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Understanding the impact of coffee bean origin and roast level on cold brew quality

Cold brew is one of the most popular drinks in coffee shops around the world. According to research firm Technavio, the value of the global cold brew market will increase by almost $440 million by 2027. In line with growing consumer demand for more diverse cold brew products, interest in cold brew extraction and how this method affects flavour is also increasing.

A driving factor behind the popularity of cold brew coffee is taste. Many consumers understand how terroir and roast profile can impact the flavour of hot brewed coffee. But, do these same factors affect the taste, and thus consumer preferences, of cold brew?  

For instance, during hot extraction, many Ethiopian beans are known for producing fruity notes and brilliant acidity. Coffee roasters know they can highlight these qualities by using shorter roasting times and producing a lighter roast. However, is there a one-to-one correlation between how these factors play out in both hot extractions and cold brew processes? And is there a culture of connoisseurship around cold brew coffee that is receptive to such nuance?

To learn more, I spoke to Eric Johnson, CEO of Trident Coffee Roasters, and Stephanie Thornton, Senior Innovation Manager at Finlays.

Cold brew quality: what does science tell us?

Before 2018, there was very little scientific data pertaining to cold brew. Today, several studies have been done on the subject. One of the latest is a 2022 study from a research team led by Dr. Mackenzie Batali at the UC Davis Coffee Centre in the US. 

Dr. Batali’s team studied coffee brewed from El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Sumatra. The beans represented washed, honey-processed, and wet-hulled post-harvest methods. Each was roasted to three different levels: light, medium, and dark. Then each was brewed at three different temperatures, between 4°C, 22°C, and 92°C (39.2°F, 71.6°F, 197.6°F). 

The results show that, of all the factors the team could isolate, roast was the biggest driver of differences between the coffees. Terroir also played a significant, though secondary, role. The results state that “four sensory attributes changed significantly regardless of roast or origin. Three attributes were higher in intensity as the brew temperature was increased—rubber flavour, bitter taste, and sour taste—and one attribute, floral, increased as the brew temperature was decreased.”

Another study by chemists Megan Fuller and Niny Rao at the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia explores the chemistry that underlies these taste differences. One of the major taste differences reported between hot and cold brewed coffee is the perceived acidity. 

The pair discovered very little difference in the measure of the strength of the acids (pH) between cold and hot brewed coffee. That said, they did find a noticeable difference in the total amount of acids or ‘‘titratable acidity’ (TA) present. 

The report states that ‘TA results indicate substantially different concentrations of total acidic compounds between hot and cold brew coffees. This research found hot coffee extracts to have larger measures of titratable acidity, indicating higher concentrations of extracted acids and/or additional acidic compounds not found in the cold brew coffee extracts.’ 

Previous research cited by the authors establishes that TA levels correlate more closely to perceived acidity. This makes a case for lower TA levels being a factor in the perceived sweetness and warmth associated with cold brew.

Moreover, Rao and Fuller’s research found that terroir also plays a role in TA. The largest difference in TA between hot and cold brewed coffees came from high-altitude varieties from Ethiopia and Colombia. They found the smallest difference in lower-altitude beans from Brazil and Myanmar. “It is a good assumption that the chemical diversity varies with the growing region,” the report says. 

Does connoisseurship matter to cold brew coffee drinkers?

Stephanie Thornton of Finlay’s sees a direct path of connoisseurship emerging in the cold brew and RTD space, similar to the culture established around specialty coffee. “We’ve seen coffee shops drive the ownership of knowledge, and that’s really made people proud of their beverage,” she says. 

“Customers enjoy talking about the origins and the roast. They love to share information about it on social media. I have seen that translate into the RTD space. Even if it’s a mass-produced product from the major brands, people still like the ability to say ‘I prefer my coffee light roast because you can taste the nuances’ People feel a sense of connection when they know how their brew has been processed,” she explains. 

Eric Johnson, CEO of Trident, sees his customers’ sensibilities emerging directly from craft beer culture. “San Diego is an epicentre of craft beer, and we’ve seen a proliferation of flavour profile exploration. We took that initial foundation and built it to feature the flavour profiles of our cold brews and show people something unique,” he says. 

“Currently, we have about eight cold brew coffees on tap, each with unique taste profiles. So, the customer is getting very much a craft brewery experience when they come into our coffee shops. This is where we differentiate ourselves from the typical espresso-based third wave coffee shop.” 

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How do terroir and roast play out in the cold brew market?

The effects of terroir and roast are playing a role in cold brew customers’ choices. “Right now, consumers are really fascinated with roast profiles,” Stephanie says. “That’s what’s trending. Early on with cold brew, origin was the focus, but that’s shifting to roast profiles.”

She adds that this is because it has such a large impact on the flavour experience. “I see it’s very polarising. With cold brew, you can really taste the difference between the roasts. Cold brew is so delicate on the bean because you’re not using hot water. It makes the coffee bean shine. You’re not pulling out all the harsh notes, so you can taste the coffee’s character.”

Eric takes full advantage of the nuances cold brew brings to light. “Most people don’t have the palette to take an espresso shot straight up. Mostly, they’re adding a lot of milk and sweeteners. So, to highlight the nuances that cold brew has, we wanted to base it on nitro and that gives it a nice mouthfeel.”

He adds that this is a more approachable way for customers to explore coffee flavours. “Every country we’re sourcing from has unique flavour profiles highlighted in our roasts from light, medium, and dark. Our customers get a full on experience of these unique flavour profiles that cold brew coffee has to bring forward.”

At Cold Brew Pak, we offer sustainable cold brew packaging that is both affordable and fully customisable. We can create bespoke cold brew coffee packaging for your unique collaborations while ensuring the carbon footprint of your business remains low. We offer a range of sustainable cold brew packaging structures, such as flexible spouted pouches, bag-in-box solutions, cans, and BPA-free bottles.

Images courtesy of Trident Coffee Roasters

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About the author

Paul Clearfire is a coffee historian and author living in Portland, OR, and has spent the past 20 years perfecting the art of manual espresso extraction. He's been writing for Perfect Daily Grind Media since 2023.