Let’s start with what it’s not.
Cold brew coffee is not iced coffee. It is not brewed hot, left to sit overnight, and poured over ice the next day. It is not something you can whip up in a matter of minutes, and it’s not available only in big cities, big chains, or big coffee towns. Most importantly, cold brew is not a shiny gimmick, a marketing ploy. It’s smooth, sweet, potent, versatile, purposeful. And it’s changing the local coffee industry.
The future is cold
“It’s been a big project.” Katie Weinberger, King Bean Coffee’s marketing director, stands in the middle of the company’s latest endeavor, a room devoted to cold brew. “We had to build out this whole room as part of the Department of Agriculture [regulations]. We have a head brewer, a head roaster, I’m still trying to figure out what to call the warehouse: the roastery, the brewery?”
Twenty-five years ago, Katie’s husband and business partner Kurt started King Bean Coffee Roasters out of his parents’ garage. Inspired by the booming coffee scene of the Pacific Northwest, Kurt looked to bring small-batch, high-quality beans to the South. Today, King Bean services more than 20 wholesale partners across South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia.
King Bean’s tagline for their new product is “The future is cold.” They’re brewing two cold brews with different flavor profiles — Roast Forward and Nuance Driven — in the “brewery” with head “brewer” Corey Steranka overseeing operations. Once their coffee is roasted in-house on their signature 60-kilogram cast-iron Petroncini roaster, it is ground in a special (and not cheap) liquid-cooled grinder so that the beans are never heated from this point on. The ground coffee is then brewed in two 450-gallon commercial brewing vessels for up to 24 hours.
“Everything is controlled on a computer,” says Steranka. “It’s consistently under 40 degrees from start to finish.” The brew goes through a three phase filtration system, filtered down to 0.8 microns to pull out any bacteria. “As a wholesaler we want to make sure we are doing this as safely as possible,” says Weinberger. After about two days, the brew is kegged and delivered to customers, from Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit (owner Carrie Morey says they sell out every weekend) to Middle Street Market on Sullivan’s Island.
“Cold brew, when it first started out, it really was a trend, which is why we held back,” says Weinberger. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if this is here to stay,’ but it has not gone away.” And while the future may be cold, the past has certainly had its cool moments.
In 1964, Todd Simpson, fresh out of the chemical engineering program at Cornell, tasted a cup of coffee unlike any other he’d ever tried. Determined to keep sipping this liquid concentrate, Simpson developed the Toddy Cold Brew System, which produced a concentrate that contained “67 percent less acid than hot brewed coffee.” The huge white Toddy bucket is still prevalent in coffee shops and homes today — some baristas will even refer to cold brew as “toddy.”
In his 1922 book, All About Coffee, William Harrison Ukers wrote that in 19th century England, “cold infusions were common, the practice being to let them stand overnight, to be filtered in the morning, and only heated, not boiled.”
But kegged cold brew is another beast, a modern beast. While King Bean may have snagged a snappy tagline, they aren’t the first Lowcountry roasters on this fully caffeinated frontier.
“We’ve been doing cold brew since we started as Black Tap eight years ago,” says Second State Coffee co-owner Ross Jett. “The name Black Tap was referential to cold brew on tap — we were actually one of the first to do kegged cold brew, other than Stumptown and Cuvée.”
Damn fine coffee
“Coffee is universal in its appeal. All nations do it homage. It has become recognized as a human necessity. It is no longer a luxury or indulgence; it is a corollary of human energy and efficiency. People love coffee because of its two-fold effect — the pleasurable sensation and the increased efficiency it produces.”
As Ukers so sagely wrote, we humans like coffee because it helps us get through the day. And sometimes, when we’re lucky, we may even channel Dale Cooper, uttering, “This is a damn fine cup of coffee. Damn fine.”
But what makes cold brew so smooth, so strong, so appealing, not only to speciality coffee shops but to Starbucks, Dunkin’, Panera, hell, even Hardee’s?
“We have a specific blend we use for cold brew to achieve a good outcome,” says Jett. “On cold brew, lighter, brighter coffees will come out watery or weak tasting, not every coffee is suited to be cold brew. As coffee is roasted darker and darker the cell walls break down a little bit and that makes extracting it in cooler environments easier.” The result? “You get those sweet, chocolaty, nutty flavors out of it.”
