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The History of Cold Brew

In the United States, cold-brewed coffee has become popular in just the past 10 years or so. It’s hardly a new style of coffee, though. Many countries have their own version of cold coffee: Thai and Vietnamese iced coffee, and Indian cold coffee. Most of these methods, however, use either hot-brewed coffee (as in Thai and Vietnamese iced coffee) or instant coffee (Indian cold coffee). The first evidence of true cold-brewed coffee, made with cold water, comes from Japan.

Kyoto-Style Japanese Coffee

Kyoto-style coffee, named for its popularity in Kyoto, Japan, is the earliest record of cold-brew coffee. It’s clear that the Japanese were brewing coffee this way in the 1600s, although the record prior to that is unclear. One suggestion speculates that the Japanese may have learned about it from Dutch traders, who would have used it as a way to make coffee that could be carried on their ships.

Over the centuries, Kyoto-style brews have become highly artistic. Instead of submerging grounds for hours, the coffee is brewed drop by drop. A single bead of water is let down through the coffee grounds at a time, creating a process that takes just as making toddy does but is much more beautiful to watch. It wasn’t long until tall, elegant towers were being used in Kyoto to make cold-brews.

Cold-Brew Comes to the U.S.

This style of cold-brew has just recently come to the U.S. Initially, toddy was the go-to cold-brew of choice. It was easy for cafes to make, cut through milk and sugar and contained a lot of caffeine.

More recently, though, cold-brew systems that resemble those of Kyoto have begun to pop up in cafes across the country. Perhaps a historian or sociologist will have more insight into why this style of cold-brew has taken off in the U.S. over the past decade, but we have a few thoughts on what prompted the trend:

  • cold-brew requires little manual labor, so it’s a practical beverage for coffee shops to make
  • the U.S. has come to see coffee as a form of art (e.g. latte art), and this is one of the most creative ways to make cold-brewed coffee
  • in experienced hands, this style of cold-brew can bring out the origin characteristics of a single-origin coffee better than toddy is able to

Many of us think of hot coffee as the default brew of choice, but coffee’s been enjoyed cold for at least four centuries. In days before electricity and when fires required a lot of work, cold-brewing may have even been the standard way of making coffee. We’re glad to see the country re-discovering this long-established way of enjoying coffee, and we’re excited to see what coffee shops in the U.S. will do with cold-brews in the coming years.

Author Scott

Scott is a professional writer for Driftaway Coffee. He worked as a barista for eight years, but today prefers to enjoy his beverages from the other side of the counter. When not drinking Driftaway Coffee, Scott usually has a mug of his own roasted coffee nearby.

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