TL;DR: I'm trying a new cold brew every day for a week. If you like cold brew, you might like this post.
I love iced coffee, and I love to sip on it while I work. So I figured I'd share my insights from trying a litany of cold brews in hopes that you'll find the perfect iced coffee for yourself, as you go about your work!
I am a man of routines. When I find a product I like, I tend to go overboard. I found the ultimate Chap Stick flavor, so I bought a 24-pack. I found the perfect computer mouse, so I bought 5 (because they aren’t manufactured anymore). When I discovered my go-to bottle of wine, I began buying them in bulk. The reason is this: Once that particular aspect of life is figured out, I’m ready to move on to the next decision.
Having very dedicated routines requires me to make fewer decisions in the mundane and gives me more freedom to think about other creative things in my work. So naturally, finding the perfect coffee is an important factor for me.
For years (yes, years), I started every morning at Peet’s Coffee with a large iced coffee. It’s safe to say I was obsessed. Then after a few years, Peet’s changed their formula and upped their prices. This was my chance to find a new routine (and hopefully one less-expensive than $3.55/day for coffee, plus a trip to a shopping center.)
My preference in coffee
I have been experimenting with various cold brews for maybe a year now. Cold brew has become the new hot commodity all the coffee brands have caught on to. Peet’s was the first large chain to release a cold brew. Starbucks followed suit shortly after. Some of the smaller coffee shops have had their own cold brew for much longer, but I always felt it was too bitter for the mainstream.
In the past few months, I finally found my retail cold brew replacement in Trader Joe’s iced coffee concentrate. I found it to be absolutely delicious, and finally a huge money-saver over going to Peet’s or Starbucks on a daily basis. In fact, the Trader Joe’s cold brew is so fantastic, I’ve begun taking a bottle with me on trips. (Most recently, I packed away a bottle to Puerto Vallarta.)
But the bottled cold brew market is growing, and I figured it was time to see what else the world has to offer. A quick trip to Mother’s Market (similar to Whole Foods) resulted in 4 other cold brew products I haven’t tried. So naturally, in my Cory-sort-of-way, I decided it would be a good idea to do a cold brew tasting.
I’m tasting a new cold brew every day this week. Here are some things you should know about my taste buds:
- I drink black coffee. I have a very mild palette, so I will be reviewing the products as they come - no milk, no sweetener.
- I already have a baseline. My perspective may be skewed, as I am already a big fan of Trader Joe’s cold brew and Stumptown’s bottled cold brew.
- I will not be using elitist, high-brow comparisons. I will tend to refer to something as “tastes like the smell of diesel” over “the rich tannins of 19th century Acacia bark”.
- I purchased single-serve bottles for all these new brands, to taste them as they were intended (no concentrates).
- I will be giving each coffee a rating between Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair and Poor. I hope I don’t have to use the last two!
Here we go.
Seaworth Coffee Co.: Single Fin Sludge, Handcrafted Cold Brew Coffee
Overall: GOOD (3/5)
Did I finish the whole bottle? Yes!
I was excited to try Seaworth cold brew because it’s a local company (here in Orange County) and the bottle is well-designed. It’s clearly marketed toward the Stumptown (hipster) crowd. The instructions offer multiple ways for this cold brew to be enjoyed: “1 to 1” or “Full Strength’, so this isn’t a concentrate. I was excited to try it straight and then experiment with watering it down if it were to be too strong. (It’s important to note that this is also the most expensive, single-serving cold brew bottle, only closely followed by Stumptown.)
Between the typography and graphics, this bottle looks classicly old and it immediately caught my attention. Assuming the Stumptown bottle came first, it seems as if Seaworth drew heavy inspiration from it.
Seaworth tastes like a respectable cold brew, but I was disappointed in the watery taste from the start. There are similarities in taste and quality between Seaworth and Stumptown, but Stumptown is the clear winner. When you add up the fact that this bottle was designed to look and taste like Stumptown’s cold brew, it becomes clear what their goal was with the product. Unfortunately the taste falls short of its more popular counterpart.
