Stumptown Coffee Roasters is returning to Charleston at the invitation of Butcher & Bee, which already has swapped out its house beans for coffees prepared by the Portland-based company. Serious coffee drinkers will no doubt seize the chance to puzzle out the meaningful differences between Stumptown and Counter Culture Coffee, the Durham outfit that reigns at many of the city's top restaurants and cafes.
But for casual coffee drinkers who are more interested in an afternoon pick-me-up than the unique honey notes of a shade-grown, single-estate Honduran roast, one of the easiest ways to distinguish between the companies is their stance on iced coffee.
Black Tap's cold brew
By weight, measure out one part coarsely ground coffee to seven parts water. Stir and let steep for 12-24 hours. If using a French press, press and strain out grinds. If using a different device, dump coffee through filter. Dilute three parts concentrate to two parts water. Serve over ice, with or without cream and sugar.
Iced-coffee methodology has polarized the coffee world in recent years. There are two valid ways to make the drink - leaving your coffee mug in the refrigerator doesn't count - and each technique is fiercely defended by its acolytes. If you're having any trouble summoning the intensity of the debate, think of a venti version of the vinegar divide in barbecue. In coffee circles, everyone has an opinion on the best way to produce a perfect cooled-off cup.
Hot and cold
"We really do recommend the cold brew method, especially if you're buying a $14 bag of coffee," says Jon Feldman of Stumptown.
As the name suggests, cold brewing doesn't involve any heat. Ross Jett of Black Tap Coffee, which produces coffee in both styles, describes the process as "consist(ing) of steeping coarsely ground coffee in room temperature water for 12-24 hours." After the water has absorbed the coffee's flavors, the grounds are strained out.
The overnight steep generally results in a mellow, minimally acidic drink. "Cold brew is chocolatey, quite caffeinated, and has a nice rich body," Jett says.
As recently as 2010, cold brewing was fairly obscure. But as New York Times' contributing coffee writer, Oliver Strand, noted in 2012: "Now it's as easy to find as a sailor-stripe shirt." Of course, ubiquity brews backlash, and Counter Culture has led the charge.
"We tend to prefer brewing Japanese iced coffee," explains Counter Culture's spokeswoman Laura Fryer. "The short version is: There are flavors in coffee that can only be extracted with heat."
Counter Culture refers to brewing hot coffee directly over ice as "Japanese iced coffee," because co-owner Peter Giuliano learned the method from Hidetaka Hayashi of the Hayashi Coffee Institute in Tokyo. But it's also commonly referred to as ice brew or hot brew.
"This style of iced coffee is light bodied, summery and has a very nice complexity to it," Jett says.
Evaluating pros, cons
So which method is better? Below, a guide to the pros and cons, just in time for prime iced-coffee season.
Remember, no matter which method you choose, it's critical to start with good coffee: "Not-so-great coffee begins to show its shortcomings as it cools," says Marshall Hance of Asheville's Mountain Air Roasting.
PRO: Almost anyone can cold-brew at home.
Jett doesn't necessarily recommend fooling with the hot-brew method: "Unless you're fully equipped with scales and a good grinder, pulling (it) off can yield inconsistent results," he says. "Cold brewing a coffee in a French press is a good, no-frills way of doing iced coffee at home." For his recipe, see the accompanying story.
PRO: It's easy on the gut.
Cold-brewed coffee is considerably less acidic than its hot-brewed counterpart: It's sometimes described as sweet and smooth.
CON: The extraction powers of cold water are limited.
"Cold brew, because it uses room temperature or cooler water to brew, isn't able to extract all of the deliciousness from the coffee, especially the fruity and floral flavors typically found in lighter African coffees," Fryer says.
CON: Oxidation is the enemy.
Whenever coffee is stored, even in refrigerated conditions, there's a risk of oxygen infecting the brew. "Oxidizing can create a funky, gym-socks-like flavor with older coffee," Jett explains. When coffee oils are exposed to air, they turn sour and stale. Aromatic compounds, which should revive when coffee meets the heat of a drinker's mouth, tend to fizzle out over the time that cold-brewing substitutes for temperature.
PRO: There's no waiting time.
Since the cold-brew process begins the previous day, it's highly incompatible with spontaneous iced-coffee cravings. Hot brew, on the other hand, doesn't take any more time to make than a fully heated pour-over cup (unless you're very, very slow to fill your glass with ice cubes.)
PRO: It makes sense in the South.
Long before iced coffee was a choice beverage, the South was keen on sweet tea. Still is. And if the traditional technique was classified according to coffee standards, it would be a hot-brew: Tea bags and sugar are added to boiling water, because granulated sugar won't dissolve in cold tea. Perhaps trying to appeal to Imbibe's Southern readership, Giuliano told the magazine, "I love a glass of (iced) coffee with a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich - homegrown tomatoes and North Carolina hickory-smoked bacon."
CON: Coffee choice matters.
Detractors say all cold-brewed coffee tastes like chocolate. While the abundant acids in hot-brewed coffee mean the drink has more distinct flavors, brewers also need to think about which flavors they want to thrust forward. Counter Culture is a proponent of "any coffee, any brew," but allows on its website that "fresh, aromatic coffees roasted on the lighter end of the spectrum lend themselves to this Japanese iced coffee method."
CON: It's not so good with cream.
The flavors of hot-brewed coffee are too floral, too fruity and too bright to accommodate dairy: When the website Serious Eats earlier this year tested the different coffee-making methods, its tasters agreed that hot-brewed coffee with milk had an unappealing curdled character.