The history of cold-brew coffee is fascinating. (An 1840s Algerian fortress is involved.)
From 17th century Kyoto to your neighborhood Starbucks
“In Cuba,” reports a coffee compendium published in 1922, “the custom is to grind the coffee fine, to put it into a receiving vessel, and to pour cold water on it. This is repeated many times, until the coffee mass is well saturated. The final result is a highly concentrated extract, which serves for making cafe au lait, or cafe noir, as desired.” What this century-old recipe describes, of course, is nothing less than the trendiest drink of the past several summers: cold-brew coffee.
Cold brew — made by letting coffee grounds soak in water at or below room temperature — is now a ubiquitous feature of the American city. Packaged in handsome brown bottles and poured by baristas in hip coffee shops, it was once a much rarer treat, disregarded and diminished by even the country’s most involved members of the industry. Around the same time as the above passage described Cuban coffee, a trade publication claimed to have the latest chemical science on its side when it declared that “the practice of soaking the grounds in cold water is to be condemned.”
The American appreciation for the beverage is belated compared to that of our Asian counterparts. Cold brew perhaps found its first dedicated audience with the Japanese in the 17th century, who had already been cold-brewing tea when Dutch trading ships introduced the beverage as a way to transport and make coffee that did not require dangerous fire. In the industry today, Japanese or Kyoto-style coffee is made by dripping water one drop at a time through glass apertures suspended like a tower. At a modern artisanal shop, to produce a batch of Kyoto-style coffee in five hours is considered fast.
Cold coffee, if not cold-brewed coffee, is well known as a boon to those living life in extremis, especially soldiers. During the Civil War, Godey’s Lady’s Book published a recipe for a concentrated “coffee syrup” to be diluted and given to troops. “The boys of the national guard, who have spent their week at camp in Peekskill, declare that cold coffee is the most sustaining and the safest of drinks,” reported a Montana Territory newspaper in 1887.
The most notable example of martial cold brew comes from Mazagran, a French-occupied Algerian fortress whose eponymous coffee was developed around the year 1840. French soldiers were given a coffee syrup combined with cold water, which they preferred because of the desert heat. Upon their return, soldiers introduced the beverage to the cafes of Paris. In countries such as Portugal, mazagran is sweetened and served with garnishes like lemon and mint. In 1994, Starbucks released a bottled sparkling coffee named Mazagran, inspired by the drink. The product was a commercial flop, but the coffee syrup developed for the drink paved the way for more successful brands like their Frappucino.
Once coffee has been cold-brewed, it can be brought to a different temperature for enjoyment, whether that be cooler, hotter, or left at room temperature. Our English and American forebears did not have much access to ice and refrigeration, and more often preferred to bring the finished cold brew to a higher temperature than to leave it be. “Pour on the coffee clear cold water,” describes an English coffee history in 1850, “and when a sufficient quantity has filtered through, plunge the jug containing the liquor into a pot of boiling water just before taking it to the table.” The author, describing this style as “Napoleon’s way,” anticipates the sales pitch of contemporary baristas when he says that cold water “extracts only the more harmless and exhilarating qualities out of the Coffee, while it leaves all that is pernicious and indigestible, and which only become soluble in hot water.”
In the 20th century, an effort arose to make iced coffee a big hit among consumers. One trade publication from 1921 invoked the popularity of iced drinks like tea and soda while conceding that consumers “are only beginning to have the desirability of iced coffee brought to their attention.”
But how successful or forceful the push for cold coffee was is hard to say.
Cold brew and iced coffee caught on independently in other pockets of the globe. Vietnam, India, Latin America, and New Orleans (the latter brewed with characteristic chicory) all cultivated their own variations of cold brew and iced coffee. Real breakthroughs for consumers began taking off in the 1960s. In 1964, Todd Simpson, an engineer by education and a nursery owner by trade, went on a botanical trip to Peru. There he saw locals cold brew coffee by traditional methods, then heat the beverage before serving. Simpson noted the milder flavor and diminished acidity of the cold-brewed coffee, and sought to concoct his own brewing method for consumers at home, especially those with sensitive stomachs. Thus, the Toddy was born, a device suited for cold brewing coffee in the home.
In Japan, another pioneer of consumer cold coffee was ascending. In 1969, coffee industrialist Tadao Ueshima introduced the world to the first canned coffee product, which could also be packaged with milk. The public was at first reluctant to try the beverage, but with a heavy marketing campaign, in the 1970s the success of the product proved mainstream coffee drinkers could be pushed out of their comfort zones.
In the past decade, cold brew has significantly risen in profile, spurred by popular recipes like Blue Bottle’s New Orleans-style take on the beverage. Through a New York City summer, Gregorys Coffee watches as cold brew consists of 65 percent of its sales, and in 2015 cold brew undeniably entered the mainstream as Starbucks began carrying it in all 13,000 of its locations. Cold brew may be our current summer obsession, but the past shows that a good thing rarely comes out of nowhere.