For most caffeine fiends in the U.S., cold coffee used to be something to tolerate when the hot weather hit: a weak, watery necessity, but not a true preference. Then the cold-brew craze hit, and with it, a whole new love for java in a glass. “Demand for it used to be seasonally driven, but with the popularity of cold-brew, we’re selling cold coffee through the year,” says Zach Morris of Green Engine Café in Haverford.
Elsewhere in the world, however, there are long-held traditions of cold-coffee drinks. At Malaysian restaurant Sate Kampar on Passyunk Avenue, the kopi (coffee) bar serves up specialty beans roasted with margarine and sugar for a distinctly caramelized flavor.
“In Malaysia, we drink coffee both hot and cold,” says owner Ange Branca. “There’s no stigma about cold coffee, but even in the hot climate, people tend to drink more hot drinks.” Sate Kampar’s cold variations include black coffee, black coffee sweetened with sugar, or coffee combined with a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk — all served over ice. There’s also a drink called kopi cham that marries Malaysian coffee and Malaysian tea along with sweetened condensed milk for a chocolaty, smoky result. In Hong Kong, yuenyeung also combines milk tea with coffee. Locally, it can be found in Chinatown bakeries like KC’s Pastries.
Sweetened condensed milk is again the magic ingredient in Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê dá), coarse-ground dark roast, typically brewed in a metal drip filter set over the glass. Vietnamese coffee, which can also be served hot, is ubiquitous at the pho restaurants around town, but it demands a certain kind of patience, as each drop meets the layer of creamy sweetness below. At Passyunk’s Chhaya Café, there’s more instant gratification in the seasonally served house spin on Vietnamese iced coffee, called the Ash: already-brewed espresso, stirred into the condensed milk, then poured over ice.
Italians, meanwhile, have their own use for espresso. The Italian caffè shakerato treats a shot or two to a spin in a cocktail shaker with ice and simple syrup until it takes on a lacy foam. Then the mixture is poured in a chilled martini glass. Gran Caffè L’Aquila on Chestnut Street serves it straight or with flavored syrup, as well as the corrects — “corrected” with liqueurs like gianduia or Bailey’s. “It’s a very classic drink in Italy,” says L’Aquila’s founding partner Riccardo Longo. “People drink it from morning into late afternoon, but it’s not as widely known in America.”
Meanwhile, even though just about every independent coffee shop and Dunkin’ Donuts serves cold-brew these days, there’s still some debate as to the best method for producing a cold coffee — brewing it hot and chilling, or combining the grounds with water and letting it steep overnight in the refrigerator (a.k.a. that ubiquitous cold-brew). Purists maintain that cold-brew robs coffee of its character, that it’s the milk chocolate to coffee’s dark chocolate. On the other side, its many fans appreciate the smooth, less-acidic roundness that makes cold brew so easy to swill.
“In general, this whole scene has gotten a little too precious,” says Rival Bros. Coffee’s Jon Adams. “There should be room for different preferences, and coffee should be something that’s accessible to everyone.” For that reason, Rival Bros. serves a few different styles — an iced flash-brew with single-origin beans in the Chemex, along with large batches of cold-brew served both as-is and through the nitrogenated draft system for a foamier texture.
For the record, Ray’s Cafe in Chinatown was serving its own version of cold coffee — “I hate to call it cold-brew because that’s like a trendy mainstream thing people do now,” says co-owner Lawrence Ray — back when it opened in 1989. In those days, when the cafe could barely sell a cappuccino because no one knew what it was, Ray’s perfected a process that relies on a Japanese titration device, where room temperature or cold water is slowly poured through medium- to fine-ground coffee beans, a 12- to 14-hour process. The coffee is then chilled overnight and served over ice. Ray warns that it should be taken slowly. “People want to try it, and if they don’t drink coffee every day, I tell them to get a small cup. It’s way too strong if you’re not used to the caffeine.”
Both the hot- and cold-brew methods for iced coffee can easily be made at home. For the hot, reduce the water poured over the grounds and replace with the same amount of ice at the bottom of the Chemex. For cold-brew, combine roughly ¾ cups grounds with 3 cups water, stir, and chill overnight. Then pour through a paper filter. Smaller batches of cold-brew can also be made in a French press. Because of its concentrated strength, cold-brew should be served over ice, diluted with water or milk, or by adding ice. A wondrous variation for those looking for a sweet touch is the Magical Coffee made popular on the site Food 52, with a hint of cinnamon and brown sugar.
Among cold-brew’s many winning attributes is the ability to make a large batch and keep it for a several days. Its mellow flavor also makes it an apt base for a cocktail. “If you pay attention to the coffee Instagram world,” Haverford’s Morris says, “there are more cold-brew options now than even traditional coffee drinks.”
Local restaurants have jumped on board. At Heritage, the Hotel Lobby brunch cocktail swirls together cold-brew with bourbon-steeped cream and spiced whiskey. The Little Lion’s Peddler Buzz amps up cold-brew with Irish whiskey, milk, and vanilla syrup. Double Knot’s the Charger is a heady mix of nitro-brew coffee, Fernet Branca, and Tuaca liqueur. Adams has made a variation on the Manhattan with rum instead of bourbon and a splash of cold-brew.
Local coffee cognoscenti are finding other ways to keep their caffeine cool, and a favorite is the espresso spritzer, with or without a twist of lemon. “We keep one on rotation. It’s a little lighter and brighter, and is a nice change if you’re an espresso drinker but want something refreshing,” says Daniel McCabe, owner of Chhaya. Adams goes a step further. Inspired by Stumptown’s signature Sorenson drink, he adds lemon simple syrup for a coffee version of the Arnold Palmer.
It would seem that cold-coffee drinks can lend themselves to a thousand variations. A drink on Green Engine’s current menu is the buzzy Kyoto & Cola — Kyoto drip coffee with cola and preserved cherry. “I like flavor additions, whether that’s a twist of citrus, or pouring a double shot of espresso into a soda like Fentimen’s rose lemonade,” says Morris. “We’re only just starting to appreciate all the things we can do with it.”