Is cold brew coffee overrated?

Peter Lancashire
October 8, 2021
cold brew coffee

Over the last few years, cold brew drinks have taken the coffee sector by storm: global consumption has increased by 40% since 2016, with the market forecast to be worth more than $650 million by 2027.

As a result, more and more brands have started to offer their own cold brew coffee products, including the industry’s biggest players such as Starbucks and Costa.

Not only are they hoping to capture a share of what has become a highly lucrative market, they are also using the product to stay relevant in a sector increasingly dominated by younger consumers.

However, while many have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, some have questioned the quality of cold brew and whether it lives up to the high standards of “specialty” coffee.

To find out more, I spoke with three-time national barista champion and Starbucks South Africa consultant, Ishan Natalie.

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cold brew coffee in glass mugs
Cold brew coffee is versatile and easy to produce

What is cold brew coffee?

Today, cold brew coffee drinks can be found everywhere, from grocery store shelves to specialty café menus.

Their appeal for roasters and coffee shops lies predominantly in their versatility and the ease with which they can be produced – coffee grounds are steeped in water at or below room temperature for up to 24 hours until all the soluble flavour compounds have been extracted.

The result of this slow infusion is a smooth, sweet-tasting drink that can either be bottled up or placed in a container for easy serving throughout the day.

Ishan Natalie is a three-time national barista champion and consultant for Starbucks South Africa. He tells me that the main differences between hot and cold brews lie in the qualities they highlight in the cup.

“Hot water extracts more volatile aromatics and compounds in coffee, which in turn leads to a more complex and vibrant sensory profile,” he says. “This is because hot water activates more acidity and bitterness, while speeding up coffee saturation and extraction.

“Cold water, on the other hand, requires more contact time with the coffee to saturate and extract, leading to a less complex, yet more balanced, smoother, and sweeter sensory experience. It also has a richer mouthfeel.”

cold brew coffee served in a café
Younger generations, in particular, have shown an interest in cold brew drinks

Why’s it so popular?

Despite having its roots in 17th century Japan, the popularity of cold brew coffee has only really exploded in the last few years. Between 2015 and 2020, its market value rose from $110 million to $310 million in the US alone – and 2021 is on course for another significant leap.

The main driver is younger generations, namely millennials and Generation Z. A recent survey found that almost half of those aged 25 to 39 rated cold brew coffee as either excellent or very good, compared to just 15% of those aged 60 and over.

Ishan explains that one of the reasons it appeals to younger consumers is that it offers a more accessible option than modern-day specialty coffee.

“Compared to pour-over coffee, the gentle extraction of cold brew produces a smoother, more approachable cup profile,” he says.

“It’s a lot softer on the palate, with underlying layers of sweetness and creamy chocolate. The perceived acidity and bitterness are very muted.”

While hot-water extraction is the go-to method for most specialty coffee shops, cold brew may attract customers who prefer a slightly less complex and more consistent range of flavours in the cup. The muted acidity also means that it goes well with the addition of milk and cream.

Another advantage of cold brew coffee is its convenience compared to hot filter coffee and espresso-based drinks. It can be bought from both coffee shops and grocery stores, and consumed either in a takeaway cup or a ready-to-drink can or bottle.

This complements the on-the-go lifestyles of younger generations, who tend to live busier, more fast-paced lives than their predecessors.

califa bottle
Some claim that the cold brew extraction method mutes coffee’s natural acidity

Will the bubble burst?

Since launching, Starbucks’ own cold brew coffee has far outstripped sales of its hot drinks, accounting for 74% of total beverage sales across US stores in the first fiscal quarter of 2021.

Not only has it been a key driver of the coffee chain’s growth over the last year, it’s also helped pave the way for a new generation of consumers, whose first taste of coffee is more likely to be from a cold brew than any other brew method.

However, while its popularity is evident, its role within the specialty coffee sector remains divisive.

One of the main areas of disagreement concerns the influence of cold brew extraction on the coffee’s characteristics.

Some suggest that the brew method blunts the bright acidity that makes high-quality coffees special, instead producing a more homogenous and less delicate drink.

“When you brew with cold water you tend to get a more generic, coffee-like set of flavours.”

“Hot water is really important for extracting all of the soluble flavour compounds in coffee,” says coffee expert James Hoffmann in a video on his channel.

“When you brew with cold water you tend to get a more generic, coffee-like set of flavours out of the coffee. Brewing with cold water makes it harder to tell by taste where a coffee might have been grown.”

It’s for this reason that many roasters and cafés will use lower quality – or slightly older – beans for cold brew coffee than they do for hot brews. Naturally, wherever this is the case, a perception of inferiority compared to filter and espresso-based drinks develops.

Yet as more and more specialty coffee companies enter the cold brew space, quality is undoubtedly improving.

A number of established roasters have started offering their own signature cold brew blends using specialty-grade beans intentionally sourced to complement this extraction method.

For example, US specialty roasters Onyx Coffee Lab chooses coffees that can take a large amount of heat during the caramelisation process, while extending roast times in order to increase body and remove acidity.

This line of approach is helping to change attitudes towards cold brew coffee in the specialty sector. Many who were once opposed to the concept are now seeing it as an accessible way to introduce coffee to those who may not otherwise drink it – which is no bad thing for the coffee industry as a whole.

holding up a small sticker
Roasters and coffee shops should consider adding cold brew to their line of offerings

Cold brew coffee has become an immensely popular drink, particularly among those aged 18-35, with little signs of its popularity waning.

For coffee roasters and coffee shops, it’s important to stay on top of trends and cater to the demands of their customers. As such, adding a cold brew option to proceedings could be a good choice, helping to capture new corners of the market.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of packaging services, including the design and manufacture of labels for your cold brew bottles and cartons. We use sustainable water-based inks and UV printing technology to reduce energy emissions, providing you with a low carbon footprint product.

For information about our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.

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