What do you drink first thing in the morning? Is it ... coffee? Many many of us out there in the world are indeed a bunch of caffeine-swilling coffee drinkers, this is true. We gotta get our joe, our java, what are people calling it these days? Aren't Mondays the worst!? Once you sip the hot, sustaining liquid in your Simpsons mug, you think, maybe it's not so bad after all (and also, it's Friday). Life is grand.
Coffee is in many ways miraculous. A lot of the time the immediate thought of that roasted steaming mind-starter is kind of what makes me want to get up in the morning. But something happens to coffee in the summer! It changes form. A lot of us don't want it hot, and instead, seek to quench our thirst with something cold. (Some of us remain stalwarts because that's how we are). So, what do you need to know about ice(d) coffee — what separates the good from the average, and even bad? As Francis Lam, Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter (and a judge on Top Chef Masters, which airs next month) told me, "Good ice coffee is refreshing, has a natural sweetness, gives some of the pleasure of good hot coffee and hints at the rest. Bad ice coffee is bitter and/or watery and basically tastes like spoiled relationships and broken promises." Man speaks truth.
Read on for knowledge, power, and intense subliminal caffeination. What kind of summer coffee drinker are you?
The Semanticist. Everyone around you calls it "ice coffee" and when they do you want to beat yourself about the face with a bag of rancid coffee beans. It's iced. Iced. Does no one in the world speak properly? When you try to correct them they'll tell you it's colloquial, it's "its own thing now," and anyway, they're too busy drinking coffee to add that important letter that says so much. Even Wikipedia uses iced, not ice, as the descriptor preceding coffee, you explain, do you want to be worse than Wikipedia? But no one seems to care when you tell them that. You are fully aware that language is going to hell in a handbasket, so you make it a point to always say "iced coffee," just like Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks, not that you approve of them, either. Anyway, you only drink fountain soda. (I say "ice coffee," sue me.)
The Stoic. You are not going to just drink ice coffee because people drink ice coffee in the summer. Come on! What do people take you for? You are particularly not going to accept some shoddy ice-cube-ridden version of the standard as the first coffee of the morn. Slate Editor Allison Benedikt does not mince words on the subject: "Iced coffee as one's first coffee of the day is an abomination, regardless of season or temperature. In fact, I can imagine nothing worse—coffee-wise—than a sweaty plastic cup of watery iced coffee to start the day. After 12 p.m., anything goes (though even at that dignified hour, I rarely drink it)." To counteract the heat, she drinks water. Water!
The Temporary Abstainer. For whatever reason (health, pregnancy, juice diet, whim, whatever — you're not required to share) you're not drinking any caffeine at all right now, but when your coworker comes in with a big plastic jug of ice-cold java and begins drinking it up through a straw and then dancing around the office it is very, very difficult to concentrate on the task at hand in front of you. Don't worry, this too will pass.
The Year-Rounder. Ice coffee aficionado and nightlife photographer Nicholas Rhodes, i.e., Nicky Digital, is Benedikt's foil, not bothering with seasons or temperature, or even time. "I start drinking iced coffee in the morning, all year round, and I prefer cold-brewed iced coffee!" he says, exclamation point included. (Read on for more about cold-brewed). "My go-to spot in the Lower East Side is Pushcart Coffee, without a doubt. High quality coffee with zero complimentary eye rolls. They also use Perka, which is always fun." He doesn't stop at night, he simply drinks when he's in the mood, he says. C'est la vie!
The Existentialist. Why drink ice coffee? Why drink anything? These are the questions of humanity! (Possible answer: thirst). So why ice coffee? As Kat Kinsman, Managing Editor of CNN Eatocracy, explains of her own summer coffee style: "It's based on 1. Laziness (the coffee pot has gone cold) or 2. Lack of seltzer on a car trip. I stopped drinking soda a few years ago and a relapse could easily be triggered. If there's no seltzer, iced coffee is my fallback." You drink it because you choose to drink it, even if it's the only thing there to drink.
