Iced coffee adventures continue a bit closer to home

Cold-brew iced coffee proves a cheap and easy alternative to coffee shop picks when made in the comfort of one’s own home (or dorm). Photo courtesy of Rachel Lee.
Cold-brew iced coffee proves a cheap and easy alternative to coffee shop picks when made in the comfort of one’s own home (or dorm). Photo courtesy of Rachel Lee.

As Nantucket Red pants continue to descend upon the Purple Valley, all signs show that spring is in the air and with it, the beginning of iced coffee season. Last week, we checked out cheap, tasty alternatives to buying pricey iced coffee from the shop that operates at the bottom of Spring Street. From flavor shots to dirt-cheap deals, the versatility available in a simple cup of iced coffee seemed endless. This week, I took it upon myself to investigate what is effectively the greatest opportunity for customizing your own brew – the do-it-yourself (DIY) route.

There are two main schools of process when it comes to homemade icy caffeinated drinks: brewing your coffee “normally,” with boiling water and cooling with time and ice, and the long, slow cold brew. I’m here to make a case for the latter. There’s a taste reason for this – the normal, hot process extracts flavor more quickly, but also extracts much more acid into your brew. Furthermore, many of the oils that are extracted during the hot brew process are volatile and will oxidize and degrade as your coffee cools. What that means is that letting hot coffee cool into its iced sibling inevitably changes its flavor and not always in a good way. Plus, we all know that trying to take the shortcut of blending soda-machine ice into a cup of hot Whitman’s joe never turns out quite right.

Cold brew, by comparison, results in a sweeter, much less acidic taste with a completely different flavor profile. Less acid means it’s easier on sensitive stomachs, and the flavor is smoother and fruitier, often with undertones of chocolate and caramel. Your resulting brew will actually be much more concentrated than that of a hot brew. You can drink this straight, sure, for an extra punchy morning, but it’s also ripe for opportunities to dilute with traditional water, cream, condensed milk for a “Vietnamese coffee” version or, my personal local favorite, a splash of horchata from Tony’s Sombrero for a lovely, creamy, spiced twist.

Finally, cold brewing opens up the opportunity to prepare coffee concentrate in bulk that can be refrigerated for up to two weeks – some sources say even longer is totally kosher, as long as your storage receptacle is clean and airtight. To prepare, simply pour over ice and dilute (or not!) in a receptacle of your choice and rush to class as necessary. The cold brew process itself is simple, both in theory and in execution. All you need to do is steep your coffee grounds in water overnight, then strain them out in the morning for pure, unadulterated, fragrant, syrupy caffeinated goodness. As always, however, the devil’s in the details, especially for college students who are strapped for money, space and time. We’ll start first by outlining the most important step: obtaining beans.

Now, coffee connoisseurs know that coffee beans lose flavor and aroma much faster once ground. Thus, buying your beans pre-ground means dealing with beans that have already lost a lot of their potency while sitting on the shelf. If you’re fine with that, though, you can find what are definitely your cheapest local options over at Stop and Shop, ranging from Starbucks to Green Mountain Coffee brands.

If you want freshly ground beans, however, fear not. You don’t need to invest in a coffee grinder that’ll only take up precious space (and we know Greylock rooms don’t have much to spare). Wild Oats sells whole beans that you can pour into bags and grind to order yourself; just make sure to put the machine on a medium-coarse setting. Wild Oats offers beans anywhere from a Papua New Guinean dark roast by Tierra Farm at $15.99 per pound to Organic Midnight Sun by Equal Exchange Coffee at $7.99 per pound. Both companies are certified organic and fair trade, as are most others offered at Wild Oats. Best of all, you’ll actually need less than half an ounce of coffee grounds to make the equivalent of one cup of delicious cold brew – so I’d advise you grind a full bag’s worth, and keep the 16 ounces to brew yourself way over 30 full cups of iced coffee. Compare that $7.99 monthly investment to having to buy yourself a cup of iced coffee every day, at upwards of at least a dollar per cup, and you’re saving about $50 a month! No car and can’t catch a ride? Tunnel City sells bags of whole beans that they’ll grind to order, at $16 per pound.

When it comes to cold brew equipment, plenty of companies have manufactured options to try and streamline the cold brew process. A popular one is the Toddy Cold Brew System (TM) which, for $40, includes a brewing container, filters and a nine-cup capacity glass decanter. As a self-professed iced coffee enthusiast who was curious about the hype, last summer I invested in one of these and can say that it’s definitely handy for brewing in bulk. For the average college student who’s just looking for a better buzz, however, I would honestly say that it’s an unnecessary cost that’s far too bulky to keep in the average dorm room. A fine mesh sieve goes for under $10 online or at dining goods stores and gets the job done, and it’s easy to throw into your desk drawer when not in use. If you have a colander or wider mesh sieve for draining pasta, make it serve double duty by lining it with a coffee filter or cheesecloth and straining out your cold brew.

If you happen to have a French press, you’re in luck! Your pot can double up as a hassle-free and space-efficient cold brew steeping and straining device.

So here we are – you’ve got ground beans and your equipment, all revved up. Soak your grounds with water – your choice of tap, filtered or bottled – at a ratio of 1/3 cup grounds to 1 1/2 cups water. Leave it on your desk or in your mini-fridge for at least 12 hours – overnight works great. Filter out the grounds in the morning and pour the potent, inky coffee concentrate into an airtight container to store.

The options for flavor customization are almost endless. Sprinkle in some nutmeg, cocoa powder or cinnamon for a touch of spice. A few drops of peppermint extract will make your iced coffee doubly chill, and you can experiment with vanilla, almond and even lavender extracts. Now all you have to do is make sure nobody steals your hard-earned, frosty java magic out of that grimy communal fridge.

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