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Homemade cold brew coffee vs your barista

Some coffee machines now have cold brew settings, but should you buy one, and is DIY cold coffee any good?

cold brew coffee
Last updated: 07 September 2023

The journey from coffee noob to coffee snob seems to follow a set trajectory: instant, pod machine, chain-store, basic cafe, hipster cafe. 

The next step is generally some kind of niche coffee situation like single origin, batch brew, pourover or an elaborate DIY setup that requires precision scales and a stopwatch. When you've hit that point, it's official: you've ascended from mere coffee snob to coffee geek.

Cold brew is one of these next steps in the snob-to-geek pipeline. 

DeLonghi, Jura and Breville are now making models with cold brew capabilities

While cold brew has been around since the 1600s in Japan, it's only fairly recently hit the big time in Australia. And a sure sign that it's become a mainstream staple is that coffee machine companies such as DeLonghi, Jura and Breville are now making models with cold brew capabilities. 

We made cold brew coffee on two home espresso machines – a pod machine and a semi-automatic machine – and compared it to barista-made cold drip coffee from a cafe to see how they compare. 

We'll reveal what our volunteer taste testers thought to help you decide whether to stick with your favourite cafe or try your hand at BYO (that's brew your own) cold brew at home.

What is cold brew coffee?

Cold brew is made by steeping coarsely ground coffee in room-temperature water for anywhere up to 24 hours, then filtering. (Coffee geeks will no doubt cringe at this basic description; please forgive us.)

This gentle brewing technique results in a smooth and mellow beverage with less bitterness and acidity than espresso coffee. 

When coffee grounds are brewed with hot water they release bitter and acidic compounds, but the cool water used in cold brew doesn't extract these flavours, resulting in a smooth drink that's not bitter. 

It tastes quite different to hot-brewed coffee, and if you're expecting it to taste like an espresso over ice you'll probably be disappointed. 

Is cold brew the same as iced coffee?

Not necessarily. The iced coffees you're probably most familiar with are generally made from hot espresso that's been chilled then poured over ice and topped up with milk. 

You can certainly make an iced coffee from cold brew, but it's not the same drink as one made using hot-brewed coffee. 

Many people make cold brew as a concentrate and then dilute it down with water or milk when they're ready to drink it. You can also add ice cubes if you'd like, although they're not strictly necessary. 

Is cold drip the same as cold brew coffee?

cold brew coffee ice dripper tower

Cold drip systems use gravity rather than pressure.

Not quite. They're similar in that they only use cold water and they both take up to 24 hours to make. 

While cold brew involves putting all the coffee and water into a vessel at once, cold drip works by slowly releasing the water through the ground coffee one drip at a time – as the name suggests. Whereas espresso machines use pressure from the buildup of steam to force hot water through the ground coffee, cold drip systems rely solely on gravity to move the water. 

Cold drip systems tend to be quite elaborate setups involving glass piping; they wouldn't look out of place in a science lab. They can be quite expensive, too, running into the hundreds of dollars – for the same price, you could buy yourself an espresso machine. 

That's one of the reasons why making your own cold brew is an easier place to start than diving headfirst into cold drip. 

Since the products in our espresso machine reviews and automatic espresso machine reviews don't make cold drip but rather cold brew, we'll give you a brief rundown on cold brew below. 

How to make cold brew coffee at home

This is by no means an exhaustive guide – once you delve into making your own cold brew, there's a veritable rabbithole of geekery to fall down. Think of this as a quick overview to get you on the path to DIY cold brewing. 

First up, you'll need coffee ground more coarsely than you'd use for espresso. If you have a grinder at home, grind your beans on the coarse setting. If you're buying from a roaster or cafe, ask them to grind it specifically for cold brew – they'll know what to do. 

Coffee that's ground too finely can leave sediment in your coffee, which will create a muddy, bitter drink. Lack of sediment is one of the defining characteristics of cold brew and is what gives it that lovely light mouthfeel. Sediment is also food for bacteria, meaning it will reduce the lifespan of your cold brew.

Coffee that's ground too finely can leave sediment in your coffee, which will create a muddy, bitter drink

If you only have access to pre-ground beans, don't despair: it'll still work but you may need to play around with timing and brew it for less time. The smaller the grind, the less time it'll take to steep, and you could end up with bitter coffee. It's not impossible but you'll need to experiment to get it right.

french press coffee maker

Using a French press coffee plunger can be a good way to start your DIY cold brew journey.

Mix your ground beans with room temperature water. The general consensus is that 4:1 is the magic ratio (four parts water to one part coffee) for making cold brew concentrate. Leave the mixture to steep for anywhere between 10 and 24 hours, then strain it through a paper coffee filter or fine cloth. 

Pop it in the fridge to cool, then dilute it with water or milk when you're ready to drink it. Word on the street is that you shouldn't drink the straight concentrate – unless you want to be buzzy and jittery all day and into the night!

You can also use a French press (aka coffee plunger), and in this case you won't need to use a filter to strain the grounds out. (Although some baristas and home cold brewers like to filter their cold brew multiple times to remove any residual sediment and give it a 'cleaner' flavour.)

Once you've got a handle on the process, you can play around with the ratio of ground coffee to water and brew time until you find a proportion that delivers your preferred level of strength and flavour. 

jura z10 inta 15423

The Jura Z10 fully automatic coffee machine has a cold brew function.

