Last month, all hell broke loose in the iced coffee world. Right-wing bloggers were abuzz over a Dunkin' Donuts online advertisement for iced coffee featuring Food Network star Rachael Ray. In the ad, Ray wore a black and white scarf that loosely resembled a keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress for men. The bloggers said the scarf offered symbolic support for Muslim terrorists and vowed a nationwide boycott. Dunkin' Donuts denied the connection, claiming it was just "a black-and-white silk scarf with a paisley design." But in the end, Dunkin' Donuts pulled the ad.
Frankly, the ad bothered me, too.
Not because of its alleged Muslim content; I was annoyed that a culinary star like Rachael Ray would shill for such an inferior product as Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee.
Dunkin' Donuts is the No. 1 retailer of iced coffee nationwide. Unfortunately, millions of Americans will only know iced coffee through this corporate chain's watery, acrid version. Now, to a coffee aficionado and former barista such as me, that's terrorism! The only thing worse than DD's iced coffee is McDonald's version: Its bitter, flavorless cup is a tragedy.
I don't blame the two chains, though. After all, iced coffee is one of the hottest new trends to hit the beverage market, with U.S. residents drinking almost 600 million servings last year, a 37 percent annual increase. Middle America has finally embraced the caffeinated cool-down.
That's why it's so frustrating I can't find a decent cup in Tampa Bay.
Those searching for some quality iced java typically find themselves in one of three scenarios: In the first, you have a clueless barista who takes a pot of steamy java and pours it directly into a cup of ice (wince!). In the second, most likely case, a coffee shop will brew a large pot of its house roast and then chill it. Third, there is cold brewing. You take coarsely ground coffee beans, let them steep in cold water for several hours and strain out the concentrate. That syrupy liquid is mixed with water and poured over ice. It's the traditional way to make iced coffee in New Orleans and was popularized by the Toddy Company, whose founder, a chemical engineer, found the process resulted in a less acidic coffee that his heartburn-prone mother could drink.
It might seem strange, but those who have tried cold-brewed coffee rarely go back. It's smoother, less acidic, and due to the chocolate and caramel undertones, it doesn't need cream or sugar. Unfortunately, it's also hard to find. It's the Shangri-La of iced coffee.
Over the past week, I've sampled eight coffee shops for the best cold java. I had only two requirements: All coffee must be black with no cream or sugar, and the coffee shops must be open at the hours around high noon when the temperatures are the hottest. (Sorry, Globe and Sacred Grounds.)
Here's what I found:
Dunkin' Donuts: Despite my criticism above, I'm an admitted fan of Dunkin' Donuts' iced coffee, but only with a hefty dose of cream and sugar. Taken black, though, the doughnut king's iced coffee is largely flavorless with an odd aftertaste that reminds me of rank old boots.
McDonald's: McDonald's iced coffee is exactly like nearly every other product from the corporate behemoth — cheap, flavorless and highly disappointing. Now I know why they push the cream and sugar so hard.
Starbucks: Starbucks uses a double-brew method, where the baristas make extra strong coffee and pour it over ice. Surprisingly, the result is not too shabby. I personally hate the acidity of Starbucks' hot brew (made worse by icing it), but after a few sips of this cold beverage, I'm practically salivating for a piece of lemon loaf.
Bohemia Café: At this hip coffee shop in St. Petersburg, the dreadlocked barista informs me that Bohemia simply chills its brewed house coffee, a combination of Kenyan and Ethiopian beans. But the chilled java he gives me tastes suspiciously like hazelnut. Oh, well. It's still a decent, flavorful drink.
Java Joe's: A watered-down version of this North Tampa coffee shop's hot brew. You might as well get an Americano.
Local Coffee and Tea: Snickerdoodle is the flavor at this St. Pete coffee shop, which chills its hot coffee. The essence of good iced coffee is there — rich, flavorful — but I'm still not wowed.
Tre Amici: The folks at this Ybor City cafe also chill their hot-brewed coffee, but somehow the outcome is a smoother, richer beverage than most of the other shops. Although my drink still has the trace of bitterness that's unavoidable when chilling hot coffee, the quality of the coffee beans shines through.
Indigo: By my last stop, I'm losing hope of ever finding a perfect cup of iced coffee. Unfortunately, Indigo's iced coffee also disappoints. The barista I order from informs me this coffee is also brewed hot and then chilled, intensifying an already overwhelmingly acidic coffee.
But before I leave, she mentions Indigo's other cool drink: the Extreme Toddy.
Did I hear "Toddy?"
Normally, the recipe to an Extreme Toddy is one part coffee concentrate (made from the cold-brew process above) with two parts milk. But I asked her to make it with water instead. She complied and handed me a drink almost as dark as espresso. I sip and — Eureka! That's true iced coffee — a smooth, almost velvety texture, voluptuous coffee flavor with hints of chocolate and a richness that begs for a pastry.
Satisfied, she rang me up: $3.59?!
I paid it, of course. But I'm not sure a coffee addict like me could make that high-priced drink a regular habit.
I'm hoping other area coffee-shops beat back the corporate giants' highly marketed (but poor-tasting) iced coffee by investing in a few cold brew kits. It's an insurgency I'd like to see in the local coffee world.