The overall taste of Seaworth is acceptable, and if this was my first ever taste cold brew, I might quite enjoy it. I should point out that Seaworth is not bad by any means. But having been exposed to cold brew for quite some time now, I can safely say this is just average. Its mild taste might appeal to some who don’t like the sharp bite of authentic cold brew, but if I had the choice between several cold brew offerings, this wouldn’t be my go-to.
Stumptown Cold Brew Coffee
Overall: EXCELLENT (5/5)
Did I finish the whole bottle? Yes!
Stumptown is the hipster coffee brand that also holds the title of “most expensive”. Their cold brew nearly tops the chart at $4, which makes their 10.5oz bottle one of the most expensive (only second to Seaworth). On top of that, Stumptown doesn’t sell their original cold brew in a larger format (unless you have access to a Stumptown retail store), so if you get hooked on the taste, you’re stuck with quite an expensive habit. So is the price really worth the taste?
Stumptown’s cold brew bottle is the bottle that all other cold brews should aspire to be. With the text printed straight onto the bottle, it’s visually appealing and stands out on the shelf.
I must say, it took me two tastings of Stumptown before I fell in love. But once I did, I fell hard. Stumptown makes a very, very solid cold brew. It is incredibly smooth and tastes very filtered. Of all the single-serve cold brews, it has the most flavor and best consistency. While I like strong coffee, its apparent, yet still mild taste is good enough for me, while maintaining its appeal to other less-hardcore coffee drinkers, as well.
In addition to the fact that they make a delicious brew, it’s handy that Stumptown is starting to become an offering around town. Ace Hotel in Palm Springs offers Stumptown bottles in their breakfast restaurant, which was the perfect paring for a weekend breakfast feast. If Stumptown continues producing this stuff and increases their reach, they’ll have a long-term winner on their hands that is mainstream enough to be enjoyed by the mass market.
Groundwork Cold Brew Coffee
Overall: POOR (1/5)
Did I finish the whole bottle? No.
I’ve been to a Groundwork coffee shop in Santa Monica before, and while I’m not a huge fan of their coffee, I’ve gone back several times when I’m in the area. I don’t think this predisposed me to not liking their cold brew, because it’s been quite a while since I’ve been there, but I should throw that out there just in case. The bottle says to shake well before drinking, which I did, but that didn’t seem to do much for the taste.
The bottle incorporates the lowercase Groundwork logo, which it identifiable to me because I’ve been to a coffee shop of theirs before. The top of the bottle had a pull tab which made it the easiest lid to remove, of all cold brews I’ve had by far. Groundwork is another cold brew coming out of Downtown LA, according to the label.
Unfortunately, the taste of Groundwork’d cold brew, in my opinion, is nothing to write home about. I’d recommend it for cold brew beginners who don’t like strong coffee, although I can’t say it would be my first or second or third recommendation. The label tells me to expect “smooth and full-bodied with notes of red fruit and savory roasted nuts.” That’s generous. I would have gone with “organic dirt”. To me, there is simply no flavor. It just tasted like water and some mush put together in a bottle, for which I paid somewhere around $3 or $4.
With such a competitive market, Groundwork’s cold brew offering doesn’t hold its own. The lack of flavor and the mediocre taste don’t hold up to the taste of their in-store coffees you can find in LA, which makes me disappointed. When it comes to cold brews available for purchase in a supermarket, I have to say that there are enough other delicious cold brews available to where I’ll skip this one on the shelf every time.
Chameleon Cold Brew
Overall: GOOD (3/5)
Did I finish the whole bottle? Yes.
I have to admit, I’m a sucker for a nicely designed label. Because when I pulled out the bottle of Chameleon, I wasn’t thrilled about it. There’s just something about the bottle that doesn’t excite me. Maybe it’s the shape, or the colors. On the positive, the Austin-based brew does use organic coffee, which they are proud to mention in the nutrition facts ingredients: “Filtered Water, and Fair Trade Certified Organic Coffee.”
