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The Quest for the Perfect Iced Coffee

Believe it or not, in 1946, Americans consumed double the amount of coffee that we do now: 48 gallons annually per person. That's amazing, considering they did it without Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and fancy coffees like French Press, espresso, and Frappucinos. They accepted prepackaged, preroasted, overheated, watered-down, one-flavor-fits-all coffee.

And for the most part, they did without iced coffee.

Exactly when and where iced coffee was invented is up for debate. Some speculate it can be traced back to 17th-century Vienna, after the Turkish army unsuccessfully besieged the city. With a surplus of the magical bean left behind, the Viennese began to experiment with new ways to prepare the drink, eventually coming up with a cold version, mixing it with ice/snow from the Alps. It's more likely, though, that iced coffee wasn't invented until the beginning of the 20th Century, when ice could be produced and stored. The Japanese started drinking iced coffee in the 1920s, and the Greeks developed the idea of the coffee frappe in the 1950s.

On a smoldering South Florida summer day, nothing sends shivers of pleasure into your fingertips and an instant chilly wake-up call to your brain like iced coffee. I went on a quest for the perfect cup.

Starbucks has served iced coffee since 1971, although back then, it was called Iced Marrakesh and was actually cold brewed using the Toddy system (more on that later). Today, you can grab one at the company's 13,000 U.S. outposts. Baristas now use a regular hot drip coffee, brewed at double strength, and serve it over ice. According to the independent caffeine research site, one grande (medium) cup of iced coffee ($2.60 for 16 ounces) still contains only about half the amount of caffeine (165 mg) as the same sized cup of regular hot coffee (330 mg). A grande Frappuccino ($4.23), a sweeter, milkier blended iced coffee beverage, will give you 110 to 115 mg. As for Dunkin' Donuts (where it costs $2.32 for a medium, 24-ounce iced coffee), according to energyfiend, cut the caffeine roughly in half.

But I discovered something better than either of these two titans can offer — cold brew coffee — and I'm never going back.

Cold brew or cold pressed coffee is simply coffee grounds that have been steeped in room temperature or cold water for an extended period. This process of leaching flavor from the beans results in a different chemical profile — a sweeter, deeper brew.

This potent potion is deceptively simple to make and has actually been around since before electricity was invented. Because the coffee beans in cold-press coffee never come into contact with heated water, cold-brewed iced coffee contains 67 percent less acid than its hot-brewed counterpart, experts say. Yet because of the drastically longer steeping time for cold brews, you usually get a stronger drink. In fact, the folks at Panther Coffee in Miami claim their cold brew packs a bigger caffeine punch than any other drink on the menu. (Fort Lauderdale's Green Bar & Kitchen offers Panther's cold brew for sale behind the counter. Just make sure you stop in early, as it often sells out. )

While cold brewing is still relatively new at most coffee retailers, a few local specialty coffee shops have caught on and offer their own home cold-brewed iced coffee drinks.

At Coastar's Coffee in Lake Worth, owner Chris Palacio uses something called a Toddy system, an easy-to-use device for producing the perfect cold brew every time. A neat plastic contraption developed by a Cornell chemical engineering graduate nearly 50 years ago, the Toddy system filters the coffee through felt before it's released into a glass decanter, creating "a full body, slightly bolder, and I believe more flavorful cup of cold brew," Palacio says. "The lack of contact with oxygen during the process prevents loss of flavor." Panther Coffee in Miami uses the same system. Palacio offers an entire cold brew menu that he says "includes one made with homemade honey-lavender simple syrup and lemon zest, mixed in a shaker and served over ice."

A third cold brewer is Harold's Coffee in West Palm Beach. This specialty shop uses the Blue Bottle Kyoto-style cold-brewing system, a fancy-looking and somewhat costly setup composed of tall, fragile, glass drip towers, traditionally called an Oji machine in Japan. Drip by drip — 48 drips per minute, to be exact — the Oji takes seven hours to produce one six-cup batch. The drink is typically prepared by pouring four ounces over ice for an exceptionally deep and smoky yet light-bodied coffee experience.

"Adjustable taps on the Kyoto systems at Harold's lets the barista adjust the drip rate," Palacio explains. "The amount of control can potentially produce a cleaner, sweeter cup of coffee. Plus, it looks cool mounted on the walls." A regular-sized cup (16 ounces) costs $3.82; a large (20 ounces), $4.35.

Or save a few bucks and a disposable coffee cup by preparing your own homemade cold brew — it's one of the simplest things you'll ever do in your kitchen.

Grab yourself two large containers or bowls. Pour one pound of your favorite medium-ground coffee into the first bowl. Then pour in eight quarts (two gallons) of cold water. Give it a good stir to make sure all the grounds make contact with the water. Cover the container and let the coffee steep for at least eight hours. The longer it steeps, the stronger the brew.

When it's finished, grab the second container and place a fine mesh strainer over the top. To make sure you're not left with any grounds in your cold brew, double strain the liquid by placing a couple of layers of cheesecloth or paper towels over the top. Slowly pour the steeped coffee through the strainer. It'll take a little while for all the liquid to pass through. Discard the dregs, pour your liquid-coffee gold into a pretty carafe, and store in your fridge. The two gallons of brew should last you a good three weeks to a month if you keep it sealed nice and tight.

Palacio also recommends the at-home Toddy system ($35 at Williams-Sonoma), which is as simple as adding coffee and water and sticking it in the refrigerator. You can also experiment with a French Press. The point is, have fun with it.

If you find yourself short on prep time, though, you can go online and order some delicious, potent, and conveniently shippable prepackaged bottles of cold brews. This option is easily the most cost- and time-efficient way to get your iced coffee fix any time of the day.

N.O. Brew, based in New Orleans, offers 34.5-ounce ($5.99) and 64-ounce ($10.99) bottles of its cold brew in four flavors: traditional, hazelnut, French vanilla, and Storyville Mocha. One of the stronger cold brews I've come across (also the cheapest), N.O. Brew suggests one part coffee to two parts milk or water over ice.

Palacio's personal favorite imported cold brew comes from Slingshot Coffee Co., based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Its special brew sells in a two-pack of pretty 16-ounce glass bottles, one "ready-to-drink" and one "concentrate." The ready-to-drink recipe calls for ice and a splash of milk, etc., to taste, while the concentrate recommends a one-to-one ratio of coffee to milk. At $17 plus $11 for shipping, it may not be the most cost-efficient option, but serious enthusiasts should consider giving this in-season, all-organic cold brew a try.

I personally didn't make it up to Coastar's or Harold's, but after sampling the big chains' coffees and a few online concentrates, I found myself online, punching my computer keyboard for a massive shipment of N.O. Brew. If you do the math, a $5.99 bottle with 13 servings comes out to roughly 50 cents per amazing glass of iced coffee. Compared to a 16-ounce cold brew at Panther ($4.50) or the same size at Coastar's ($4), it's a pretty good deal. Yes, that was me, accepting from the UPS man a giant box containing 11 64-ounce bottles of coffee. Hey, I got free shipping by spending more than $60! And yes, we're only one month into summer, and I just ordered a second shipment. I can quit any time I want, I swear!

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Falyn Freyman is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Miami. She previously produced videos for Univision and edited music content for New Times Broward-Palm Beach. Her work has been featured in Vice, Bustle, Broadly, Time Out, and other publications. She has a master's degree from the Columbia School of Journalism.
Contact: Falyn Freyman

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