Cupping. Nitro. Cold brew. Coffee lingo has gotten a lot more complicated — and spendy — since the days of percolators.
But Blue Bottle director of coffee culture Michael Phillips is out to demystify all that — and teach us how to make our own cold brew along the way. A cupping session is simply a coffee tasting. Nitro is cold brew infused with nitrogen gas. And cold brew is simply what happens when you let ground coffee basically marinate in room temperature water for eight to 24 hours. Filter out the bits, then drink what’s left.
Naturally we had questions … so many questions, starting with …
Q: Wait a sec. “Director of Coffee Culture” is a job?
A: I was lucky to find a place that lets you invent a job — it’s a pretty sweet gig! I’ve worked in the coffee industry for a decade, run a lot of training programs, run my own company and done fun events. (Blue Bottle) purchased a company I had started in Los Angeles — Handsome Coffee Roasters — in 2014 and I became director of training. As Blue Bottle grows, it’s about keeping our people and our guests connected to the coffee, maintaining that culture of connection.
Q: Was coffee always your career goal?
A: I went to school for film and when I realized what working in film was actually like, I ran away as fast as I could — and I had used coffee studiously to get through my degrees. I was way more interested in coffee than film stuff.
Q: Why has cold brew become such a thing?
A: So many reasons. At its core, coffee is just an ingredient, like anything else. In my opinion, cold brew is the hands-down easiest, most foolproof way to make coffee at home and come out with a really great product compared to any other brew method — home coffeemaker or pour over. It’s easier to manage, and the product is delicious.
I drink hot coffee all year round, but cold brew is a unique ingredient. It can be thirst quenching. It can be chuggable. You can produce coffee that’s really strong or really light, use it for cooking. But top of my list is how easy it is to make.
Q: So how do you make it?
A: Coffee is ground-up beans and water. For cold brew, you mix the two in a container. You need to find the right grind setting, a little more coarse than a normal filter (grind), a container to put it in and a filter. I cheat when I make it at home. We make these little, literally blue bottles (with) a filter basket attached to the lid. Let it sit for 24 hours.
For larger batches or stronger (coffee), there’s a device called a Toddy. It’s a bucket with a hole in the bottom, a filter and a paper filter, as well. We actually use the Toddy to make our NOLA, a much higher-strength coffee with chicory. You can get crazy with flavors.
You can do big, beautiful glass towers that just drip the water onto the coffee grounds. It makes a really strong, whiskeylike concentrate.
You can also get a Mason jar, get some water, let it sit for a bit and use some cheesecloth to filter it out and get the clarity.
Filter out all the grounds you don’t want to eat. That’s how you make it shine. Luminescent coffee takes higher levels of filtration.
Q: Eight to 24 hours is a pretty wide window. How do you know when your coffee is “done”?
A: A lot is up to personal preference and depends on how demanding your standards are. It’s pretty forgiving. We do 12 to 24 hours. Shorter is weaker; longer is stronger. It’s a fun thing. I’ve had a few friends I’ve given some tips to during lockdown. At first they weren’t too picky, but now — “We really like it at 13 hours.” They get so into the details.
Q: What kind of coffee do you use?
A: If you have a coffee you love to drink hot, like a Colombian coffee, the cold brew process takes a different picture of the process. Maybe there’s a coffee you bought that you didn’t like hot. Try it with cold brew and see.
Q: So what’s your favorite way to prepare coffee? Or is that like asking who your favorite family member is?
A: My mom. Definitely my mom. I think the one I come back to the most is the pour-over style. I love the cleanliness and clarity from a hot black cup of coffee, the unique flavors and aromas — not only the cup, but the ritual. It kind of centers me. I love making espresso drinks, too.
Q: OK, last one: Does cold brew have to be sipped cold or can we serve it hot?
A: You’re your own boss. You don’t have to do anything. I might recommend (cold) because the only way to get it hot is to heat up the liquid, and that might make some unfortunate flavors come up in the mix. Brew up a hot cup of coffee. Let the cold brew own the day on the chilly side.
If You Go
Blue Bottle’s Hario cold brew bottle ($35) is available at https://bluebottlecoffee.com. Most Blue Bottle cafes are open for takeaway in Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, San Mateo and San Francisco, but a handful have been temporarily closed by the pandemic, so check the website before you go.