What is Cold Brew? Who Cares.

In case you haven’t heard, cold brew coffee is a thing.

by Mike McKim

I did not make it to the Specialty Coffee Symposium in Atlanta last month, but from what I hear, cold brew coffee was quite the topic. Truthfully, I am not a fan what what I’m hearing. Among other things, I heard the question “what is cold brew?” was tabled.

Though it’s been around for a long time, cold brew coffee is a relatively new thing for specialty coffee producers. And like any new market, there is a bevy of ideas and a flood of information being presented from people who are trying (I can only assume) to become thought leaders. That’s all well and good, but in doing so, these people run the risk of creating restrictive standards in an attempt to define what cold brew is…or more importantly (and the part that really rubs me the wrong way) what it is not. The problem with that is cold brew has been on the market a lot longer than most of us realize, and it’s much larger than specialty coffee. I have a problem with this trend because the standards will likely be self-serving, presumptive and arrogant. Not to mention that it’s pointless to try and rewrite history. Regarding cold brew, it only makes sense to amend as we move forward.

We’re a complicated group. If you’ve spent time around any of us in the coffee industry, you know that we can over-complicate things sometimes. In fact, we’ve been on that path for a while. So much so that we’re perceived as elitists. And yet, there’s a shift happening. A shift to be more approachable and inclusive like the craft beer movement (a shift that I am all for). Over the last five years or so, I’ve said the coffee industry can learn a lot from the beer industry. If we approach cold brew similar to the way breweries approach beer, we understand that there is (and always will be) “beer”, and then there is “craft beer”. The reality is that despite the overwhelming explosion in the craft beer market recently, these smaller breweries simply cannot keep the big breweries off the shelf. As a matter of fact, craft beer is having to fight hard for the little shelf space it currently holds. Have you seen the 2009 documentary Beer Wars?

And so it is with cold brew. There will always be “cold brew” and then there is craft cold brew. Those of us in the coffee industry need to remember that coffee has been around long before specialty coffee was a thing. Defining “what is cold brew” and what it is not is defensive posturing, and it is a troubling trend. Rather than talking about defining cold brew and getting lost in the naval-gazing minutia of elitism, let’s instead talk about excelling in the new market of specialty/craft cold brew. We have begun to evolve and change the negative perception many people have of us, so let’s not drag the industry back into a place where consumers feel alienated and unwelcome.

Viva Cold Brew!

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