October 18, 2021

Exploring cold brew coffee ice cream


Cold brew coffee has become immensely popular over the past few years, and it’s now considered something of a millennial obsession. Smoother, sweeter, and less acidic than hot coffee, it can make an appealing alternative to some cold soft drinks, such as sugary sodas.

Furthermore, like many trendsetting coffee beverages before it, the appeal and market potential of cold brew have driven product development across the food and beverage sector. This has led to the innovative creation of entirely new product categories – like cold brew ice cream.

A relatively recent invention, cold brew ice cream is starting to appear on specialty coffee shop menus around the world. At the same time, major ice cream brands are starting to offer their own takes on this product.

I spoke to a few people in the sector to understand exactly what it is, how it’s made, and how it differs from “regular” coffee ice cream. Read on to learn more about its role in today’s coffee sector and whether or not specialty coffee shops should add it to their menus.

You may also like our article on four coffee desserts you can make at home.

What is cold brew?

While recipes and measurements vary widely, cold brew is generally made by steeping ground coffee in cold or room temperature water for anywhere from six to 24 hours. The resulting beverage can be diluted with milk or water, or served on its own, chilled or with ice.

Cold brew has a mild, sweet flavour with muted acidity. This has made it appealing for “non-traditional” coffee consumers. It also has a smooth, mellow mouthfeel.

While many believe it to be a comparatively recent invention, there’s actually evidence that cold brew has been consumed across the globe for centuries. In the 17th century, Japanese sailors drank a cold steeped coffee, as did 18th-century French troops stationed in Algeria.

Today, most of the world’s major coffee chains have cold brew products, including Starbucks, Costa Coffee, and Dunkin Donuts. In the specialty coffee sector, chains like La Colombe and Stumptown have also launched their own cold brew with great success.

Currently, cold brew sales are highest in North America, followed by Europe in second place. However, as disposable incomes rise, the Asia-Pacific is set to experience the fastest growth in demand for cold brew coffee.

And furthermore, unlike other drinks that have stormed markets and social media before abruptly disappearing, it seems that cold brew isn’t going anywhere. Even when the Covid-19 pandemic slowed specialty coffee shop sales, cold brew remained a top five delivery item, with a 206% increase in sales in 2020 alone.

What is cold brew ice cream & how does it differ from coffee ice cream?

Scott Perkins is the co-owner of Milk + Ice Handcrafted Ice Cream in Binghamton, New York, US, along with his wife, Katie. He says that cold brew ice cream is essentially coarse ground coffee steeped in milk overnight. 

According to the technical definition, he says, this isn’t really cold brew, as it contains no water. However, the general principle is the same, and the long steep time results in a similar kind of extraction.

“Cold brew ice cream definitely lends itself to more of a coffee flavour and takes on the flavour of the bean that is used,” Scott says. “Store-bought coffee ice cream is made with syrups and coffee powder and has a more artificial flavour.”

Sam Ortiz is the owner of Spacehound Ice Cream in Hamilton, Montana, US. He tells me that even when coffee ice cream is made with actual coffee beans, the grinding and steeping process makes it different from cold brew ice cream.

Unlike Katie and Scott, Sam uses concentrated cold brew syrup in his soft serve, allowing him to create a product that he says is fruity, with no bitterness. 

He says: “Coffee ice cream is steeped in boiling milk for 8 to 10 minutes. Cold brew ice cream is steeped for 12 to 24 hours. 

“The caffeine content differs as well. Coffee ice cream won’t give you the same caffeinated jolt that cold brew ice cream will. Cold brew ice cream is more rich and full flavoured.”

What kind of coffee is used in cold brew ice cream?

The coffee that manufacturers use to make cold brew ice cream understandably varies from brand to brand. José De Leon Guzman, Head of Coffee at Kofra Coffee Roasters in Norwich, UK, says that he uses the fruitiest coffee he can get his hands on. 

He says: “This year we started with a Kenyan coffee but we’ve moved to an incredible natural processed Colombian from La Cristalina in Quindío, Colombia.” 

When it comes to the ideal roast profile, Scott says that it’s down to personal preference. Just like with coffee, a light or medium roast shows more of the characteristics of the terroir and growing region, while a darker roast will be bolder, with more “classic” coffee notes and body. 

To this end, Sam says he uses a medium roast as he feels that light roasts lack body and flavour while darker roasts have too much of it.

Sam makes his cold brew ice cream using a medium-light roast from Big Creek Coffee Roasters. He then steeps it in milk for 24 hours. 

“This gives the coffee time to steep all the way through and makes a full-bodied, rich concentrate,” he says. “That’s then cooked down with cream, sugar, and other ingredients. After that, it’s chilled again for another 24 hours before going into the ice cream machine.”

He stresses that a coarse grind is best when working with milk. 

He says: “You don’t want to use a fine grind or even a drip setting. Milk is much more dense than water and contains fat. When mixed with the coffee’s natural oils, it makes a dense and rich ice cream.”

No matter which origin or roast profile you select, your coffee’s quality will categorically affect the final product. 

José Ignacio Castillo is the owner of Gelateria La Romana in Mexico City. He says that the flavour of cold brew – and moreover, cold brew ice cream – “exposes the bean’s quality”.

He says: “Start the process with a quality coffee and you’ll get a nice, potent, and expressive result. If you don’t do it this way, you’ll have a disappointing result.”

cold brew ice cream

Who does cold brew ice cream appeal to?

Scott says that his market for cold brew ice cream is made up of both daily coffee drinkers and people who enjoy iced coffee in summer. 

José agrees, noting that his cold brew ice cream is popular with regulars. However, he also notes that it’s “an alternative seasonal product”, not unlike flavoured autumn or winter coffees.

Sam, meanwhile, says: “My target market is real coffee lovers and those that want a little extra zip out of their ice cream. I don’t overwhelm it with sugar; I want to highlight the quality and profile of the coffee.” 

However, he also notes that it’s difficult to make cold brew ice cream en masse without compromising on quality.

“Quality dips when it’s made in large quantities,” he says. “I make three gallons of mix per batch and it may take 72 hours from start to finish, but it’s worth the wait to do it right.”

Does cold brew have potential on future coffee shop menus?

The simple answer: yes. Cold brew ice cream combines the popularity of a rapidly-growing product segment with a seasonal treat that works well in warmer climates.

Furthermore, the possibilities for experimentation are endless. José, for instance, explains how he’s started offering sorbets made from coffee.

He says: “Sorbet is a fantastic addition to the market. In Norwich, no one’s doing it yet, but in London a couple of places offer it, and it’s delicious.” 

Sam, meanwhile, is experimenting even further by integrating cold brew ice cream with meringue. 

“I take my ice cream to another level by layering salted vanilla meringue in each pint,” he says. It’s similar to having a cold brew with cold foam. The meringue doesn’t freeze and stays soft, taking the experience to another level.”

Another variation could even include combining it with condensed milk and serving it over ice will create a Vietnamese iced coffee. Adding it to smoothies can also add sweetness and body without increasing the sugar content.

The market for cold brew is continuing to grow, and so is its potential audience. This makes it a perfect time for specialty coffee businesses to experiment by adding other cold brew-derived products to their menus – such as cold brew ice cream.

If you decide to, then choose your coffee wisely. There is no single “best” coffee for making your ice cream, but you will need to balance your coffee’s unique flavours against the naturally creamy mouthfeel of ice cream.

However, if successful, you could create a summertime addition to your menu that helps grow your business far beyond a single season.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on Indonesia’s iced coffee revolution.

Photo credits: Sam Ortiz, José De Leon Guzman, Unsplash

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!