Do I detect a bead of sweat trickling from your brow? Why then it's time to take a look at what cold-brewed coffees await summer in the fridge, each year heralding another season of boldly packaged, pret-a-pour iced coffees to take the edge off that summer swelter. We examined 5 commercially available bottled cold-brew coffees and tasted them looking for not just taste, but technique, suitability in milk, and their ability to transcend those terrible typical qualities of flat, dull, stale flavor so often found in cold brew methods. Here are our refreshing findings.
If there's one thing that harmonizes with the oft-flat flavors of cold brewed coffee it's chicory, and Grady's New Orleans-style will suit those who prefer to swing that way. Cold-brewed using beans from New York City roaster Porto Rico, Grady's subtle, cool brew tastes best with a little milk. (The manufacturer also suggests milk substitutes, like soy or almond milk, which would probably taste just fine with this already flavor-tweaked profile of chicory and spices.)
Comes in a resealable 32 ounce bottle, to use over a few glasses or share with friends.
Available for $15 from Grady's.
La Colombe Pure Black Coffee
As much of a thrill as it can be to purchase this longneck cold coffee out of a retro vending machine, having undissolved coffee grounds spat out of the bottle upon opening was a disagreeable start. On further inspection, there are a LOT of chunky coffee grounds in here—the bottle says it's filtered twice, but perhaps they might want to take a third pass?
This flavor is "Corsica Blend", made from a 16-hour wine cask steeping of La Colombe's own Philly-roasted beans. It's strong all right, but bitter and unbalanced, lacking in subtlety or any flavor other than very roasty coffee. Might be kind of awesome with a ton of cream and sugar, or mixed into an ice cream float, but I can't get past the giant chunk of coffee sludge that's wedged itself into the mouth of the bottle as I pour. Mind the stray particles, and keep a hand towel nearby.
Available for $3 from La Colombe.
Austin, Texas startup Chameleon specializes only in cold brew concentrate (enjoy imagining yourself drinking it with your cool-looking friends on your front porch, like their website suggests) made from Fair Trade Organic beans. The bottle touts the high caffeine content, too, but reminds you to dilute their concentrate with equal parts water or milk.
Though the brew is subtly smoky on the nose, there's almost no nuance of flavor here. It is totally pleasant and coffee-like without tasting flat or stale, but lacks any particular flavors that might represent anything about the actual coffee that's gone into it.
Available from $11 from Chameleon.
Gorilla Black Coffee
This diminutive, boldly designed TetraPak of cold brewed coffee weighs in at $4 for 11 ounces. Lack of breakable glass makes this an easy go-to iced coffee for travel (assuming you're traveling somewhere with ice). Gorilla cold brews this for over 12 hours in "a little town called Brooklyn", but the intense coffee, with aggressive flavors of molasses and winey, tart fruit, is displeasurable, even when diluted. We'll pass.
Available for $4 from Gorilla Coffee.
We've tried this one before, and this season's cutely-bottled Stumptown batch of cold brew is just as reliable and flavorful. Expect a tiny bit of fruit, a tiny bit of funk, but all of this proves to be brightening in the glass and tastes good over ice.
Comes in bottlecapped brown glass bottle, brewed with their own beans roasted here in Brooklyn and ready to drink straight. Doesn't have that flat, sad, stale flavor usually present in cold brews, and uses beans with enough subtlety to provide actual nuance. We have a winner!
Available for $3.50 from Stumptown cafes and specialty markets.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop this spring.
Coffee samples provided for review consideration.