Coffee machine manufacturers jump on the cold brew trend

Cold brew may be favoured by coffee geeks, but the fact that this capability is now appearing on espresso machines and coffee capsules is a sign that its popularity is on the rise. 

Manufacturers that are giving coffee the cold treatment include:

nespresso cold brew with machine

Nespresso Vertuo: hot 'cold brew' served in less than three minutes.

Nespresso Vertuo Cold Brew pods

Jumping on the cold brew bandwagon, Nespresso recently released its Vertuo Cold Brew Style Intense pods. One capsule creates 355mL of coffee, which Nespresso says equates to two serves. 

Vertuo machines scan a barcode on each pod, then automatically change the settings accordingly. So for the cold brew pods, the machine uses an initial hit of hot water, then follows up with cold water at a higher volume than it would use for a regular espresso. 

Here's what Nespresso says about its new pod creation: 

"Inspired by the 'hot bloom' method, brewing begins hot to quickly draw the best out of the beans and continues with cool water to reveal a hint of sweetness."

However, we found that the 'cold brew' coffee came out fairly hot. It took around 2 minutes and 45 seconds to produce the so-called cold brew coffee. 

It also comes out with a thick layer of foam on top, which is common with all coffee made from pods, but isn't typical of normal cold brew coffee which has no foam whatsoever. 

All of this begs the question: can a hot coffee that's made in under three minutes really be called cold brew? 

Can a hot coffee that's made in under three minutes really be called cold brew?

"The coffee from the Nespresso Vertuo pods bears little resemblance to the cold brew you'd buy at a cafe," says CHOICE coffee expert Adrian Lini

"It's more like a diluted espresso in taste and mouthfeel, and the thick crema on top is quite dissimilar to how traditional cold brew appears."

When we tested the $319 Vertuo Pop machine in our labs, coffee experts gave it a score of just 50% for taste – however, this test is based on espresso, not cold brew. (For context, the top-rated machines scored 90% on taste for espresso.)

delonghi la specialista arte evo ec9255

DeLonghi's La Specialista machine uses just cold water for the cold brew setting.

DeLonghi La Specialista Arte Evo cold brew

This $799 semi-automatic model is quite a different beast to the Vertuo Pop. For starters, it has an in-built grinder so you can use freshly-ground beans for every cup. It also has a number of functions including cold brew, and you can tweak the grind, dose, water temperature and extraction time, which gives you more control over the end result than you'll get with a pod machine.

The DeLonghi only uses cold water to extract the coffee, and it takes slightly longer than the Vertuo to deliver a cold brew: around 4 minutes to the Vertuo's 2 minutes and 45 seconds. In that sense it's marginally more like true cold brew than the pod machine, but four minutes is still a far cry from the 10 to 24 hours that cold brew usually steeps for. 

In our coffee machine tests, it scored 75% for taste, although again this is for espresso rather than cold brew, but it's certainly a better score than the Vertuo. 

cold brew in glasses side by side

Left to right: DeLonghi La Specialista, cafe cold drip, Nespresso Vertuo cold brew pods. Note that samples 1 and 2 are more translucent; they don't have as much sediment as the pod cold brew.

Which cold brew tastes best: Machine-made or barista?

We asked 10 CHOICE coffee drinkers to taste the three types of cold brew – from a cafe, a pod machine and a semi-automatic machine – and tell us which they preferred (and would happily pay for). 

Our volunteers were a mix of die-hard cold brew drinkers, those who'd dabbled in cold brew, and several who'd never tried it before. They tasted each coffee blind, so they didn't know which was man-made and which came from a machine. 

What our taste testers said

Opinions were quite divided between our volunteers, with several votes for each cold brew type. 

Those who hadn't tasted cold brew before weren't prepared for how different it tastes to espresso, and tended to favour the machine-made cold brews because it tasted most similar to the hot coffee they're used to. 

Whereas seasoned cold brew drinkers weren't keen on the mouthfeel and flavour of coffee from the pod machine and preferred the lighter styles from the cafe and the DeLonghi machine. They were generally able to pick up on the bitter notes brought out by the hot water used in the Nespresso Vertuo. 

The general consensus: the machine-made coffee was more akin to a watered-down espresso than a proper cold brew coffee

A number of cold brew regulars enjoyed the DeLonghi coffee, saying they'd be happy to pay for it at a cafe. Unfortunately they couldn't say the same for the Nespresso – comments ranged from "not great" through to "smell is awful", "horrible" and "I don't like this at all". 

The general consensus among the cold brew aficionados was that the coffee from the two machines was more akin to a watered-down espresso than a proper cold brew coffee, but that the DeLonghi was slightly ahead of the Nespresso in terms of taste.

CHOICE's verdict on making cold brew at home

If you want to try DIYing your cold brew, you don't need an espresso machine – and you probably already have most of the things you need at home. 

But if you like to mix things up a bit and want to experiment with different coffee styles, having a machine with cold brew capability can expand your horizons: you might have a cappuccino one day, a cold brew the next, and a long black the day after. It'll give you more options to offer your guests, too. 

Machines with cold brew settings aren't aimed at geek-level cold brew coffee drinkers; they're more suited to coffee lovers looking to dabble in something new. It can be a fun way to experiment with new coffee styles – and may just start you on your own path to coffee geekdom. 

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.