The Seasonalist. Village Voice Web Editor Nick Greene has yet another method. (There are as many coffee-drinking styles as there are snowflakes.) He does switch with the season, and believes that the most important thing about ice coffee is the choice of when to begin, and when to stop, in the year. Because once you start ice coffee season, you cannot go back. "It's like storing your winter coats or replacing snow tires. It is a statement that you are ready for summer," he explains. There are perils, here, which make life exciting. "Switch too early, as I do every year, and you'll be stuck clasping a freezing cup while walking though an early March snowstorm to work." Lam, of Clarkson Potter, has fighting words for Greene: "I've heard people talk about when they 'switch' to ice coffee. I find this to be a weak-willed cowing to the sun, but hey, do your thing, dog. I like ice coffee; I dabble in it, but I never 'switch.'"
The Fatalist, Who May Have Something in Common with the Existentialist. (But it's a little more practical, you see.) "While I'm fetishistic about restaurant coffee service and a sucker for pour-over when I come across it, much of my coffee drinking is sheer maintenance of body and psyche," says Kinsman. "There are certainly worthy offerings out there, but it's usually, 'Oh, I guess I'm doing this now.'" A caffeine hit need not always be dissected, or even approved. Lam expressed a similar vibe: "I'm a social coffee drinker, a mid-afternoon, coffee-and-cake kind of guy, a stand-by the barista watching her pull shots kind of guy. Basically, a wuss." We drink because we do, or because it's something to do.
The Cold-Brewer. Of all the techniques for ice coffee, this was the most lauded. (And here I was wondering why my make-it-hot-and-then-stick-it-in-the-fridge method never really served to fully satisfy.) Lam explains, "My favorite ice coffees have been made in the cold-brew style — you steep the grounds in cold water for a long time (as many as 24 hours), then strain and use that as a concentrate you dilute to taste. My understanding is that the bitter compounds in coffee are extracted through heat, so often coffee made this way has very little bitterness. It is, in fact, usually naturally sweet — many people who like a little sugar in their coffee will skip it with cold brew." We know where Rhodes stands on this matter, and Kinsman agrees: "There is a palpable taste difference between cold brew and chilled-down hot coffee. The former is sublime. The latter tastes used — but again, laziness may prevail."
The Recycler. Speaking of the above, you stick your unused hot coffee in the refrigerator to make it cold, or if it gets to a certain point of the day and you haven't finished the hot, you might add some cubes and fresh milk and make it cold. Sometimes you drink it and sometimes you don't, but there's something empowering about changing the coffee season, all by yourself. You are me, and you think you're being oh-so-economical, and then you go buy real ice coffee anyway. You have a large container of cold coffee in the refrigerator that you're probably never going to drink. But everybody needs something.
The Cubist. A major ice coffee question is to cube or not to cube, and if you cube, how shall you cube? See, like whiskey purists, intense ice coffee-ists might complain that their brew has been adulterated with water. On the other hand, cubes in ice coffee can take some of the edge off, particularly if it's not very good (or is very strong) ice coffee. And they are absolutely necessary in order to change hot coffee to cold without some complicated other technique. There are those who suggest you make ice cubes out of coffee to chill in the proper spirit of the beverage. What should a coffee-drinker make of all this? Rhodes says, "I typically use ice cubes. Some people get into making coffee ice cubes but that's a disguised novice trick in my opinion. I prefer to make my cold brew proportions to work well with regular ice or make the cold brew less strong and just throw a few drops of milk in. The coffee ice cubes are gimmicky, usually ruin the flavor of the original coffee, stain your ice trays and for some reason make them really sticky." Kinsman likes the coffee cubes, though, if she's being industrious: "If I'm being suuuuuuuper fiendish about it, I'll cold-brew coffee and use coffee ice cubes that I've pre-frozen. Dash of half-and-half. Sugar is for the weak."
