From Yale Science & JBA Cheffing to Complex Cold Brew

Without my background in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, I would not be a James Beard Award-Winning Chef. Now, I’ve used my combined scientific and culinary background to pursue another passion: creating perfect coffees that help people conquer their day, wherever they are and whatever they’re doing.

Chef Shelton uses his background in both science and cooking to experiment with cutting-edge coffee that tastes great (Image Courtesy King’s Brew Coffee)

Before I began on cold brew, I achieved my mission with hot coffee, creating a line of blends tailored to be perfect in different settings that might otherwise have negatively affected coffee flavor – high altitudes, for instance.

Ready-to-drink cold brew seemed a natural progression, as it offered a grab-and-go convenience factor. Fundamentally, I wanted to create cold brew that delivered on quality, flavor and health, all-in-one. I had been playing with cold brew for years, and as I saw the category grow, I noticed a dearth of quality. Furthermore, I noticed among the flavored varieties, a heavy reliance on the addition of sugar, dairy and calorie-dense additives to elevate flavor and mask bitterness, at the sacrifice of health.

There could be numerous reasons for this, including poor bean quality and preparation methods, but it’s my opinion that the main reason we see a plethora of additives in non-black cold brew is because they’re heat pasteurized, which makes the coffee bitter and unenjoyable on its own.

We tackled this problem with some chemistry and physics to invent a safe technology that eliminates the need for pasteurization, allowing us to avoid added sugar almost entirely. Our cold brews are naturally smooth and delicious because of the bean quality and preparation method, not because they are loaded with sugar and dairy.

In 2016, we were working on our first premium cold brew product.  More flavor and more texture provide a more enjoyable coffee experience, but we didn’t want to rely on unhealthy additives for that flavor. Nitrogen enhances the coffee experience by adding a creamy, velvety smooth mouthfeel, without the cream. It’s foamy like a latte, without all of the calories.

Regular cold brew is made by steeping coffee grounds in cold water for 12 to 24 hours, removing roughly 70% of the acidity in the coffee. Too much acidity mutes the palate, so there is a real opportunity in cold brew to provide deeper flavor and a smoother finish. Nitro cold brew is made by dissolving food-safe nitrogen gas into the liquid cold brew under pressure, which adds a smooth and creamy texture to the flavor profile.

Beyond the texture component, nitrogen is a true ally in delivering the most flavorful experience possible. We register taste in different areas of our mouth. The nitrogen helps float the cold brew over our entire palate so that drinkers experience a symphony of flavor. We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time formulating recipes that are rich, complex and flavorful – the nitrogen aids in delivering the full profile to people.

The nitrogen effect is best delivered on tap, or in a can, which is the vehicle we’ve chosen, because it affords complete convenience, allowing people to have a luxurious coffee experience anywhere. For the creamiest mouthfeel, we say shake twice and pour hard into a glass, though it’s also great straight from the can!

The addition of nitrogen makes King’s Brew smooth and creamy, without unhealthy ingredients (Image courtesy King’s Brew Coffee)

I’m still very much in the culinary and hospitality world – as well as chemistry – coffee just naturally found its way into my life out of a need for better coffee to serve to my restaurant patrons. I became obsessed with finding the best beans and preparing them in the most optimal way. Coffee became a passion, evolving over time and bringing us to where we are today.

I’m a deeply curious person. I always want to know why and explore the limits of whatever I am pursuing. Naturally, experimentation entails failures. With our cold brew line, one of the goals was to create innovative, perhaps unconventional profiles that would also have mass appeal. As you can imagine, this led to some formulas and combinations that I’ll admit were a little too out there – macadamia and black pepper, for instance. But that’s how you learn and refine – the road to perfection always has bumps! The flavors we’ve landed on, all innovative and first-to-market, are a result of that process.

King’s Brew goes beyond the traditional flavors of coffee and offers a line of unique and innovative products (Image Courtesy King’s Brew Coffee)

We say that our coffee is “Bordeaux-inspired.” This is the term I came up with to explain as a chemist and chef the way in which we create incredibly smooth and delicious coffee through blending, in a similar way as wine producers do with grape varieties to create Bordeaux.

Back in 1989, when I was still the Chef de Cuisine at Bouley in New York City, I tested every single-origin coffee that the finest roaster in New York City could bring me. Not one gave me an entirely “complete” experience the way a magnificent Bâtard Montrachet could from a single varietal (for example, Chardonnay).

This gave me the idea to do something revolutionary. Bordeaux wines use up to six different varietals of grapes with different profiles that can deliver that completeness found in a great single varietal wine. I thought, why can’t I replicate that assemblage method in coffee?

Until that moment in time, the only reason coffee companies would create a blend was to make something cheaper. They would use a small fraction of some coffee with a good reputation, mix it with inferior coffees and roast everything at the same temperature, resulting in narrow and dull flavor.

There are over 800 molecular compounds in a coffee bean. However, roasting at one temperature leaves much of the flavor potential untapped. My idea was to select a number of world-class single origins and roast each varietal individually for specific notes that would contribute to the end profile – beautiful floral top notes from one coffee, torrefaction notes from another, and so on – and then blend in precise and unequal proportions to achieve the profile I desired.

The result is complexity, balance and smoothness that is unachievable in single origins and traditional blends. It’s the completeness I was seeking.

We use only the highest quality shade-grown, Arabica beans. When sourcing, there are two things we won’t sacrifice on: quality and ethical practices. More important than any certification is that the farmers use best practices, treat the land fairly and are treated fairly themselves. Unfortunately, Fair Trade does guarantee a level of pay necessary for farmers to produce the highest quality coffee and does not properly reward their efforts. For these reasons, we have been unable to find a consistent supply of Fair Trade coffees that meet our quality standards.

The level of quality we want costs more money for farmers to produce, so we go one step further than Fair Trade–– we give farmers an incentive to separate their harvest into the best beans by paying them a premium based on the quality of the bean. Our importer travels to the coffee growing regions and fosters personal relationships with the farmers. A premium of 35% to 100% greater than Fair Trade rates is paid directly to the growers based on the quality of the brewed coffee. This approach ensures consistent access to the world’s best beans year after year, while also ensuring that the farmers and the land are treated fairly.

Even though I’m now working on coffee, I never really left chemistry or cooking. My degree was in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. One of my professors at Yale said, “if you take any subject deep enough, it converges with all others.” I have found that to be the case – my background shaped my culinary career, and now it heavily informs my approach to coffee.

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