This is a worthy question. Generally when you ask somebody about the best coffee beans to use you will get the generic answer: ‘it all comes down to taste and preference’. God knows I have said this sentence too many times to count and it is essentially true – we all have different coffee tastes. I prefer more bright, acidic notes while a colleague of mine prefers darker, chocolaty notes.
However, when it comes down to cold brew there are actually a few definitive factors that influence the taste of your brew and therefore there are particular beans that work best for a cold brew.
I should reiterate – there is no official right answer and you might disagree with everything I say here today but I am going to give you my two cents on what I think are the best coffee beans to use for your cold brew.
Cold Brew Process and Coffee Extraction
The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that the cold brewing is a whole a different thing altogether, compared to our standard way of brewing coffee with hot water.
Why Do We Brew Hot?
One of the reasons for brewing coffee hot is to speed up and increase the brewing and extraction process. This means that we can brew coffee much quicker when we brew hot. It also means that more qualities from the coffee bean are extracted.
What I am mainly talking about here are the bright, acidic tones that are present in all hot brewed coffee and that are particularly associated with coffee beans from African countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya.
What Happens when We Cold Brew?
When we cold brew, we do not extract these notes. It is next to impossible. This is not necessarily a bad thing. With cold brewing, we can really single out and enjoy the other notes in the coffee cup, such as the darker, chocolaty and more nutty tones.
A cold brew is incredibly smooth and not at all bitter, which is often not the case when we are dealing with the darker tasting profile. This means the yield is delicious but completely different to what we would expect from a hot cup of coffee.
How to Select Coffee Beans for Cold Brew?
My point here is that there is no point in buying coffee beans that have an acidic profile, as those notes won’t be extracted by cold brewing anyway. If you brew an acidic or fruity coffee cold, you will get a muted and quite flavorless cup.
I recommend going with beans that have darker tasting notes such as the nut and the chocolate that we would expect from South American coffees. Of course, there are other beans that have this type of profile, but I would recommend starting with a South American bean – possibly from Brazil or Colombia.
Single Origin vs Blends for Cold Brew Coffee
I am always an advocate of single origin coffee beans. Having said that, there is a legitimate, strong argument for buying blends when we cold brew.
A well known fact is that single origin beans are expensive. Perhaps a not so well known fact about cold brewing is that it is easy and forgiving.
It is very difficult to mess up cold brew extraction compared to standard hot brewing. This means that we can use cheaper beans and blends when we cold brew and we will get a much more well rounded, well extracted drink than we would if we used to same beans to brew hot.
Should We Buy Cheaper Beans?
In my opinion – still no.
Some people will disagree with me, but as I mentioned earlier, cold brewing presents a unique opportunity for extracting and tasting those delicious darker notes. While cold brewing is not good for acidic notes, it is fantastic for the darker notes. The smoothness that we get from cold brewing compliments these flavors perfectly.
Therefore, I would highly recommend going with a single origin with these sorts of notes present. Compared to a cheap blend, single origin beans will still be much, much nicer. The difference in quality will just be smaller than it would be if you were brewing hot.
An Espresso Blend Is Great for Cold Brew
Asser Christensen from The Coffee Chronicler makes the good point that an espresso blend is great place to start if you are using a blend to cold brew (although he does not seem to be a fan of cold brew!).
This is because espresso brewing brings out darker notes from the bean, especially compared to filter brewing, and espresso blends are chosen with those richer notes in mind. These notes are also ideal for cold brewing.
What Roast is the Best for Cold Brew Coffee?
Coffee beans with darker notes are often roasted darker. The theory here is that roasting beans for longer, compliments the darker tasting profile.
I totally disagree with this theory. Beans should never be roasted dark. The smoky taste that you are getting from your dark roasted coffee is actually due to the coffee bean being burnt. Apart from the fact that this masks the taste of your bean, it is also not healthy for you. Coffee Brewing Methods has an article reviewing some beans for cold brew, where they say it’s acceptable to use dark roasts, as long as the beans don’t have the smoke flavor imparted by a bad roasting method.
Somewhere along the line, big batch roasters marketed dark roasts as being stronger and more flavourful. In fact, dark roasting is only useful for covering up the natural flavor of cheap beans (think Starbucks here).
This does mean that dark roasts are cheaper. Although again, these beans will taste better being brewed cold than they would hot, try to resist the temptation to buy cheap beans if you can.
The maximum I would recommend would be a medium dark roast, which might just be considered acceptable for a cold brew.
Cold Brew Grind
Hopefully you own a grinder and can grind your beans fresh. If this isn’t an option for you at the moment due to budget, buy your beans from somewhere where they will grind the beans for you when you buy them.
Buying pre ground coffee is a serious no no when it comes to cold brew. Pre ground coffee is ground fine to accommodate espresso and drip coffee machines. This is much too fine for cold brew.
Cold brew should always be brewed with a coarsely ground coffee. In some cases a medium coarse grind is acceptable but definitely no finer than that. It would be fantastic if we could grind fine for cold brew. The extraction would be so much faster, and more complete. However, in reality, this in not feasible. There are no coffee makers on the market that can retain the fines.
My recommendation today is that you buy the best medium roasted, single origin beans you can afford that have darker, earthier, nuttier and chocolatey notes in the tasting profile, probably from somewhere is South America. If you can’t afford single origin, go for a good espresso blend. Finally, do everything you can to use fresh, coarsely ground coffee.
Happy cold brewing!