For some reason, the bottle reminded me of Snapple. Possibly the biggest similarity was the cap, which was one of those safety button lids that pop up once they’ve been opened, just like the Snapples of my youth. Except this one didn’t have a cool fact on the inside. Okay, enough about Snapples. Let’s get back to coffee, shall we?
Despite my negative preconceived notions based on the bottle’s appearance, I was pleasantly surprised with the taste. While it is not a particularly strong coffee, it reminds me of the taste of the Trader Joe’s cold brew concentrate. If I were to water down the Trader Joe’s brew quite a bit, it would end up tasting something like this. This is a complement, as I’m a huge fan of the Trader Joe’s brew. The flavor is more sharp and less smooth, perhaps, than Stumptown, but it still has an appeal and feels less hipster when I drink it - always a good thing. But because it’s sharper or less smooth than Stumptown doesn’t make it bad. I actually quite enjoy the flavor. Unfortunately, the dilution is a bit much for me. However, I can see how this would appeal to a large audience.
Chameleon was a little weak for my taste, and it seemed to only get weaker with every sip. But the sharp, yet mild flavor is something that I can see many enjoying quite well. However, for the hardcore coffee drinker, Chameleon doesn’t pack enough punch for me to get my caffeine fix without going through about six of these bottles. While the flavor is good, I can’t imagine keeping a stock of this on hand for family or friends, because the same taste can be achieved by Trader Joe’s cold brew with the right amount of dilution. However, if you don’t want to keep a big bottle of TJ’s concentrate on hand, or don’t want to have to mess with getting the correct proportions of concentrate and water, yet still want a solid, non-hipster flavor, Chameleon might be for you.
Update on Chameleon Cold Brew: After concluding my single-serving bottle experiment, I decided to pick up a larger bottle of their concentrate (32oz.) which runs about $10 at Mother’s Market. Chameleon Cold Brew, in concentrate form, has officially become my go-to coffee. They recommend diluting it with water, but I drink it straight, and it has a subtle hint of coconut to it. This coffee is a great balance between rich, strong, and tasty. I’d highly recommend the concentrate form and would give it a 5/5.
Secret Squirrel Cold Brew Coffee
Overall: VERY GOOD (4/5)
Did I finish the whole bottle? Yes.
The other day, a friend commented on one of my cold brew posts saying she regularly buys Secret Squirrel. I had never heard of the brand before purchasing this bottle, so I was looking forward to trying it. Squirrel is another Los Angeles-based brand. (I must say, I’m pretty fortunate to be so closed to all this great coffee, and likely getting it here locally before the distribution unfolds across the country.) While I don’t really understand the name, I was somewhat impressed with the taste. It has a very smooth taste that pairs well with my morning Larabar (Cashew Cookie, obviously), and while I’d prefer it a bit stronger, I really enjoyed drinking this bottle.
The nice thing about Secret Squirrel is that you get a little more than with other bottles. This is a full 12 oz., whereas others come with 10. For some reason, I liked the color scheme because it was subtle and the black and brown subconsciously reminded me of coffee. The one thing I didn’t like, however, was that the bottle cap didn’t seem to be a twist off. I actually had to pull out a bottle opener, which is different from all the other bottles this week. It’s the same motion as opening a beer, which feels weird to do at 9 AM.
As I mentioned in my intro, the smooth flavor of Secret Squirrel goes perfectly with a little snack. While it isn’t my favorite cold brew, it’s pleasant, and if this were the only option on the menu in a cafe, I wouldn’t hesitate to order it. If I recall correctly, the flavor and consistency of Squirrel reminds me a bit of Seaworth, and definitely sits along the lines of Seaworth and Stumptown in terms of smoothness.
