Good cold brew is truly one of life’s great pleasures. The best versions are smooth, rich, and easy to enjoy black—and are arguably worth the price tag (typically around $4 for a 16 oz. cup). Cold brew is not, however, a niche product—at least not anymore. Once the domain of only the most specialized coffee shops, like Stumptown or Intelligentsia, the name—and brewing process—of cold brew has been adopted by the likes of Dunkin’ Donuts, Tim Hortons, and, of course, that other multinational coffee chain. You can also get it in the drinks section of your grocery store, with bottled or canned options from brands like Grady’s, Stok, and Starbucks.
But how similar are these packaged products to their coffee shop counterparts?
Of course, there are some obvious differences: whereas coffee shop cold brew is almost always served black and unsweetened by default, store-bought versions are often doctored in some way with sugar, flavorings, or dairy or plant-based milk. Prices vary wildly as well: a 48 oz bottle of Stok cold brew costs between $5 an $6 at stores like Target or Walmart, while a single 8 oz bottle of undiluted Grady’s or Stumptown cold brew can cost as much as $4 at Whole Foods or your local market.
But what about the taste? While many people—like writer Jesse Hirsch, who, he explained over email, more or less stocks up on whatever’s cheapest—prioritize value over quality, others consider the taste of store-bought cold brew to be a major sticking point.
“The quality of store-bought cold brew varies widely depending on the brand, where cold brew in coffee shops is almost always good quality,” said Amanda Reece, regular cold brew-consumer, over email. “Cold brew made at coffee shops usually has more complex flavor notes, where store-bought cold brew is almost always one-note in flavor.”
While good cold brew is arguably worth the higher price tag, bad cold brew can be—well, pretty rough.
“‘Drinking whiskey out of a dirty shoe’ is what I think of bad cold brew,” said Jenna Gotthelf, National Wholesale Education Manager at Counter Culture Coffee, based in North Carolina. That’s often a result of oxidation, explained Gotthelf—basically, “from being old.”
“The worst cold brews I’ve tried usually just taste like very old coffee, or earthy in the worst way,” Reece said.
That “whiskey out of a dirty shoe” flavor may not be the brand’s fault, however. “You could buy a cold brew that started off excellent” but that’s still on the shelves past its sell-by date, said Gotthelf.
Even if you’re buying it before the sell-by date, however, there are plenty of chances for something to go wrong. How, for example, is the coffee actually getting to the store?
Refrigerated transport can be pretty expensive, according to Bob Pellegrino, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Monell Chemical Senses Center, as well as a former consultant for a coffee company. That means that many companies opt out (Blue Bottle Coffee stated over email that their retail cold brew products are, indeed, shipped in refrigerated trucks).
The reason you typically find cold brew products in the refrigerated section of the store, Pellegrino explained, is not necessarily to prevent spoilage but often to give the impression that the products are fresher. Depending on the packaging, many of these products are shelf-stable, such as the ones by coffee brand Cafe Grumpy, which come in Tetra Pak containers. These, Cafe Grumpy co-owner and CEO Caroline Bell said, “don’t need to be refrigerated until after they are opened.”
However, how the products are stored might still impact the taste. “My guess is they’re probably in boxes at high heat inside of a truck, going across the country,” said Pellegrino. “That’s gonna change the flavor profile.”
Pellegrino pointed out other stages in the life span of cold brew where something could go wrong, like the amount of time spent on the shelf (as Gotthelf also mentioned); the quality of the coffee beans themselves; and whether stabilizers—additives that maintain the texture of a product—are added. Then there’s the question of pasteurization.
“Anybody who’s bottling is definitely pasteurizing,” said Pellegrino. “Pasteurizing is definitely a change of flavor” (Blue Bottle also stated that they do not pasteurize their cold brew).
The grinding and brewing process can also change depending on scale, he said. Larger coffee companies like Starbucks might brew their cold brew under vacuum pressure, which can reduce the typical 16- to 18-hour cold brewing process by up to half, as well as altering the taste of the final product.
With all that said, one of the beauties of store-bought cold brew products is that they’re so accessible: they’re often the best, if not the only, cold coffee option you have if you’re preparing to catch a 5 a.m. flight, or you have one minute left of your lunch break before heading back to the office. And, if you find a good sale—or you’re buying from your local surplus store like Hirsch—they can be exponentially cheaper.
“Three bucks per bottle cannot be trifled with,” said Hirsch.