Summer’s favorite caffeine kick in Pittsburgh comes from cold-brew coffee
Every summer, like so many others, Laura Cammarata looks forward to indulging in her favorite iced coffee drinks.
But in the past year, another option has been winning out over her usual order. Her choice these days is cold-brew coffee, and Cammarata is not the only one making the switch.
“Cold brew is different,” Cammarata says. “There’s no acidity. It has a nice smoothness. It’s not watered down.”
Though commonly confused with iced coffee — hot coffee served over ice — cold brew requires a completely different process, which can vary depending on who’s making it. The basic procedure involves steeping ground beans in cold water for around 24 hours, then filtering and refrigerating the finished product.
Cammarata first discovered cold brew when she started work as a barista at Coffee Tree Roasters in Fox Chapel. She quickly became hooked and now makes it at home. The process takes a little longer than simply hitting “start” on a coffee maker, but Cammarata says the taste is worth it.
Many of her customers agree. Her shop makes 16 quarts of cold brew on a near-daily basis. They use 5 pounds of Coffee Tree Roasters beans coarsely ground and steeped in cold water for 18 hours. That creates a concentrate that’s mixed with water at a 1-to-1 ratio.
“We go through it really quickly,” Cammarata says. “It’s even beating out the frozen drinks right now.”
Luke Shaffer, owner of 21st Street Coffee and Tea in the Strip District and Downtown, along with wife Alexis, says the cold-brew trend started with bigger coffee chains such as Stumptown, based in Portland, and Blue Bottle in New York. The Shaffers were at the forefront of the trend that’s been spreading this summer. They have had cold brew on their menu since 2007, occasionally tweaking the process until landing on the method they use now.
Using medium-roast beans from Central America, they brew the grounds in filtered water for 24 hours in 6-gallon buckets in the refrigerator. After four stages of filtering out the grounds, they store the cold brew in kegs and serve it on tap to add a subtle carbonation and cascading effect, resulting in a creamier taste.
“To make the best-quality cold coffee you can, you have to focus on the flavor, not something gimmicky,” Shaffer says.
They cold brew year-round, though, admittedly not as much in the winter ,months. In the summer, they make 50 gallons a week to keep up with customer demand.
“Once the temperature starts getting above 75, it really starts becoming popular,” Shaffer says.
Shaffer describes the product as having a “crispness and pleasant brightness” with less acidity than hot coffee. Cold brew is served black, he says, but customers are welcome to add anything they want to it.
“We let people decide for themselves,” Shaffer says. “You can do milk and sugar. People get this impression based on these urban legends that certain things are sacrilege according to snobby baristas. There may be people like that, but I’m yet to meet them. We just try to make the nicest drinks we can.”
Mike Witherel, who owns Coffee Buddha in Ross, has served cold brew as a summertime seasonal drink since opening four years ago. He makes around eight gallons a week.
“We fly through it,” he says.
After researching different methods, Witherel developed his own involving a pillow filter that acts “like a giant tea bag.” It’s stuffed with 5 pounds of coarse-ground Commonplace Coffee beans and soaked for 24 hours. It’s served over ice in a 16-ounce mason jar.
Cold brew attracts a group of people who don’t particularly want the standard cup of hot coffee, Witherel says.
“It’s no different than having a really great cocktail versus a $2 Captain and Coke,” Witherel says. “People are paying more attention to what you can do with coffee. It’s not just gas station, ‘get me where I need to go and wake me up on the way’ coffee any more.”
Rachel Weaver is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.