Our Journey to Road-Trip Ready Cold Brew
On refining what works & redefining what’s possible
In any industry, there are ideas about what can and can’t be done. They’re distillations of our personal experiences, secondhand narratives, common sense, and consensus. These ideas give us a foundation for how to think about things. They warn us of dead-ends, and they recommend better routes. But sometimes, we need to go down roads no one else will. And if you can do it with an iced coffee in hand, even better.
The journey of our new Cold Brew has been a long one. We were after something that, as far as we knew, didn’t yet exist, and there were many smart people along the way who knew much more than we did and told us certain things couldn’t be done. And at the time, they were right.
Enter Yu-Sung Huang, Manager of Consumer Packaged Goods at Blue Bottle, and Benjamin Brewer, Director of Quality Control. They’ve been leading this coffee expedition, navigating the relationship between quality and convenience, and championing Blue Bottle’s dream of ready-to-drink iced coffee alongside our CEO and Founder James Freeman. Here, they share the story behind our new Cold Brew.
From single origin iced coffees in our cafes, to Oji, to NOLA, Blue Bottle has offered a few cold brews over the years. How did we get to where we are now with Cold Brew?
Yu-Sung Huang: Around 2008, we started wondering, “Why is great ready-to-drink coffee so hard to find? What would it take to be able to have a delicious, travel-friendly cold brew come along with you on a road trip all the way from, say, our LA to our NY cafes?” At the time, there was just nothing available.
Benjamin Brewer: At the same time, we were making our cold brew iced coffee in 22-liter buckets in the kitchen, filtering it through stainless-steel strainers, and serving it in our cafes. It was delicious and pretty gritty, as you can imagine. I was given the task of refining our cold brew, which is when we switched to a toddy-style cold brew, and that became our foundational recipe, both for NOLA and for all the cold brew in our cafes.
Yu-Sung: We’ve always wanted to create a portable, ready-to-drink coffee, because it fits with our mission of bringing great coffee to anyone who asks for it. The challenge, however, was how to create something portable and stable without sacrificing quality.
Ben: You often don’t see those things working hand in hand. Usually, you end up compromising quality for the sake of longevity. Most food products rely on pasteurization—a high-heat process—to make it safe, and, obviously, we didn’t want that for a cold brew. Heat obscures all the wonderful, volatile nuances in cold brew coffee.
Yu-Sung: We were at this point where we knew we didn’t want to sacrifice our quality standards and do anything that resulted in a loss of beauty, but we also wanted to promote the highest possible safety standards. Food scientists told us we should either heat it, x-ray it, or add bacteria-killing chemicals. Throughout the process of creating Cold Brew, our job has been to push the limits of what’s possible in coffee, asking questions and not being afraid to acknowledge what’s not working or daring to look into things that have been accepted. So we kept going.
Ultimately, after testing and re-testing and scratching our heads and not giving up, we discovered a way to process the coffee that didn’t just make it possible to ship safely or keep in your car—it also made it taste even better than we originally intended. We were trying to solve this paradoxical problem, and we found magic.
Let’s talk about that taste. These days, you walk into a supermarket, and there’s a whole refrigerated shelf or more devoted to all the different cold coffee options out there. How is Blue Bottle Cold Brew different? How did we decide our cold brew should taste this way, as opposed to any other possible way?
Ben: The blend we chose for our Cold Brew is like the pinnacle of our blends; any one component could stand on its own, and the combination of them is just that much more complex. We’re using one natural Ethiopian coffee, one washed Ethiopian coffee, and one washed coffee from Uganda, which together create a very fruit-forward and sparkling quality.
Yu-Sung: When it hits your tongue, it’s refreshing and crisp. Then, there’s the middle layer when it’s in your mouth, with citrus and deep red fruit. It coats your tongue like a nice wine and has this long, lingering chocolate finish. Originally, we dreamed of making our cold brew with a single origin Ethiopian natural coffee. But with a single origin, some years it’s great, some years it’s not. We wanted to provide something consistent and dependable for people, something familiar and reassuring. So we tested one of our blends as cold brew, and it was delicious.
Ben: Some people disparage blends, but we work extremely hard behind the scenes to perfect these roast profiles. At any given point, the coffee that goes into our Cold Brew has been through this intricate system of auditing. It’s the product of years of historical data. Before it even gets to the roasting and brewing stages, the coffee goes through a rigorous selection process, and we’re constantly refining the process every step of the way. We’re actively seeking new producers in Ethiopia, and we anticipate that the coffee we’re getting in the coming year will be even better than it was last year.
NOLA got a cute, retro-treatment with its milk carton–inspired packaging. Cold Brew got a futuristic silver can. Why a can?
Yu-Sung: This can is inspired by the cans of tonic water you used to get at a bar. It’s also recyclable, ultra portable, almost pocket-sized, and because it’s not glass, it’s pool-friendly. Other cold brews or iced coffees in stores can seem very dark, intimidating, almost ominous. We wanted something cute and approachable at a size that also extends this feeling that this drink is just for you, for the same reason that we make every cup of coffee individually in our cafes. That’s the point: It’s something special. It’s a gift.
All right, let’s say you’ve got a free weekend and a cooler full of Cold Brew. What do you do with it?
Yu-Sung: I want a four-pack of Cold Brew for brunch with friends on the back patio of someone’s house. I picture picnic tables, poached eggs, and chilled Cold Brew coffee on an already warm morning.
Ben: August road trip to Ojai. No A/C, with the top down at sunset. No music, just the wind.
Photography by Nick Wolf Photography