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Katie Cannon  /  MSNBC.com
Finished coffee concentrate drips from the brewing pitcher of a Toddy cold-brew system. The Toddy, now 40 years old, can also make tea and extracts far less acid from beans than drip coffee.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 8/20/2004 7:13:58 PM ET 2004-08-20T23:13:58

The notion of cold-brewed coffee sounded to us, frankly, weird.

After all, heat seems intrinsic to the coffee process. Why would you possibly want to leave grounds soaking for half a day in an ugly plastic pitcher, like so much Kool-Aid? There's only one possible reason we were willing to try the Toddy coffee system, one of a handful of cold-brew options available: It works.

Really, really well.

The more you think about it, the more clear it becomes that hot-brewed coffee is by no means a culinary dictate.  I personally gave up drip coffee for espresso years ago, finding that filtration brought too little flavor and too much caffeine into the mix.

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Others find regular coffee too acidic. Of the estimated 54 million Americans who suffer heartburn, according to the National Heartburn Alliance, three-quarters say it can be caused by beverages.

Cold-brew systems largely solve these problems, which may be why Toddy claims 20 to 30 percent of its customers are coffee lovers who find regular brews too much to stomach.

No heat, no plug
It's not an immediately comfortable transition. The technology is profoundly low-tech: a plastic pitcher with a fabric filter, sitting atop a carafe that catches the finished product. No electricity needed, just gravity, a pound of ground beans and nine cups of cold water. That and 10 to 12 hours steeping time.

"We live in a culture that almost demands something be complicated," says Brett Holmes, a partner in Houston-based Toddy Products. "It's got to have a plug."

The resulting concentrate is strong stuff. Toddy recommends three parts of either hot or cold water to one part concentrate, depending on how you like your coffee, not unlike an Americano.

During a two-week test in the MSNBC.com newsroom, the 3-to-1 ratio was rarely used, given our preference for maximum coffee in minimum time. My own fave was 1-to-1 with cold nonfat milk.

As it turns out, cold brew is familiar to the caffeinated elite.  Many die-hard coffee fiends swear by systems like Toddy, which retails for $35, or the similar Filtron. Seattle's Best Coffee fessed up earlier this month that they have for years used industrial-sized Toddys to brew concentrate for cold coffee drinks, and will now sell Toddy systems in their stores.

None other than Seattle's Best founder Jim Stewart brought Toddys into the chain's back rooms because they could turn out flavorful coffee without astringent or chemical qualities. Even after the coffee chain was bought by java megalith Starbucks, it opted to keep its own brewing traditions, including the Toddy.

"We're not just trying to make up another of what everybody else is doing," says Shannon Jones, Seattle's Best's director of field marketing.

Breaking the rules
The more you think about cold brew's weirdness, the less weird it seems. After all, coffee has been around since before 1000 A.D., depending on whose version of history you believe, yet it was initially thought to have been eaten as a berry, not brewed.

Who decided on the drip method anyway? Prior to the early 1700s, when the Europeans developed a rudimentary coffee filter known as a biggins, coffee grounds were usually left in the brew. It wasn't until 1908 that a German housewife named Melitta Bentz devised a paper filter for drip.

Even the precise espresso process -- now a backbone of coffee consumption -- wasn't engineered until 1901. So why should the world be governed by the laws of Mr. Coffee?

"I can serve hot or cold coffee at the same time, and I can serve a large group without standing in the kitchen for a good 30 minutes pouring hot water through a drip filter," says Toddy fan Kristin Yamaguchi, who first bought one to conserve space in her tiny Yokohama, Japan, kitchen.

Yamaguchi became an instant convert. While she prefers coffee cold, she not only enjoys hot Toddy but unlike regular coffee, can drink it later in the day and without food.

Four decades ago, a similar rethinking of coffee norms prompted the creation of the Toddy, due to sell its one millionth unit this fall.

In 1964, a newly graduated chemical engineer named Todd Simpson, ordered coffee in a small cafe in Guatemala. He received a small carafe of cool concentrate and some boiling water, which set him wondering whether his mother -- who couldn't otherwise stomach coffee -- might be able to enjoy the cold stuff. She could, he devised a formal brewing device and the Toddy business was born.

Smoother on the stomach
Though coffee aficionados have murmured about it for the past 30 years, Holmes and his former college roommate, Strother Simpson  -- Todd's son -- now hope to take their contraption to the big leagues, including a marketing campaign, a redesign of the plastic pitcher and a line of ready-to-mix bottled coffee and tea concentrates. (As many Southerners will attest, tea can be cold-brewed, too.)

Where cold brew truly comes from is a total mystery. The Simpsons believe it may be an ancient Peruvian method, and coffee concentrates first showed up in 19th-century America. Another theory traces it back to Java. The trail seems to stop there.

What's apparent, though, in Toddy's independent lab tests and in our own less scientific tastings, is that cold concentrate contains far less acid and a good bit less caffeine.

Toddy claims to brew up two-thirds less caffeine than regular coffee; in a side-by side test using Starbucks' regular blend, the Toddy version had a pH of 6.31 and 40 mg of caffeine per 100 grams of coffee, while Starbucks store-brewed clocked in at a pH of 5.48 and 61 mg of caffeine. (Lower numbers on the pH scale, which is measured logarithmically, denote more acid.)

In a beverage near you
Not all our newsroom testers were convinced. One enjoyed the taste but thought the mechanics of cold brewing were a bit much. (He compared it to a fondue pot.)  Another suggested coffee fans who cherish a full dose of acid and caffeine might be turned off. There were inevitable comparisons to instant coffee.

Still, a carafe of concentrate remained fresh over a week, with no dulling of flavor. It even avoided absorbing the tastes of the newsroom refrigerator's other contents -- possibly the first beverage ever to avoid that fate.

Potential uses kept emerging. Camping trips.  Coffee ice cubes for undiluted iced lattes.

Seattle's Best recently announced it will take over café operations at more than 400 Borders locations, so Toddy concentrate could soon appear across the nation -- though you might not know you're drinking some. (Seattle's Best's Naughty Toddy and JavaKula iced drinks, among others, feature it.)

I'm likely to stick to my espresso machine at home. But cold-brewed coffee may just become a regular work habit, and not just because the always-overheated communal coffee pot fills me with dread.

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