Taste-Off: The best cold brew coffee at local markets — and the absolute duds

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Whether it’s Blue Bottle, Starbucks or Equator, the cold brew coffee you buy at the supermarket can vary dramatically by brand. (Getty Images)

Hot coffee on a cold day makes sense, but when the days turn warm, a tall glass of iced coffee seems exactly right, especially if it’s cold brew made with just the right beans.

To be clear, pouring hot brewed coffee over ice is a fine idea, even if it dilutes the drink a bit. But true fans of coffee know that cold brew is an entirely different coffee experience. Brewing or steeping coffee at room temperature extracts the best flavors in the coffee and leaves behind the bitter notes produced when you brew coffee in hot water. Cold brew is less acidic, but be aware that it packs a much bigger caffeine punch than traditional hot-brewed coffee.

While cold brew isn’t hard to make at home — it calls for coffee beans, water and 10 to 24 hours of patience — for those who don’t want to bother, there’s an exhaustive array of cold brew options in the supermarket refrigerator case, including bottles, boxes and cans of black coffee, plus coffee laced with oat milk, cream, chocolate, vanilla and more. Some are single-serve grab-n-go, others are  “concentrated,” perfect for pouring over ice and diluting with milk. For this Taste-Off, we focused on plain black coffee, opting for lighter coffees when possible.

Great cold brew starts with top quality, expertly roasted beans. Lighter roasts tend to produce a smoother, almost sweet and flavorful liqueur that is stunningly delicious, highlighting the natural caramel-chocolate-citrus notes of the beans. Darker roasts lean slightly bitter and beg for a splash of something creamy to smooth out and balance the flavor.

Finding great cold brew coffee isn’t easy, as most labels offer little information about the source of the coffee or the amount of beans used. Some boast about the steeping time, yet the flavor of the finished brew is lacking, likely because the beans to coffee ratio is off or the process is flawed. Bad cold brew is watery or as bitter as day-old, rewarmed coffee.

Here’s the scoop on the smooth, rich pours to share at your next picnic — and the nasty, bitter brews to ban from the party. Nutrition info is limited — these brews are made with just coffee beans and water — but refers to a 12-ounce serving.

Blue Bottle Bright Cold Brew

Top-notch beans that are expertly extracted make this ultra-smooth, caramel-forward coffee a serious treat. It’s rich, yet light — cold brew at its best. No calories, 371 mg caffeine,180 mg potassium. $4.99 for an 8-ounce can at Whole Foods. (4 stars)

La Colombe Cold Brew

This clean, crisp brew has a striking citrus note and hints of vanilla. 15 calories, 230 mg caffeine, 300 mg potassium. $7.49 for 42 ounces at Whole Foods. (4 stars)

Stumptown Original Cold Brew

Fans of dark coffee will appreciate the punch of richness in this brew. It leans into the natural chocolate notes in the beans. 17 calories, 337 mg caffeine. $4.49 for 10.5 ounces at Whole Foods. (3½ stars)

Califia Farms Blonde Roast Cold Brew

Bright citrus flavors combined with a hint of cocoa bean make for a pleasant brew. 10 calories,170 mg caffeine, 240 mg potassium. $5.99 for 48 ounces at Whole Foods. (3½ stars)

Chameleon Handcrafted Cold-Brew Espresso (Super Concentrate)

Authentic espresso flavor with the bitter and acidic notes in check make this a nice choice, as long as it’s tamed with a splash of milk or cream. Note that it packs a huge punch, as it’s meant to be diluted. 20 calories, 630 mg caffeine, 600 mg potassium. $10.99 for 32 ounces at Sprouts. (3 stars)

Trader Joe’s Cold Brew

While this is drinkable, it has none of the flavor notes of cold brew made with good quality beans. 15 calories, no caffeine info, 550 mg potassium. $5.49 for 32 ounces. (2 stars)

Lost Coast Roast Cold Brew

While this lacks the charm of most cold brews and is slightly bitter, it does deliver a punch of coffee flavor with an interesting vegetal note. 5 calories, no caffeine info, 95 mg potassium. $4.99 for 10.5 ounces at Whole foods. (1½ stars)

Starbucks Blonde Roast Cold Brew

High-profile doesn’t always mean high-quality. This is far too watered down to be served over ice. Save this for people who aren’t sure they like coffee. 10 calories, 120 mg caffeine,129 mg potassium. $7.39 for 48 ounces at Whole Foods. (1 star)

Stok Un-Sweet Black Cold Brew

This nondescript gulp is shockingly watery. It neither tastes nor smells like coffee.15 calories, 125 mg caffeine, 290 mg potassium. $6.99 for 48 ounces at Whole Foods. (½ a star)

Equator Pure Black Cold Brew

This bitter brew tastes like yesterday’s hot-brewed coffee. 11 calories, no potassium, no caffeine info. $4.99 for 8.5 ounces at Whole Foods. (No stars)

Reviews are based on product samples purchased by this newspaper or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at timespickyeater@gmail.com. Read more Taste-off columns at www.mercurynews.com/tag/taste-off.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.