Iced-Coffee Number-Crunching: How to Get the Cheapest Possible Cold Brew

By
It's just better when it's cold. Photo: iStockphoto

As recently as two years ago, cold brew — coffee that's brewed slowly without heat for a sweeter, altogether better iced-coffee experience — was still a novelty in New York. Now there's a spate of new ways to track down some "toddy" (as connoisseurs call it) aside from ordering to-go at your local café: single-serving stubbies, pre-bottled concentrate, growlers, or even home delivery. But the diversity of buying options also means you can pay very different amounts to get your cold-brew fix. So, which one is cheapest?

To make it easier, Grub Street based these calculations on producing a sixteen-ounce serving of iced coffee, just for ease in comparing to the standard to-go sizes. That means we wanted to know how much it costs to get twelve ounces of actual coffee, as ice displaces about four ounces of liquid on average at your favorite coffee shop.

Another important control: Cold brew (rather than just hot coffee that’s been cooled down, as served at places like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and your office coffee cart) is the only way to go from a flavor standpoint. In that way, all of these are estimates that serve to help you weigh price versus convenience, with quality taken into account.
 
The Method: Buying Cold-Brewed Iced Coffee at a Coffee Shop
Cost per sixteen-ounce serving: $2.50 to $3.50
The most obvious way to get cold brew is to just head to a coffee shop and buy a cup. Last year, when Grub looked at why iced coffee costs more than hot coffee, we discovered that $3 per serving was the price-point sweet spot for the best coffee shops.
 
That has risen slightly in a year, with Ninth Street Espresso and Gimme!, two reputable places, charging $3.25. And those people who wait in line for twenty minutes at La Colombe pay $3.50. (To be fair, La Colombe's cold brew comes with a shot of espresso poured into it.) For the sake of being inclusive, let’s say that lesser cold-brew places might go as low as $2.50, which seems like a big difference but won’t really matter once you see how affordable other options are.
 
The Method: Buying Single-Serve Bottled Cold Brew at a Coffee Shop
Cost per sixteen-ounce serving: $3.00
Since cold brew has a three-to-four-month shelf life, lots of places pre-bottle single servings that people can grab and go. Stumptown sells their 10.5-ounce “Stubbies” for $4 a pop, and La Colombe sells their bottled twelve-ounce “Pure Black” for $3 at their brick-and-mortar locations. In both cases, no water is necessary to dilute, but you’ll probably still want to add some ice before you drink it. This strategy is about the same cost as going the standard coffee-shop route, but you'll probably need to track down your own ice and cup.
 
The Method: Adding Ice to Good Hot Coffee
Cost per sixteen-ounce serving: About $2.00, but don't do this.
Grub Street doesn't endorse this method, since hot-brewed coffee is a very different thing than cold-brewed coffee. Even still, some poor misguided souls think this is a good way to get iced coffee, so we'll address the cost.
 
On average, it would cost you about two bucks for a hot twelve-ouncer, assuming the four ounces of ice you’d have to add is free. It also suggests that you’d prefer an overly bitter morning drink with an acid bite, one that took about fifteen minutes and some stirring to properly cool down. It's a dollar cheaper than buying cold brew, but it will taste awful.
 
The Method: Getting Concentrate Delivered
Cost per sixteen-ounce serving: $1.88
If you live in Manhattan, there are quite a few places that will deliver cold-brew concentrate right to your apartment: You could go with Kickstand ($23 for 32 ounce, not including $8 delivery fee), which sadly tips the scales above $4. Alternatively, if you’re willing to stock some glass growlers in your apartment or office, Grady’s Cold Brew — a chicory-infused “New Orleans”–style swill that’s brewed, bottled, and based in Brooklyn — has a bulk deal online: $144 for twelve of their big bottles delivered for free, which means each cup is just $2.25, assuming you can finish all that coffee before it spoils in four months. 
 
In the words of Dan Savage, it gets better: Flatiron-based Birch Coffee delivers 64 ounces of their dark goodness for $25 the first jug and $20 thereafter (delivery fee included). That breaks down to $2.34 the first time and $1.88 thereafter. Remember, when dealing with concentrate it only takes six ounces to get a full twelve-ounce serving of coffee, since you'll dilute with an equal amount of water.
 
The Method: Buying Iced-Coffee Concentrate in Bulk
Cost per sixteen-ounce serving: $1.50
Specialty markets, Whole Foods, and those nicer bodegas all stock Grady’s Cold Brew. Usually, it costs $15 for a 32-ounce bottle, which breaks down to 46 cents per ounce, or $2.76 for your morning pick-me-up. Another, cheaper, option is the 64-ounce growler at Nolita Mart, which costs $20.75 the first time (you pay a deposit on the reusable bottle) and $16 per refill. Assuming your jittery caffeinated fingers don’t shatter the jug, this deal winds up being just $1.50 per glass. Now we’re getting somewhere.
  
The Method: Making Your Own Cold Brew
Cost per sixteen-ounce serving: $1.00
Grub editor Alan Sytsma admits to using a revised version of this cold-brew recipe, which will probably drive coffee wonks crazy, but is very effective and simple: Just make strong French-press coffee with room-temperature water and let it brew overnight. The next morning you plunge the French press, and you're set. It takes two ounces of beans to get 24 ounces of finished coffee. Your costs will depend on what kind of coffee you buy, but name-brand beans, such as Stumptown's house blend, can be found for $11.99 for twelve ounces: The result is coffee that costs eight cents per ounce, or, rounding up, $1 for every twelve ounces of cold brew.
 
There's a risk-reward element inherent in this method, though: Yes, it's the cheapest way to get decent cold brew, and you'll be able to use whichever beans you think work best, but if you forget to set up your coffee the night before, you'll be out of luck the next morning.
 
It's no surprise that a homemade solution is the cheapest (isn't it always?), but the very reason all these other coffee-buying options exist is that lots of people just don't want to bother; it’s a mental barrier. If we’re going solely on price, you’re best swinging by Nolita Mart, or somewhere similar around the city and/or country, and refilling a growler on a weekly basis. But paying about 50 cents more per coffee and getting Birch’s delivery subscription seems like the far more convenient option. Not only will you never have to wait in line or talk to someone before you’ve had your first cup, but you’ll also be getting every serving of toddy for almost half off what you'd pay at a coffee shop — an even sweeter deal when you realize the coffee comes right to your door.

Earlier: The Iced-Coffee Economy: Why the Cold Stuff Costs More