Cold brew isn't new. The Japanese have been doing it since the 1600s, and my mother's been doing it since I was young: The first time I drank it was in her kitchen, dripped into a Mason jar from a large plastic container that sat there seemingly forever. It was wonderful. But ever since those Stumptown cold brew stubbies popped up in 2011, bottled cold brew has been hailed as the savior of the small-batch roaster—a way of selling ready-to-drink coffee in the grocery store instead of the cafe.
We decided to taste every unflavored cold brew coffee we could find in Whole Foods, Safeway, New Seasons and Trader Joe's—19 in all. Our tasting panel included a barista, the editor of WW's coffee issue, the editor of Sprudge coffee blog, and a drinker who likes coffee so much she resorts to tea to govern her caffeine use. We ranked each cold brew from 1 to 100, based on pure deliciousness.
It turned out the flavor spread was insanely large: Some tasted more like acetone or Naugahyde than coffee, while the best were beautifully expressive, if still a bit flubbery compared to a fresh-brewed cup. A few caveats, however: The Groundworks Original bottle we tried was horribly fouled somehow—after tasting a different bottle later, we figure it had a solid shot at landing in the top 10. Also, our bottle of Stumptown Holler Mountain mysteriously disappeared right before the tasting. We blame Trump and the spirit of kleptocracy.
Here are the top 10, starting with the best.
1. (Tie) Stumptown Ethiopia Guji Organic
The only surprise here is that Stumptown Ethiopia Guji had to share the podium. One of our tasters already called out this bottle in advance as his favorite—a result duplicated blind—and the strong berry flavor is so distinctive two tasters immediately said its name after sipping it. Only Starbucks was guessed as easily.
According to Stumptown's head cold brewer, Brent Wolczynski (who's been making cold brew there since 2011, long before the roaster's sale to Peet's), the process on this Guji isn't any different from the Stump's other brews. It's the beans themselves that are different, and he believes African coffee beans express themselves better in cold brew than beans grown elsewhere. "Ethiopia Guji is a gorgeous coffee with floral notes and a pleasant acidity that's reminiscent of melon and finishes sweet," says Wolczynski. "We think that really shows in the cold brew."
Taster notes: "Super berrylike." "Toasty, but also jarring in a good way." "A good after-dinner flavor." "This is Stumptown Guji. Clean. Light. Put in an IPA."
2. (Tie) High Brew Black & Bold
In April, The Austin Chronicle declared its city the "cold brew capital of the world," the only real solution to Texas heat. From the results, it looks like the city is sharing the title—although it added a little Southern sweetness to do so. This smallish roaster from Austin made the only sugared cold brew we allowed in the tasting. It still tasted like coffee rather than cola syrup (looking squarely at you, Stumptown Sparkling!) and used less than a gram of sugar to temper the inherent rubber and acidity of much cold brew. This left the Black & Bold with robust coffee flavor, and a pleasant maltiness some tasters likened to a good stout.
Taster notes: "Lacto—in a good way." "Sweet potato." "Malty, chocolaty flavor. Kind of like a stout. Pretty good!" "Tastes smooth and rich."
3. Blue Bottle
The Bay Area's Blue Bottle—recently bought by Swiss food behemoth Nestlé—was an early favorite, with good reason. Alongside Stumptown, it's a pioneer in packaged cold brew. In fact, it tasted so much like "what cold brew should be" that multiple tasters assumed it was Stumptown.
Nope! The Blue Bottle was a bit more intense and round than Stumptown Original, giving it a score very close to the top slot.
Taster notes: "Round, earthy, lovely." "Like a fancy cake." "Would pair well with a blueberry muffin." "Pleasant."
4. Stumptown Organic
What do you know? Organic is better: 1.75 points better, to be exact.
Taster notes: "Inoffensive." "Round, complex." "No off-notes, good, clean finish." "Neutral."
5. Stumptown Original
The original Portland cold brew bottle was expected to fare well in the taste test—and it did. Especially notable was the sweetness pulled out of the coffee beans even without any sugar added.
Taster notes: "Smooth and sweet." "Stuff in a hummingbird feeder." "Natural process coffee." "Nice like Charlie Brown or Death Cab for Cutie?"
Starbucks is rumored to use flavor enhancers to make its cold brew taste so good. If true, it's also managed to keep it a secret. Either way, we'd drink Starbucks' cold brew long before we'd have a regular roasted cup: Its cold brew tastes great. That said, it tastes great in a slightly unnerving way. Multiple tasters noted a certain strangeness to the flavor, the same way a McDonald's Quarter Pounder can taste oddly good while still also tasting like Elmer's wood glue.
Taster notes: "Straddling the uncanny valley of coffee." "Pleasant finish." "Not gross, but fake." "Is this Starbucks?"
7. Dutch Bros. Nitro
Oregon-founded, Oregon-owned, caffeine-pumped Dutch Bros. makes its entrée at an admirable No. 7—but it almost didn't make its way into the tasting. One of our tasters insisted that even if it wasn't in the grocery stores we visited, its kiosks and bottles are so ubiquitous it'd be a crime not to include it. Well, it's the first Oregonian cold brew in our top 10. And because it's Dutch Bros., it's nitro, bro.
Taster notes: "Bland but in a comforting way." "Good body, mellow sweetness, creamy finish." "Nitro bland."
8. Signature Select
Safeway, motherfucker. Though there was an oddness to this—our hypothesis was that some robusta beans came in with the arabica, something only possible with a larger roaster—this fared surprisingly well given it's a grocery store chain owned by a faceless, many-headed monster whose no-shit name is Cerberus Capital Management. But cold brew doesn't always favor small batch—cold brew is cold brew, and it's weird. Safeway, oddly, is the last in our top 10 that we'd recommend drinking, and it's a strange brew.
Taster notes: "Like peanut butter icing." "Lemon poppy bread flavor." "Safeway?"
9. Trader Joe's Organic Cold Brew
This is about where the bottom sprang a leak, although the boat's not quite on fire yet—the tasting notes have started to include things like "upholstery" and "sour lake water."
Taster notes: "'70s upholstery." "Barrel aged?" "Sour lake water finish, kinda bright up front."
10. Chameleon Organic Cold Brew
This is the second in our top 10 from the cold brew capital of America, and the results are pretty middling at best. Capital cities are boring.
Taster notes: "Totally average." "Jarringly acidic for, like, a second." "Not terrible."
Also tried: Black Medicine, Clutch Unfiltered, Secret Squirrel, Columbia Gorge, Groundwork Nitro, Clutch Barrel Aged, Anchorhead, Stumptown Nitro, Groundwork Classic.
Not tried, with regrets: Nossa Familia Iced Coffee, Stumptown Holler Mountain.