The Home Brewer. Our own Matt Sullivan, who's experienced what he describes as an at-home coffee disaster, suggests Toddy as the easiest way to make iced coffee at home. How did he get there? Read on for the horror of a home-brew gone bad: "Seeking to cut three-dollar-a-day, Williamsburg-approved haute-beverages out of my breakfast budget last summer, I purchased a $40 dollar contraption from my Williamsburg-approved haute-kitchen appliance store. Some French press thing from a French company, all levers and spindles and cylinders. Très simple!, it promised." (Uh oh.) "Every morning before you go to bed, you just put a bunch of water (cold, always remember to make it already cold) into this fine cylinder of glass, you scoop some cheap coffee grounds on top, you stir, you put it in the fridge, and you go to bed. Très simple!" Anything that promises simplicity is 10 times more likely to fail at that promise, and so it was. "In the morning, though — oh, the morning: metal rods, nuts, bolts, pushing, shoving, Solo cups, ice (ice, you never remember to make enough ice). The worst part about making your own iced coffee is that you're not awake enough to be an iced-coffee technician," says Sullivan. "And then the goop spills all over the counter, and then your machine (très simple!) breaks down, and of course the customer-service department only speaks French and, Christ, where is my $2.50 in change and can I give it to a barista already? So I went and bought this American-made thing instead. It's called Toddy. It's just a plastic bucket and a glass jar and a filtration pad and a stopper, and it really is quite easy. You should try it at home. Just don't lose that stopper. Replacements for those cost three bucks." (Sullivan is now an accredited Toddy salesperson. Kidding. Kidding.)
Rhodes, who has not experienced an at-home coffee disaster, perhaps because he keeps himself readily caffeinated at all times, says, "If I make it myself I cold-brew Stumptown Holler Mountain (which I buy and have ground at Pushcart) in a French press over night and then drink it all up throughout the day."
The Purist/Geek. Let's talk more about the nature of ice coffee with Lam, who calls himself "kind of a purist, a little bit of a geek." He caveats: "I am very interested and dorky about coffee grinds, methods, roasts, etc., but, like, I don't physically fall down and whimper when I see someone holding a triple skinny caramel apple capp or whatever." Anyway, Lam explains that because ice coffee is cold, a lot of the hot coffee flavors don't come through. This is food science. "Flavor is mostly aroma, and aromatic compounds are volatile. They get excited when hot and prance about the air; when cold, they get sluggish and just kind of sit there, lazy and possibly depressed," he says. Therefore, "the flavor of ice coffee is kind of like coffee in the broadest brush strokes. That's cool, and if you want a cold drink, you're getting a cold drink. Ain't no shame in that game. But if you're going to take away so much of the good stuff, the last thing I want to see is bitterness in the coffee. It's like you're burying the treasure in the sand and making me dig through the oil spill you dropped on top of it." The coffee purist/geek knows things. Do not mess with him.
The Dessert Coffee-ist. You like your ice coffee mixed with chocolate and sugar and maybe blended and with whipped cream on top and suddenly it's a frappuccino, or maybe you're just eating dessert. Which is fine, but it's not exactly coffee, now, is it? As for flavored ice coffee, my experts were not thrilled by the concept. Kinsman: "Kill it with fire. 2x if it's from a bottle." Lam: "You gotta do your thing. It doesn't mean you're not desecrating the hard work of the people who picked your coffee in the deadly heat, but you gotta do your thing. Even if it's vile and makes gas stations smell worse than they already did."
The Celebrity Ice Coffee Drinker. "Mary Louise Parker," says Kinsman. "Her Weeds character had one at all times."
The Professional. You make coffee for a living, and you know everything. Call me.
The Classic Coffee Drinker. Hold cup, put to mouth, swig, repeat. Try not to spill on your computer or your white shirt, where the coffee will smell like stale bread, or worse. Kinsman suggests, "For the love of all that is holy, do everything in your power not to spill it on the subway. It stinks up the car in a way only liquid garbage could. And it is on you to try to corral all the spilled ice as best you can." Oh, and beware the stain of coffee breath. Chew gum! Isn't coffee great? You are all of us.
Of course, questions about ice coffee shall continue, as they are wont to do. From Kinsman, "Why does iced coffee make me sososososososo much more jittery than the regular stuff? Am I just slurping it more quickly?" I'd attribute it to the cold-brewing process, plus speed of consumption — easier when cold than hot — but I just don't know. And I need a coffee.
Insets via Flickr/Josh Greenstein; Flickr/Iain Buchanan; Flickr/kitty meets goat; Flickr/jamieanne.