I am finding a trend that most of these cold brews are quite mild, especially when compared with ones you might find at Intelligentsia, Portola Coffee or Toms. Secret Squirrel is no exception. I definitely don’t hate it. However, I’m not sure if it necessarily stands out of the pack enough for me to pick this bottle over everything else. If the price is right, it might be a solid purchase, as the taste is definitely tolerable. But if I’m looking for the same realm of consistency or quality and have a wide selection of options in front of me, I might end up with a bottle of Seaworth or possibly even Chameleon. (I’m leaving Stumptown out of the comparison because of the price. Stumptown is still the clear winner here.)
Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Coffee (Concentrate)
Overall: EXCELLENT (5/5)
Did I finish the whole bottle? Yes.
I must admit that Trader Joe’s cold brew is the one coffee I’ve been drinking consistently for months, and the only reason I’m writing this post is because I discovered a whole world beyond the TJ’s concentrate. TJ’s is responsible for changing my routine and keeping me from having to go to a coffee shop every morning. As a cold brew addict, I very much enjoy this stuff. However, many of my friends aren’t fans. So is it for you?
When Trader Joe’s began selling their cold brew, it was given a giant end cap where it seemed like 1,000 bottles were on display. I tried it and I was hooked. A month later, the end cap was gone and I was worried they no longer sold it. Fortunately they just moved it to a very unassuming place - a very tiny section of their coffees/teas, which is where you’ll find it today.
One of the benefits of a concentrate is that you can customize the amount of dillution based on your own drinking preferences. (Note: Trader Joe’s is the only cold brew not available in single-serving, so this isn’t a 1:1 comparison with the others. Some of the other brands may be sold in concentrate form, but for the purposes of these reviews, I only tested the single servings.) But when it comes to texture and taste, TJ’s has more of a bite to it. It is less “smooth” than the Stumptown types, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just different.
I have come to realize that there are two distinct flavors, or types, of cold brew, and TJ’s is one of the stronger, more potent options out there. My hunch, based on my own thoughts, and knowing which of my friends tried TJ’s cold brew and didn’t like it, is that TJ’s might be out to satisfy the strong coffee connoisseurs, and those who like a little more punch in their cup of joe.
I drink a ton of this stuff. A 32oz bottle will usually net me 4-6 12 oz. glasses. The only problem I sometimes have (and have yet to figure out), is that sometimes on a 2nd glass, it begins to taste a lot like the smell of tar. There becomes a very potent, adverse flavor in which case I end up dumping out the entire glass. My hypothesis is that it has to do with the taste buds after drinking a full glass, but I’m not sure what causes it, as of now.
Trader Joe’s cold brew and Chameleon are the closest in relation among the cold brews I’ve tasted so far. They both sit on the sharper-tasting end of the cold brew spectrum.
As mentioned before, one of the benefits of a concentrate is you can make your glass stronger or more diluted based on personal preference. Between that fact, plus the deliciously sharp flavor, TJ’s cold brew will always be a winner in my book.
Update on Trader Joe’s Cold Brew: After drinking a lot of Chameleon Cold Brew as of late, I have recently realized how strong and bitter Trader Joe’s brew is. While I still enjoy it, I’m increasingly finding myself straying away from TJ’s and drifting toward Chameleon’s concentrate as a replacement. If you’re just getting into cold brew, I’d suggest not starting with TJ’s formula.
What I have come to learn from this experiment is that there really are three distinct types of cold brew:
Stumptown, Seaworth and Secret Squirrel all fared well among the smoother, more diluted cold brews available in single servings.
Trader Joe’s and Chameleon were amongst the stronger, sharper tasting brews, both of which I also enjoyed.
The third “flavor” is a much, much more “potent” one, if you will, that you might find in hipster coffee joints like Intelligentsia, Portola Coffee or Toms. Those are the flavors I tend to dilute with water, but not because they’re strong, but because they ooze of hipster. Also the flavor is quite overpowering.
I’m glad I did this experiment, as I now have a wider understanding of the flavors and types of cold brew out there, and as I discover more in bottled form, I’ll be sure to add them to this list. Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I loved drinking them all. Now it’s time for a caffeine break!