Coffee Break: Cold Brew
Cold Brew. The words themselves seem to conjure an icy spell, a cool dream in the afternoon of a hot Summer.
A decade ago, cold brew coffee occupied little more than a niche. The option commonly spotted on menus was iced coffee, while the cold brew method was largely underground, found in a few cafes, and the kitchens of those who preferred its heavy mouthfeel and the convenience of a beverage that, once brewed, can be quickly accessed from the fridge.
In the ensuing years cold brew has become a category unto itself, exploding into an array of products that include ready to drink options from national brands such as Stumptown, Blue Bottle, and La Colombe, as well entries from cafes across metro-Milwaukee. Frequently kegged and tapped, cold brew is now the unofficial coffee drink of the warm months.
The classic cold brew technique is exemplified by the Toddy brewer, and is distinctive from a normal hot brew. A typical process involves soaking a pound of ground coffee in a gallon of water for 12-24 hours at room temperature, or cooler, then filtering grounds.
When done well the result is a strong coffee (about 70-100% stronger than a typical hot coffee) with a heavy mouthfeel and sweetness often balanced by notes of dry fruit, tea, and chocolate, that can be diluted to a more palatable strength or served over ice where its flavor opens up as it warms and dilutes.
En vogue is cold brew infused with nitrogen which can create a lasting head of foam similar to what you might see in a Guinness, adding additional mouthfeel and the purported benefit of increased shelf life.
Here are three must-try cold brews for Summer
This Star Wars-themed cafe overlooking the N. Water and Pleasant St. intersection offers a quintessential take on cold brew. It starts with Alderaan’s Mocha Java, a style of blend that combines a delicate coffee with with the robust, earthy qualities of a Javan. Then, coarse ground coffee, in paper filter-bag, infuses for 18 hours in the fridge before being strained and diluted.
Found on tap in the warmer months, this cold brew is served over ice in a pint glass, rolling onto the tongue, and displaying the requisite roundness and density. Notes of cookie, graham, and grape skin first greet the palate, while oolong tea, pretzel, cherry, toffee, and cinnamon take turns surfacing as the ice melts. The very long steep of this cold brew highlights depth and complexity, making for a big, crowd-pleasing coffee.
Alderaan owner David Neumann directed my attention to vintage soda machine soon to be stocked with the stuff: a playful addition with the added bonus of allowing one to skip any possible line. With an airy view of the North End water tower, the relaxed atmosphere of Alderaan may not harken to the ruckus of Mos Isley Cantina, but their cold brew might be just enough to transport you to another galaxy.
While many opt for a cheap, low quality coffee in their cold brew, Kickapoo, as they’re wont to do, took the high road when they released Icebreaker, a blend of coffees from Ethiopia, Central and South America built specially for the cold brew method.
Kickapoo’s cafe-owner Scott Lucey uses Icebreaker and a 5-Gallon Toddy brewer for his cold brew, steeping for just over half a day at around room temperature before double straining the coffee and measuring its strength. An addition of 1/4 part water is usually added.
Available on tap, and served in large and small Ball jars, on ice, Icebreaker cold brew benefits from the small addition of natural-processed beans which bolster notes of berry and apple in this dynamic and refreshing coffee. One can confidently describe this cold brew as crisp and clean in a way that so many of the more basic cold brews can only dream of. To do so, while retaining the smooth heft one looks for in this style, in an achievement almost unparalleled.
Be sure to look for other refreshing drink options from Kickapoo this summer, including sparkling tea, espresso tonic, and a soon-to-be released stunner named Night Rider.
Now in their second year, Pilcrow Coffee quickly became synonymous with cold brew in the Milwaukee area with after winning the title of “America’s Best Cold Brew” at Coffee Fest in 2017 (Milwaukee retained the title when Colectivo Coffee’s cold brew subsequently reigned supreme) and pedaling red cold brew bikes around the city last Summer. Now on tap at Milwaukee brunch staples Honeypie and Sweet Diner, this coffee is big and bold in a way that you expect from the cold brew method.
Using Storyteller, a house blend, Pilcrow extracts their cold brew in stainless steel brew kettles until it’s about 75% stronger than their typical hot brew. The coffee is then kegged and charged with Nitrogen. A strong shake helps to infuse the gas, which creates a smooth head of foam when poured from a tap.
Served in a tulip-style glass, and available tall or short, Pilcrow’s cold brew delivers aromas of cacao and notes of dry apple, caramel, and milk chocolate, complimented by a mouthfeel and a lip full of foam not dissimilar from a cool cappuccino. Without ice, the strength of this coffee is on full display, especially as the glass warms, and the earth, spice, and quinnic qualities present themselves.
Whereas one might sit over a cold brew with ice all day, this is a cold brew you will finish and wonder if a second is required, at which point your barista may nod towards the second tap handle: Sweet & Creamy, cold brew with an addition of sugar and oat milk. Alongside are cool beverages that rotate on a weekly basis. Recently featured were hopped SporTea, chai, and rum-barrel-aged cold brew. Should one find oneself having one of those midsummer Milwaukee weekends, the answer is, unreservedly, yes.