Brewed, cold and slow

Cold brews are often considered to be less acidic, smoother and sweeter than its hot concocted cousins. But are these the only reason the version has become a rage with joe-drinkers, makers, and chefs alike? Here’s the skinny.

When coffee specialist Abhinav Mathur launched his specialist online coffee venture, Something’s Brewing, during the lockdown, it was driven by one idea: the rise of homebrewers who wanted to do more with their ‘cup of Joe’ than just the traditional style of roll-boiling ground coffee beans, especially cold brews.

Recalls Mathur, “There was a gradual rise of home brewers who, given the time at hand, began looking at different ways in which they could add more to the cup of Joe than just going for artisanal beans and brands. Thus, it created a need for a platform that would curate such interesting tools—and by that I don’t mean just gadgets and accessories but recipes and DIY techniques too—and could enable them to enjoy their coffee.”

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Cold brew is made by steeping coffee grounds in cold water for an extended period of time. This process allows for the extraction of flavours effectively and retains the more subtle notes of the bean.

Interestingly, Mathur, a cold brew aficionado, isn’t the only one smitten by this technique that was developed around the 18th century. Seasoned bartender Shatbhi Basu, who runs one of India’s finest mixology schools called STIR, too is fond of the Kyoto-style coffee making. Says the author of Can’t Go Wrong With Mocktails, “When it comes to coffee, there are only two things that work towards accentuating its fascinating notes. One, how it is roasted and ground, and two, brewing. While roll-boiling coffee can often rob the beans of its impressive, sweet notes, cold brews have this unique ability to mollycoddle the subtle flavours of a coffee bean. This gives the concentrate that comes after steeping ground coffee, this rich, sweet flavour and aroma that needs very little tweaking, and hence makes for a fascinating ingredient to play with when it comes to cocktails.”

Cold brew’s taste and textural brilliance is something that seasoned barista Sandeep Sharma (Associate, Level 2, Pullman & Novotel Aerocity) values too when it comes to working with coffee, especially when it comes to pairing it with different kinds of moods and creating different versions of a popular coffee variant like the latte, iced coffees and even shakes. “The beauty,” continues Sharma, who has been roasting his own beans to make cold brews in-house, “of cold brews is that it works like this flavour palate which can be paired with an array of new and old ingredients to create a canvas of new coffee varietals that appeal to different palates—from the serious coffee drinkers to the adventurous and even those looking for a healthier version or Vegan-style offerings.”

Adds Shatbhi, “Given that cold brews are gentle in their extraction of the flavour notes, they turn out to be sweeter and thus can cut down not just on the cup intake but also on the need of cream, milk and sugar – things that don’t only turn coffee into a calorie bomb but also crank up its diuretic and acidity issues.”  

It is a fact that the American Chemical Society has, through its many studies, debunked the myth about coffee being diuretic. In fact, studies prove that the caffeine in both cold and hot brews only works towards pushing excess sodium out of the body through urine given that their pH level lies between 1.4-3.0, which makes it as rehydrating a beverage as tea. The issues arise when one drinks coffee in excess, a trait that, say the experts, “can be pared down with cold brew because of the intense concentrate it produces”.

The flavour of cold brew, in fact, is one of the big reasons that chefs, such as Italian specialist Chef Anirban Dasgupta, prefer to work with this version of coffee concentrate. “The enhanced flavour profile that cold brew lends to a concentrate works the same wonder in food as well since it reduces the need to adding any form of fat to create this sweet-fruity-bitter mouthfeel. In fact, cold brew concentrate makes for an amazing (and healthier) version of making the jus for the steak as it needs very little sugar to create that stunning sauce.”

Concurs award-winning pastry chef Avijit Ghosh, who finds the subtle notes of cold brewed coffee a fascinating tool to add new dimensions to desserts. Especially cakes and summer puddings where “a dash of the cold brew concentrate works wonders at elevating the profile of a panna cotta or a mousse by giving it that right amount of contrasting sweet-bitterness. Another fine example of cold brew’s wonders is the ice-cream which takes on a richer tone with the concentrate. And of course, tiramisu”.

Luckily, cold brew’s rise to fame isn’t only about the taste and texture—which, says Sharma, has played a significant role in its popularity—but also the health benefits. Say researchers from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, “Cold brews do not have the higher levels of antioxidants that you get with hot brewed coffee, but they also score on low level of acidity, which is a result of the slow extraction process that allows the oil to remain in the bean. This process lowers the acidity by 70 per cent and makes cold brew an option for those coffee lovers who suffer from Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).”

“Another ace up cold brew’s sleeve is the caffeine level, which, depending on the roast used,” says Sharma, “is more or less the same as the hot brewed version. It also works towards keeping one alert and in many cases happier too”. How? Caffeine’s role once inside the system is that of a spy which reaches the brain through the blood stream. Here, it blocks the adenosine hormone, which relaxes muscles, from binding with the A1 receptors in the brain, thus reversing the process that one identifies with sleepiness. During this alteration, caffeine also binds with A2A receptors, which results in the release of mood-improving neurotransmitters such as dopamine and glutamate. The result of this dual activity isn’t just a sudden burst of energy, which most of us equate to “waking up” but also the release of this feel-good factor that is identified as happiness. Hence, often earning coffee the moniker of being the “Cup of Joy”.

Incidentally, caffeine is a slow-flushing drug in the body, which takes over six hours to disappear and during its “residence” in the brain, it performs this dual function in phases. Once it begins to wane is when one craves another cup of coffee. Thus, say psychological experts, “creating a circle where the brain connects the feeling of happiness with caffeine or the coffee cup (or even tea).” A fact that Harvard research corroborated with its study of over 50,000 women who found that the risk of depression decreased as caffeinated coffee consumption increased.

Another nutritional benefit of the caffeine-rich cold brew comes from the taste aspect of the brew, which calls for little tweaking, especially when it comes to the use of cream, milk or even added flavour concentrates like chocolate and others. Consequently, says Shatbhi, “you can create drinks that are equally palate appealing by using spices that aid the health properties of coffee”. An excellent example of this is her signature mocktail, Coffee and Pepper Mull, which is a warm mocktail that uses the warmth of pepper and the taste of coffee to create an interesting tippler.

But the most fascinating aspect of cold brew is chlorogenic acid, a polyphenol abundant in coffee, that can reduce inflammation, and can play a key role in protection against chronic diseases, including obesity. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that muscle carbohydrate stores are replenished more rapidly when athletes consume both carbs and caffeine following exhaustive exercise. This perhaps explains why professional marathon runners across the world have a quick meal of toast and black coffee before the run.

Interestingly, sportspeople weren’t the only one privy to the benefits of coffee; soldiers too knew a thing or two about having coffee the right way. During the American Civil War, Godey’s Lady’s Book published a recipe for a concentrated “coffee syrup” that needed to be diluted before being given to the troops thus giving rise to the popularity of cold coffee as “the most sustaining and the safest of drinks” in 1887. The most noteworthy example of martial cold brew however came from Mazagran, a French-occupied Algerian fortress, in 1840. Mazagran’s brewers develop a cold brewed coffee syrup that was blended with cold water and given to soldiers to beat the desert heat. Such was the efficacy that the variant travelled to the cafes in Paris – and the rest, as the say, is history.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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