By Lara Creasy
I love coffee, and innovation in coffee is something I am always on the lookout for. Lately I’ve been really excited about the new push in coffee drink creativity making an appearance both inside and outside of the coffee shop world.
Both baristas and restaurant bartenders are starting to embrace coffee as not just a stand-alone drink, but as an ingredient to build upon. Thanks to innovative bottled products hitting the market, coffee can be found in both refreshing, alcohol-free pick-me-ups and as a note of complexity in creative craft cocktails.
Major innovation in coffee has come in three “waves.”
The First Wave focused mainly on getting coffee to the masses. Innovation came last century in the form of packaging, convenience and marketing. Coffee brands became household names. Everyone knew the “best part of waking up!” Vacuum-packing for freshness was introduced, instant coffee came on the scene and Mr. Coffee found its way into almost every home.
The Second Wave focused on making coffee more of an experience. People started to care about where their coffee came from, and spending several dollars a day on a trip to a café started to seem totally reasonable. Americans learned terms such cappuccino, French press and dark roast. Coffee shops became part of the social experience in America, and Starbucks grew from one store in 1971 to 3,000 by the year 2000.
We are at a point now in coffee culture where we’ve seen a Third Wave. For the last decade, coffee enthusiasts have grown ever more curious about the distinct characteristics of their coffee. The interest in fair trade and direct trade has pushed the industry to offer specific coffees in season, often from individual farms with very distinct terriors, almost like wine.
Many coffee shops associated with this third wave are smaller, locally owned shops, but larger companies, such as Intelligentsia (Chicago), Counter Culture (North Carolina) and Stumptown (Portland, Ore.), are taking coffee to the next level in a big way.
Restaurants Catch the Buzz
While many are touting the coming of a Fourth Wave or a New Wave in coffee culture, featuring barista competitions, climate change activism and the rampant acquisition of Third Wave coffee roasters by larger Second Wave companies, it remains to be seen where coffee will go next.
“What’s happening now is that a lot of the experience that’s been happening in a café context with Third Wave coffee has started to broaden out into restaurants,” says Jared Ray, senior sales manager for Stumptown Coffee Roasters in the Southeast. As a result, bars and restaurants that previously may not have considered creative coffee as a menu item are putting coffee drinks front and center.
One of the first bars in Atlanta to embrace coffee drink innovation was Ration & Dram. Owner Andy Minchow says that Chandler Rentz of Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters comes into his bar frequently, and a few years ago Chandler told him about a place in San Francisco that was kegging cold brew coffee and putting it on tap using nitrogen, like you would a keg of Irish stout.
“I wanted to do something innovative and new, and go the opposite route that most people go when doing coffee cocktails,” Minchow says. So he made his own cold brew and hooked it up to a jockey box that he used for events and outdoor parties. “I didn’t want to use one of my beer taps, because once coffee is in a beer tap, you have to replace the lines. It’s always coffee after that.”
Andy played around with the strength of his cold brew, deciding that stronger was better for the type of nitrogen cascade he was looking for. (Think about the beautiful ripples running through a perfectly poured pint of Guinness, and you’ll have the proper visual.) He settled on a mix that is “pretty stiff,” he says. The 6-ounce portion he serves right out of the tap is “like having 3 or 4 cups of coffee.”
The most popular cocktail he’s come up with to date is the mezcal-based Speedy Gonzalez, which he only sells at brunch. “It’s not something we do at night. You wouldn’t be able to sleep on nitrogen coffee!”
Speaking from personal experience, Andy is right. In my experimentation with cold brew cocktails, I have had both the most productive day of my week and the most sleepless night of my month!
Caffeine is definitely something to consider when working with coffee drinks and something to remind your guests of. However, says Stumptown’s Ray, “some people get really excited about it because it’s a natural stimulant in a cocktail, rather than something like Red Bull.”
Jared says that the 1½ to 2 ounces of regular cold brew that would be used in the average cocktail has such a small amount of caffeine in it that it’s not a problem for most people, especially when mixed with alcohol.
All About That Bass
Working with coffee provides an extremely complex flavor profile for mixologists to work with, allowing the drinks themselves to be relatively simple. “When people taste really high-quality ingredients, it doesn’t have to be complicated,” Ray says. “People get excited about the deep, rich or chocolately bass notes that coffee adds to the drink you are making.”
Minchow at Ration & Dram says he likes to focus on the inherently bitter flavor profile of the dark roast coffee he brews, opting to use it in cocktails like he would use Campari or an amaro.
“I’ve always wondered why people only use things like Bailey’s in coffee cocktails,” he says. “We know cream and sugar work well with coffee, but I wanted to do something new.”
Though he’s had a drink on the menu in the past that featured the creamy liqueur Amarula, his current offering, Speedy Gonzalez, uses mezcal and Fernet Vallet to stand up to his stout cold brew. “People really gravitate to that drink,” he says.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Stumptown offers a range of light and refreshing non-alcoholic coffee drinks at its cafés, including the Endless Summer, with soda and a fresh mint syrup, and the Duane Sorenson, which features a lemon oleo saccerum to play off of coffee’s fruity notes. When it comes to coffee, the possibilities are truly endless.
Freshness and Ease
While Minchow makes his own cold brew, many bars may not be willing to invest the time or effort required.
How is it done? The basic process involves steeping 5 pounds of ground coffee in 5 gallons of cold water for 12 to 18 hours, then straining it through a paper filter. Of course, to get the best quality cold brew, you need to make sure the grind is right, which requires a conical burr grinder, and a proper fine strain, which can best be achieved with a commercial filter.
“Bigger batches taste better,” Ray says. Stumptown has a smaller batch recipe designed for home use, but the 5-gallon version is the standard.
Which begs the question, what if a bar or restaurant wants to offer cold brew, but doesn’t have the time or space to make it? Or what if they don’t think they can sell those 80 portions of coffee in the day or two after brewing?
“We are one of the first, if not THE first, to put cold brew into bottles and really go for it,” Ray says. “Taking that quality that is in Third Wave and putting it into a bottle or a tank makes it accessible in a whole lot of other environments.”
Stumptown currently offers a whole line of bottled cold brew drinks, as well as a cold brew concentrate designed to be diluted at a 1:1 ratio, for bar and restaurant use. Stumptown’s bottled products are available statewide through Savannah Distributors.
“The reason we started doing this to begin with,” he says, “was that we were tired of making cold brew in our own cafes. We started producing it commissary-style for our own cafes, and then the light bulb went off.”
Bottled cold brew products solve several problems for bar managers, including ensuring consistency between batches and between shifts, cutting down on the time investment and ensuring product freshness. Stumptown’s bottled products even come with expiration dates.
I looked to Stumptown’s cold brew concentrate when investigating coffee options for Superica, Ford Fry’s Tex-Mex restaurants. Coffee is rarely the first thing on people’s minds after they have tacos, but we still wanted to offer something quality for our brunch guests with minimal waste. Using a quality cold brew concentrate allowed us to offer fun coffee drinks, like the “Black & White,” a mixture of cold brew and horchata, as well as cocktails like “El Chapo.” (See sidebar for recipe.)
The bottled products open the door for innovation in many forms. “I get excited about it going into a cocktail or being used in culinary pursuits,” Ray says.“It’s something I’ve been trying to get going here in the South. People here can look to other markets and see the future a little bit,” he adds, citing cities like New York, Seattle and New Orleans, which have been easing coffee cocktails onto their menus for several years now.
With the availability of convenient, quality coffee products in Georgia, we should be seeing way more creative coffee drinks on menus here in the future.