iced coffee from the strong, cooled version of your hot brew and you will likely enjoy the iced version.

In our stores, we brew extra strong (to compensate for the anticipated dilution of ice) drip coffee each morning, then let it cool to room temperature. When a customer orders an iced coffee, we pour it over ice.

At home, I'll brew a full press pot, put it in a pitcher covered with plastic wrap, and leave it in the refrigerator until it's time. For my taste, the refrigerated coffee is cold enough. But if you want to hear the clink of ice, pour the coffee over a glass of ice. If you use milk or cream, add it as you normally do. Sugar kills flavor, so I'm not a fan.

If you are making your iced coffee with milk from coffee that has not been refrigerated, pour the milk over the ice first. When it's cold, pour in the coffee. This way, you get less coffee dilution and a fuller flavored drink.

Another way to avoid the inevitable dilution is to make your ice cubes from strong coffee. As Zev Siegl showed me years ago, coffee ice cubes help make great iced coffee. Even if you have an ice maker refrigerator, you can still buy ice cube trays and make your own.

As with all things coffee, paying attention to the quality of coffee and brewing will pay taste dividends.

I love summer.