Springbok Coffee owner Jason Bell, who started his King Street roastery with his brother Josh in 2015, says for their cold brew, they use single origin beans instead of a blend. They order their green beans from Fulton Street’s 100-year-old coffee importer, Balzac Brothers. “We’re very fortunate to have Balzac Brothers,” says Bell. “It really helped me establish consistency; with their offerings they’re bringing in higher quality coffees even from four to five years ago. That’s really helping keep cold brew where we want it.”
Consistency is key for all local roasters, especially as temperatures continue to climb and cold brew addicts knock down coffee shop doors. “When the weather warms up … we ran out one Friday and had to brew another batch,” says Bell.
Like King Bean, Springbok delivers their brew in kegs, making it a breeze for customers. “For the retailer it is the best way to do it — how easy is that — hook up a five gallon keg and just flip a switch, $4 dollars out the door,” says Bell.
Four dollars and some change at The Harbinger Cafe & Bakery. (We know — we spend our money there almost daily.) Co-owner Cameron Neal says they just switched over from using a hell-of-a lot of plastic quarts to installing a legit keg-and-tap system. They’re gonna need it. Neal says last summer, “we were doing 100 cold brews a day.”
The Harbinger uses Methodical Coffee, a roaster out of Greenville. Neal says she was drawn to Methodical’s Colombian beans because the finished brew “translates into basically chocolate. There’s a nuttiness to it, it’s very subtle, it gives you the caffeine you’re going for, it’s a good canvas.”
For Neal and business partner Greer Gilchrist, having cold brew in their shop was never a question. “We happened to have really good cold brew in D.C. and we always knew that’s what we gravitated toward, we didn’t want Japanese iced coffee or nitro.”
What the people want
“There’s an audience for everything,” says Jett.
For both the roasters and their partners, the increased demand for cold brew — your first taste may even have come through a big green straw — means exploring uncharted waters.
“I feel like a misapplication of terms is the case for every aspect of coffee,” says Chloe Davis King, the customer relations rep at the Counter Culture Training Center on Spring Street. In addition to repairing wholesale partner coffee equipment, King leads coffee classes, many open to the public, at least once a week. “One of our mottos is any coffee, any brew,” says King of the North Carolina-based roaster. “We really harp on the fact you can brew coffee in any way it doesn’t matter what type of coffee. We [carry] coffees in an effort to support coffees from regions all around the world.”
Part of King’s goal as a coffee professional and educator is to bridge the gap between consumers and purveyors.
“It’s such a commodity and a household item, it’s also something that is now such a big part of everyone’s culture … it’s really hard sometimes to talk about those things with people who are using the same vocabulary but they think it means something different.”
Case in point: iced coffee versus cold brew. Japanese iced coffee versus nitro versus cold brew. “At the end of the day, it’s about pleasing customers and having options for everybody,” says Jett. “And cold brew fills that niche. Cold brew is something you don’t need to think about too much.”
The brewing process can be arduous — time is money, and cold brew needs to sit for at least 12 hours, typically — but it’s worth it for most local roasters and shops. It’s what the people want.
Ken Malcom and James Steen just celebrated the one year anniversary of their company, Chatterbox Cold Brew, which produces ready-to-drink cold brew. They both have full-time jobs, but hope to turn this shared passion project into their only pursuit.
“We wouldn’t go through all this trouble if we didn’t enjoy it,” says Steen. “You’ve taken coffee and allowed yourself to enjoy it, cold brew counteracts that acid (of hot coffee) and makes it less bitter. Now that you can have coffee with less acid you don’t need all the junk on top.”
The guys sell their bottles all over town, and try to host weekly tastings in Mt. Pleasant. “We have people who come up and say ‘I’m not a coffee person.’ You talk a little bit and they say ‘I’ll give it a try.’ The looks on their faces when they take that sip is amazing,” says Steen. And, adds Malcom, the best part about it is, “it’s not just a certain age group. We assumed we would have a certain demographic and we were completely wrong.”
From Gen Z to Baby Boomers, everyone is rethinking the hot cuppa. Even coffee connoisseurs who have been studying and sipping nuanced, aromatic drip coffee for years.
“It’s more than a fad at this point,” says King. “For us at least — we sell Counter Culture to Slingshot, a cold brew company based out of North Carolina, they started really small and you can get it at Whole Foods. From my perspective, anything that is a fad, even if it sticks around for a long time, it creates a new avenue for us to sell coffee through. At the end of the day, we want to sell as much coffee for these farmers as we can, and if everyone loves cold brew, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that happens.”