Once upon a time, cold-brew coffee could be found only at the trendiest coffee shops and in the home kitchens of the most devoted coffee drinkers. Now it’s increasingly available and appears to be here to stay; many grocery stores stock dozens of different cold brews, and even more are available for purchase online. DIY cold brew generally requires 12 to 24 hours of steeping time, so these premade options are tempting timesavers.
Some store-bought cold brews are available as concentrates, ultraintense brews that are intended to be diluted with water or milk to make individual cups of coffee. Others are sold as ready-to-drink products that don’t require dilution. We purchased eight kinds of packaged unsweetened cold-brew coffee: four concentrates and four ready-to-drink brews. They were priced from about $0.05 to about $0.40 per fluid ounce. Three of the products we sampled were brewed with chicory root, an ingredient commonly found in New Orleans–style coffee. We sampled all the products plain and with milk, taking note of each coffee’s flavor, body, and acidity.
Many factors affect coffee's flavor, and one of them is brewing time. Hot water (from 195 to 205 degrees) pulls flavorful compounds out of ground coffee quickly, so hot coffee typically brews for a relatively short period of time—less than 8 minutes. Cold-brew coffee takes much longer to brew because the water is cooler (typically 40 to 80 degrees) and pulls the flavorful molecules out of the ground coffee more slowly. For cold brew, commercial manufacturers often let their coffee and water steep in large tanks for 10 hours or more, and our at-home DIY method takes 24 hours. Cold water also doesn't extract as many harsh acids from coffee as hot water does, which is why cold-brew coffee is known for being smoother and less acidic than hot brewed coffee.
Whether done on an industrial scale or in your own kitchen, the cold-brewing process traditionally yields a concentrate that is later diluted to the strength of a standard cup of coffee. Of the products in our lineup, we were able to confirm that four are brewed as concentrates and one is brewed at regular strength. The other three companies declined to share information about their methods. Regardless of the strength to which it is brewed, there are advantages to making and selling cold-brew concentrate. Concentrates are easier and cheaper to produce, package, store, and distribute on an industrial scale, since using less water saves space throughout the process, and the finished product weighs less. These storage and price advantages are passed along to consumers; the concentrates took up less space in our refrigerators. And when we diluted them according to the manufacturers’ instructions and calculated the cost per cup of coffee, they were cheaper than the ready-to-drink products: as low as $0.38 per 8-ounce cup of diluted coffee concentrate compared with as much as $2.74 for an 8-ounce serving of ready-to-drink coffee.
Our first tasting discovery: The package instructions for diluting the concentrates called for too much water for our tastes. When we followed the manufacturers’ instructions, the results were weak and thin, with some tasters calling them “watery” or “bland.” Nailing the perfect ratio for each product requires a little trial and error. We liked that there was no guesswork involved with the ready-to-drink products.
When we tasted the samples without milk, the ready-to-drink coffees were divisive. In general, they were stronger than the concentrates. Tasters described them as "complex," with "chocolaty," "smoky," and "woodsy" notes. Some people liked those bold, "intense" flavors. Others, however, found that the "bright" coffees were too acidic and the more bitter samples were "overwhelming." Tasters also picked up on the presence of chicory in one of the coffees made with it. Some really liked the distinctive flavor, which was spicy, floral, and reminiscent of "cinnamon" or "citrus."
For the tasting with milk, tasters added measured amounts of their preferred dairy or alternative milk to each 8-ounce sample. Since many of the options were weak to begin with, some tasters found milk to be yet another obstacle to flavor. One taster noted, “Once I added milk, it simply didn’t taste like anything.” We found that milk paired well with only a few of the coffees, “underlining the subtle flavors” of the coffees and adding a pleasant creaminess. These coffees tasted "nutty and bold" and had a "nice milky, smoky flavor” that made “the coffee flavor and intensity come through in a nice way” without being “overwhelmed by dairy richness.”
The cold-brew coffees in our lineup varied greatly in flavor and body. Our tasters' preferences varied just as much. So we decided to forgo our normal rankings and suggest products based on different preferences. We picked two ready-to-drink favorites: La Colombe Cold Brew Brazilian, for people who like to drink their cold brew plain, and Starbucks Bottled Cold Brew, for those who like to add milk. If you’d like to purchase a concentrate and dilute it yourself, we recommend Chameleon Organic Cold Brew Concentrate, Black, which our tasters preferred to the other concentrates. We had the best results when we used less water than the manufacturer recommended, so we suggest trying out a few ratios of concentrate to water to find one that hits the spot. And for people who like the distinctive flavor of chicory, we think that Grady's Cold Brew New Orleans–Style Coffee Concentrate is the best.