Once available only in high-end coffee shops, cold-brew coffees now fill supermarket shelves. We sampled both concentrates and ready-to-drink versions to find the best.
Published Jan. 15, 2021. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 23: Breakfast of Champions
Once upon a time, cold-brew coffee could be found only at the trendiest coffee shops and in the home kitchens of the most devoted coffee drinkers. Now it’s increasingly available and appears to be here to stay; many grocery stores stock dozens of different cold brews, and even more are available for purchase online. DIY cold brew generally requires 12 to 24 hours of steeping time, so these premade options are tempting timesavers.
Some store-bought cold brews are available as concentrates, ultraintense brews that are intended to be diluted with water or milk to make individual cups of coffee. Others are sold as ready-to-drink products that don’t require dilution. We purchased eight kinds of packaged unsweetened cold-brew coffee: four concentrates and four ready-to-drink brews. They were priced from about $0.05 to about $0.40 per fluid ounce. Three of the products we sampled were brewed with chicory root, an ingredient commonly found in New Orleans–style coffee. We sampled all the products plain and with milk, taking note of each coffee’s flavor, body, and acidity.
Many factors affect coffee's flavor, and one of them is brewing time. Hot water (from 195 to 205 degrees) pulls flavorful compounds out of ground coffee quickly, so hot coffee typically brews for a relatively short period of time—less than 8 minutes. Cold-brew coffee takes much longer to brew because the water is cooler (typically 40 to 80 degrees) and pulls the flavorful molecules out of the ground coffee more slowly. For cold brew, commercial manufacturers often let their coffee and water steep in large tanks for 10 hours or more, and our at-home DIY method takes 24 hours. Cold water also doesn't extract as many harsh acids from coffee as hot water does, which is why cold-brew coffee is known for being smoother and less acidic than hot brewed coffee.
Whether done on an industrial scale or in your own kitchen, the cold-brewing process traditionally yields a concentrate that is later diluted to the strength of a standard cup of coffee. Of the products in our lineup, we were able to confirm that four are brewed as concentrates and one is brewed at regular strength. The other three companies declined to share information about their methods. Regardless of the strength to which it is brewed, there are advantages to making and selling cold-brew concentrate. Concentrates are easier and cheaper to produce, package, store, and distribute on an industrial scale, since using less water saves space throughout the process, and the finished product weighs less. These storage and price advantages a...
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Chase is an associate editor for ATK Reviews. He's an epidemiologist-turned-equipment tester and biscuit enthusiast.