By this time, you’re probably well aware of KL’s third-wave coffee scene – where roasters and baristas examine the elements of a cup of coffee in microscopic detail. The cold brew trend, meanwhile, is a spin-off of the regular iced coffee that has the industry clamouring for the title of ‘the best’. And just like a steaming cup of latte with a foamy panda etched on top, the cold brew process is complex.
Like most good things, cold brewed coffee started in Japan; Kyoto, to be precise. The ice-drip apparatus was known to be brought over to Kyoto by Dutch traders in the early 1600s and is a common brewing method in Kyoto’s many traditional coffee houses. About five years ago, Blue Bottle Coffee Company in San Francisco, the coffee chain that is largely responsible for America’s third-wave boom, began to experiment with these curiously suspended cylindrical coffee apparatuses.
Fast forward to 2015, cold brewed coffee has taken many names. In KL, the Kyoto-style drip (or sometimes known as Dutch coffee) is labelled ‘ice-drip’ or ‘cold-drip’, not to be confused with the cold pour-over, which is coffee prepared hot using tools like the V60 dripper or Chemex, then chilled or served with ice. However, in a more commonly understood sense of the term, cold brew simply refers to the process of steeping coarsely ground coffee in water for a lengthened period of time in the fridge.
Sounds easy? It isn’t quite. Just like an espresso, there are many factors that determine the quality of a cold brew. Firstly, the beans. While some cafés might find it tempting to use up leftover stock of old beans to conjure up bottles of cold, dark liquid, Roast Factor Glee isn’t one of them. Owner Tan Shyue Chin, who doubles as a micro-roaster and barista, is something of a cold brew guru in these parts. ‘It’s important that the natural characteristics of the coffee come through,’ she says. It makes sense then, that a cup of cold brew is only as good as the beans it’s extracted from.
The origin profiles of coffee beans are said to be more pronounced when brewed cold rather than under the submission of pressure and heat. The long steeping time – usually between 12 to 16 hours – allows the coffee’s natural flavours and sweetness to mellow and ultimately shine. Over-steeping can lead to over-extraction which results in astringency; this logic is similarly applied with machine-pulled coffee. ‘With espresso you look at the colour; you want to stop before it blondes,’ Shyue Chin explains. ‘Even if you stop one second before the blonding, you still get the bad bits and it becomes bitter. So you have to anticipate when it’s going to happen.’ Going back to the cold brew method, one has to anticipate just when to strain the granules out of the water for maximum extraction of the bean’s origin profiles. Wateriness and bitterness are qualities you’d want to avoid.
However, the folks at Standing Theory are rebels when it comes to coffee norms. In-house coffee scientist Jimmy prefers to steep his blend for a whopping 48 hours – a travesty when using mediocre beans, which fortunately isn’t the case at the café. ‘I play around with grind size so that it doesn’t bring out the harsh, unpleasant notes,’ Jimmy says. The stuff is served on the rocks, and softens as it melts with time. This sort of wizardry can only be pulled off if the blend ratio and granule size are accurate to the recipe.
Because cold brew is essentially made of just coffee and water, the ‘taste’ of the water can also affect the resulting brew. At Roast Factor Glee, Shyue Chin uses only filtered water. ‘Filtered water has nothing in it, zero minerals. I use it so it doesn’t influence the taste, and it’s best to showcase the coffee,’ she says. She also finds that customers have varying preferences of water. ‘Drinking water here in Malaysia is different compared to drinking water in Europe; their water is hard,’ she says. ‘But if you’ve been drinking hard water and you come to Malaysia, you’d say our water is tasteless. So it depends on what kind of water the consumer is used to. That’s why I use filtered water; I take out all the elements.’
Once the mix goes in the fridge for about 12 hours, Shyue Chin then tastes the brew at hourly intervals to decide when best to pull it out of the fridge. Thereon, a recipe is born. She strains the coffee using a sock (‘old-skool’ kopitiam style) and packages it into bottles. When consuming, it’s best to drink the brew as is without milk and sugar, or risk being silently judged by purists around you. Of all the coffee methods out there (there are many, mind you), cold brewing produces the highest amount of caffeine. ‘All the caffeine is in the water because it’s been sitting for 12 to 16 hours,’ Shyue Chin says. ‘That’s why when you drink cold brew, you get an instant caffeine high.’
Now, you may ask why can’t you just settle with an iced long black or Americano instead of a cold brew? To begin with, they are hardly the same. A regular iced coffee is pulled with an espresso machine over a high temperature, which takes between 18 to 30 seconds to extract. Compare that with the hours of flavour-forming a cold brew undergoes. ‘It will be two completely different drinks even if you’re using the same beans,’ Shyue Chin says. Take wine as an analogy; a two-year old bottle will taste completely different to a four-year vintage even if they are from the same grape variety and soil. So think of cold brew as an ‘aged’ version of coffee – the mature, brooding chilled beverage with attitude.
But ordering your coffee cold must come with sacrifices, the most apparent being aroma. As heat hits any food or drink, smell emanates; however, with cold brews the comforting aroma of a hot coffee is replaced with a mildly citrusy, sometimes floral, scent, depending on the beans. The full body of machine-steamed coffee is also missing, but one can easily look past texture when hit by clean, sweet flavours.
If coffee can produce a whole canvas of notes when cultivated, washed, roasted, brewed and paired differently, the coffee industry can afford to go wild in the coffee labs. Sometime last year, Shyue Chin used her cold brews to pair with Glenlivet’s 12- and 15-year whiskies, and found the coffee and whisky to be shockingly, and starkly, complementary. In the coffee mecca that is Melbourne, baristas are beginning to infuse their brews with all sorts of things like orange, vanilla, cardamom, hazelnut or cinnamon.
Closer to home, Jeremy Chan of Brewmen takes the nitro path. ‘Nitro coffee is cold brew infused with nitrogen so it gives it a creamy texture. It’s almost like a stout, and it’s slightly fizzy as well,’ he says. The nitro is dispensed from a tap, much like a beer tap, to produce a foamy head similar to a well-pulled stout. ‘The nitro will lift the acidity of the coffee, so to counter that, we sweeten it slightly with honey,’ Jeremy adds. It’s a mind-bendingly delicious coffee beverage disguised as a malty stout, and with that, we can only hope the cold brew trend never, ever cools down.