Destroying coffee grounds with ultrasonic waves creates a 60-second cold brew

As the weather continues to warm, many coffee drinkers are currently making their annual switch to iced coffee. But for those with a more sensitive stomach, Cold Brew's relatively low acidity makes it their favorite year-round caffeine fix. This smoother, creamier and sweeter brew is achieved by allowing the coffee grounds to steep in chilled water for more than 24 hours. Unlike hot brewing, the extra time and lower temperatures draw out fewer acids while giving the coffee's remaining chemicals time to muddle.

Ice or cold brew, the demand for chilled drinks is increasing in coffee shops. However, this can cause logistical problems, as cold brewing typically requires 24 hours of cooling time to produce flavorful, less bitter concentrate shots.

Unwilling to wait any longer, a group of researchers from Australia's University of New South Wales recently experimented with an intense alternative brewing strategy: blasting coffee grounds with ultrasound waves. The result, says chemical engineering professor Francisco Trujillo, is now his “favorite way to drink coffee.” News of Trujillo's preferred cold brew concentration came during a recent conversation with New scientistin addition to a new overview of his team's work in the magazine, Ultrasonic sonochemistry.

The researchers actually discovered the new time-saving approach while working on a separate sound wave experiment. Trujillo and colleagues initially wondered whether further breaking up coffee grounds through so-called acoustic cavitation could yield higher antioxidant levels. To test it out, the group connected a Langevin transducer to a Breville Dual Boiler BES920 espresso machine and set it to blast their coffee with sound waves at a frequency of 38.8 kHz. Although the resulting antioxidant count remained largely the same, the group still found the final cup of coffee to be impressively tasty.

[Related: 10 clever ways to reuse coffee grounds.]

Further trial and error honed their cold brew shots. One setup exposed the espresso to 60 seconds of ultrasonic waves while ambient temperature water was pumped through the coffee grounds at 12-second intervals. In another sequence they also increased the total time to 3 minutes. Both approaches were then followed by taste tests at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation to assess the texture, taste, aroma and aftertaste of the coffee.

The final verdicts? The 1-minute brew yielded largely similar scores to the traditional 24-hour method, although it appears to score lower when it comes to aroma intensity, indicating underextraction. And while that aroma intensity returned with the 3-minute brew, it also became slightly more bitter. Essentially, it seems that anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes of ultrasonic acoustic cavitation can demonstrably produce the same cold brew, without all the waiting.

Of course, what scientists saved in time was offset by costs, at least initially. According to New scientistThe initial installation of the espresso machine and transducer required almost $10,000 in equipment. That said, Trujillo noted that further refinement reduced the financial burden to “a fraction of the cost.” But even if the ultrasound method never makes it to the laboratory, Trujillo's team will at least continue to use enough caffeine to fuel future developments in coffee technology.

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