Cold-Brew Coffee for Hot Days

Brewed over hours, not minutes, it offers a smoother taste than traditional iced coffee

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iced coffee Photo: Getty Images

Once found only in boutique coffeehouses, cold-brew coffee has grown up. One in 5 Americans say they drink it regularly or occasionally, according to a 2019 report from the National Coffee Association.

Starbucks, Dunkin', and Peet's sell it by the cup in their shops, and you can buy ready-to-drink bottled cold brew from brands such as Califia Farms, Chameleon, Stumptown, and Slingshot at many grocery stores.

It's not surprising that several appliance makers eager to cash in on the trend sell low-tech systems that take the mess out of mixing up a batch of cold-brew coffee at home. Check out Consumer Reports' cold-brew coffee maker ratings for detailed test results on models made by Cuisinart, Ninja, Oxo, Toddy, and more.

Cold-Brew Coffee 101

Cold-brew coffee is a very different beast from either iced coffee or the bottled coffee products (cappuccino, mochaccino, and other coffee-based drinks) sold at the supermarket. All of those start with standard hot coffee that’s chilled, creating a drink that has all of the bitterness and acidity of regular coffee, just minus the heat.

More on Cold Brew

To mask that bitterness, many coffee drinkers (and manufacturers of the bottled beverages) add heaps of sugar and glugs of milk or cream—and plenty of calories with them. Cold-brew coffee, on the other hand, is brewed in cold or room-temperature water over many hours (usually 12 to 24) and yields a brew that tastes smoother, with less bitterness and acidity.

Cold brew is made with the same beans you’d use for regular coffee, but they’re ground more coarsely. (For help finding the right grinder, see CR's guide to the best coffee grinders for cold brew.) To avoid a weak, watery drink, cold-brew coffee also requires at least twice the grounds needed for traditional hot brewing, which explains why cold-brew coffee can be pricey, whether you buy it at a coffeehouse or supermarket, or make it at home.

“If you're buying bottled or canned coffee, check the label to avoid added sugar, sodium, or other ingredients,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a Consumer Reports nutritionist. “Making it yourself will put you in control of what's in your coffee.”

To capitalize on the cold-brew craze, some coffee maker manufacturers have attempted to speed up the process. For example, Ninja makes a model that brews a lukewarm "cold brew" in just 15 minutes. It performs well in our tests, but our expert taste tester said the brew it yields doesn’t taste like true cold brew, although it does make for good iced coffee.

Make no mistake: Do-it-yourself cold-brew coffee makers aren’t a necessity; they’re essentially steeping chambers for the water and grounds. But they make preparing and filtering the coffee neater and less cumbersome. (Trying to make cold-brew coffee using, say, a carafe and cheesecloth can be a messy and tedious affair.) The machines also make it easier to experiment with the ratio of water to coffee until you find the one that produces the cup best-suited to your tastes. One DIY machine that yields a particularly tasty brew in our tests is this Asobu model.

What comes out of most cold-brew coffee makers after all of that steeping isn’t ready to enjoy. It’s a thick concentrate that you dilute with cold or hot water or milk, depending on the desired temperature and strength, before drinking.

The Bitter Truth

Why bother with the added time and expense of cold brew? Because of how it goes down. Fans say that cold brewing makes a far smoother drink, without much of the bitterness and acidity of traditional coffee. In fact, cold-brew coffee and hot-brew coffee made with identical grounds will have a completely different flavor profile, because compounds in the beans react very differently to cold water than they do to hot.

Cold brew may also be a healthier choice than traditional iced or chilled coffee drinks. Because of its distinctly mild flavor, drinkers are less likely to load up cold brew with milk and sugar—and the added calories they bring.

Another selling point for cold-brew coffee is its extended shelf life: It will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Regularly brewed coffee doesn’t store well in the fridge and starts to go stale shortly after it’s made because of an aromatic compound that degrades as it cools­­. That's something to keep in mind this summer when you’re looking for a pick-me-up that will also cool you down.

The Science of Smooth

Standard Hot Coffeevs.Cold-Brew Coffee
As any caffeine addict knows, a regular cup of joe starts with hot water (between 195° and 205° F) and coffee grounds. The water dissolves oils, acids, and other compounds out of the grounds, giving coffee its familiar acidity and eye-opening aroma. The hot water also degrades acids, creating coffee's bitter notes.The absence of hot water means that the oils, acids, and other compounds dissolve much more slowly. The acids also aren't degraded, making for a much smoother beverage, free of bitterness. One downside: This coffee's aroma is barely noticeable because heat is what releases it from the grounds.

Editor's Note: This article, which appeared in the June 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine, has been updated.

Home Content Creator Daniel Wroclawski

Daniel Wroclawski

I'm obsessed with smart home tech and channel my obsession into new stories for Consumer Reports. When I'm not writing about products, I spend time either outside hiking and skiing or up in the air in small airplanes. For my latest obsessions, follow me on Facebook and Twitter (@danwroc).