On a hot July day in Portland this year, during what I was told was a very un-Portland-like wave of real summer heat, I found myself wandering around the Alberta neighborhood. My friends and I were exploring in that lazy way that’s possible when you have a long stretch of real time off: eat a bit, walk a bit, kill time until you become hungry again, repeat. After a few cycles of this we were feeling sluggish, so we shuffled into the nearest coffee shop, where a sign at the counter read:
COFFEE SHRUB: REFRESHING, EFFERVESCENT, EXHILARATING. INSTANTANEOUS BRAIN INVIGORATOR.
I ordered one, and so began my obsession with coffee shrub. The drink is a specialty of Barista, a series of four (soon to be five) coffee shops in Portland. Employee Jed Klingensmith (whom owner Billy Wilson refers to as the company's "culinary mastermind") came up with the shrub as part of a staff-wide competition to create a new drink—it was an instant hit.
It goes a little something like this: Replace a little over half the water in Barista’s usual cold brew recipe with balsamic vinegar. Then, steep the mix for seven hours, sweeten it with a combination of maple syrup and cane sugar, pour it over ice, and top it with sparkling water. The end result is exactly as advertised: effervescent, tangy, awakening.
Basically, it’s the world’s most perfect summer coffee cocktail, and that’s how Barista planned to sell it—as a refreshing summer beverage. But I’ve noticed that as the days turn shorter and cooler, I’ve continued to make and drink it—more often, even, than I did when it was warm out. In the summer, the long hours of sunshine are enough to invigorate you. When you’re edging ever closer to a seemingly endless stretch of cold and darkness, one that won’t abate until sometime next year (also known as “fall”), you need a little extra help.
Others seem to agree, because the drink has been so popular that Wilson is thinking of keeping it on the menu year-round. To make it at home, he recommends using a coffee from Latin or South America—something with a bright, clean, and assertive flavor. “African coffees are too soft [for a shrub],” he says. “Latin and South American coffees are where it’s at.” (Whatever continent you choose to go with, stay away from the cheap stuff—when it’s concentrated this much, the quality really makes a difference.)
Feel free to tinker with the brew, Wilson says: Adjust the strength of the coffee by steeping it for longer or grinding your beans a little finer; or experiment with different varieties of coffee. And try using the resulting concentrate as an ingredient in other drinks, too. A splash adds a nice kick to cola, and one of my absolute favorite ways to drink it is with a little amaro for a digestif that cleanses your palate and gives you just enough oomph to make it home. In other words, customize it how you like—and feel invigorated no matter the weather.
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