Judging by the sad state of this garbage can on Bolyston Street last weekend, Boston has officially entered iced coffee season. A few months ago Grub Street New York had a great article on why iced coffee costs more at high-end, or “speciality", coffee shops. It’s a must read for those of us who care about the availability of great coffee and, by extension, the success of great coffee shops.
For a local perspective I reached out to one of my favorite cold brew crafters (and nice guy extraordinaire) Andy Rooney of Somerville’s 3 Little Figs. “The Figs" cold brew iced coffee is the result of a 2:1 coffee concentrate to water ratio. Cold brew, as Andy explains it, “takes coarsely ground coffee, like you’d used in a French press, and immerses them directly into water" which then stands at room temperature for “around twelve hours" before getting “strained through a cloth bag and then sometimes through another filter." The result? "Rich, smooth and delicious, almost syrupy concentrate that gets mixed with water to order."
So it takes longer. It also uses more product. “We use three times the amount of beans to prepare the iced coffee (versus) the usual hot brewed," Andy explains. “That directly translates to three times the profit for hot versus iced." The equipment used for the actual cold brew is relatively inexpensive ("You’re basically talking about a grinder, a bucket, and a cloth bag!"), once the cost of the coffee alone added to the cost of cups (3 Little Figs uses the compostable kind, plastic iced coffee cups generally costing more than the hot coffee paper kind) and lids, straws, and ice it’s easy to see how cold brew cuts in to the bottom line.
But coffee must be great business, right? The growing number of speciality shops might cause one to assume that profit margins are awesome, and for some businesses (cough cough Dunkin Dounts) that might be the case. Speciality coffee is another animal. There are those disposables (or compostables), the dairy (remember the cost last time you bought a galloon of milk, especially if it was from High Lawn Farm’s as is the case in many of our local shops?), equipment (and equipment repair), labor…it all adds up.
“Don’t forget the ‘secret ingredient’…." Andy adds. “The beans! Good ones cost $10+ per pound at a wholesale rate, and they travel with a shelf life, both to be used and again to be sold once they are brewed! If you’re not careful you’ll be dumping money down the drain every day, literally."
So how might coffee be brewed at those places charging less than the $3 (or up) you’ll generally pay for cold brew? The $1/$1.50 cups? “Some places brew coffee hot and then chill it and ice it," Andy explains. “Sometimes they increase the regular dosage (amount of grounds) and get something closer to a concentrate. This method can be more acidic, a bit flat, overall pretty lack-luster in the taste department- kind of like reheating your left over pizza in the microwave a couple days later. But hey, some people can’t tell the difference, and some people don’t mind, and that’s totally fine ya know?"
Despite the time and expense a high quality product like cold brew requires, Andy isn’t grumbling when someone orders iced coffee at The Figs: "It’s getting hot outside and iced coffee is popular, and when it’s done well it’s delicious! But unlike a martini or a rare wine, you just can’t charge $10 or $14 dollars for it. You can’t."
Beyond understanding the economics of why iced coffee costs costs me upwards of $1.50 more speciality coffee shops, it’s important to think about the intangible elements of what we eat and drink. The kind of food and drink that enriches my life (beyond basic nutrition, or in the case of coffee, motivational caffeine) is the kind made with passion and a belief in quality. These, it seems, are essential ingredients whose effects are multiplied, in the case of coffee, along the journey from seed to plant to harvest to roaster to grinder to cup to stomach. Maybe you can put a price on love:
Cold brew- $3.50