By Mark Prince / 08.17.2017
Coffee Specialist, Lecturer, and Educator
I know the title is confusing, so let’s end that right way: this article is going to take a brief look at applying smoke to an iced coffee beverage.
For years now, many of the world’s top bartenders have been playing around with a device from a company called Polyscience, called “The Smoking Gun”; this device provides instant smoke to infuse and alter cocktails and give interesting presentations of their drinks. I remember visiting Seattle’s Jamie Boudreau at Canon back a few years ago, asked him for something special, and he said “how about a smoked old fashioned”?, Next thing I knew, I had a drink in front of me with smoke drifting out of the glass, and as I sipped, I quited liked it, and I was also intrigued… could this be applied to coffee? But alas, I couldn’t’ justify buying the Polyscience Smoking Gun at the time, and let the idea drift away.
Until this year. A few years back, Polyscience announced a strategic partnership with Breville and now, a few years later, Breville is not only making an improved version of Polyscience’s Smoking Gun (called the Smoking Gun Pro ($117USD), but also make a consumer version, simply titled The Smoking Gun which is priced at $89, which is $80 less than the original Polyscience Smoking gun, and much better designed.
So… I got one. For science and coffee. Truth be told, I got one for all the other applications it has the ability to do: smoke up cocktails; make smoked salt and other spices; apply smoke to roasted and cooked vegetables and meats; and even to do on-demand smoke cheeses. But I also got it for coffee. I thought I might be the first to apply smoke to espresso and coffee beverages, but during the course of researching and writing this article, I found out that a fellow by the name of Cole McBride, of PublicUS coffee in Las Vegas, used a Smoking Gun to add smoke to a signature drink during a coffee competition at CoffeeFest a few years ago. In his case, he was building a signature drink based on an old fashioned, and smoke was just one of many additives McBride used to enhance the beverage. When planning this article, I just wanted to explore if using wood smoke can enhance basic iced coffee and espresso beverages – straight up, with some cream, and also with some sugar. So let’s explore!
Why Not Smoke Hot Coffee?
When I dreamed about applying smoke to coffee, it was always iced coffee or cold brew coffee, I never had it in my mind to apply smoke to hot brewed coffee; this partially stems from not wanting to do other outside-the-box modifiers to hot coffee (like nitrogen infusion), but also from my complete snobbery and elitism attitude towards what brewed espresso and coffee is – it’s the king of beverages and should stand on their own with no modifiers. Plus… hot coffee and espresso has an exceedingly short shelf life, and I didn’t even want to let a hot espresso sit around for 3-5 minutes while being infused by smoke!
My attitude towards iced coffee, iced espresso, and especially cold brew coffees is much less formal: I don’t think much of these beverages and recognize and believe they could actually benefit from modifiers, from sugar and cream, to nitrogen infusions and… yes, maybe even smoke. Maybe one day I’ll look into applying smoke to hot coffee and espresso, but not for this article.
The Basics of Applying Smoke
The Smoking Gun is a fairly simple device – it has a small chamber on top of it with a fan suctioning the smoke down a tube. You put the tube into an enclosed area (it could be a tupperware container with the lid almost completely on, or a decanter with the lid ready to put on, or a glass dish with plastic wrap on top and a small venting area to stick the tube into; for this article’s sake, we’ll call it a “chamber”). You do not put the tube directly into a liquid or into food; you have it placed so it’s above (or below) the food or liquid. As smoke is drawn through the tube, it floods your chamber, enveloping whatever you have in there with smoke. Turn the Smoking Gun’s fan off, remove the tube from your chamber, and seal up the chamber to keep the smoke in contact with whatever you have inside. You can do a passive infusion (just leave the chamber alone for a few minutes or longer); or your can do a more active infusion (shake the chamber to mix its food or liquid with the smoke more vigorously). Breville has a good video showing how the Smoking Gun works.
For iced coffee and espresso infusions, I have a whiskey decanter that I use to apply the smoke to first, and then pour the iced coffee or espresso into afterwards; though this is not entirely ideal: the whiskey decanter has a cork top, which could end up retaining rancid coffee oils down the road; I may switch it to a bottle with a plastic or non-conductive ceramic screw tops, down the road.
The Breville Smoking Gun comes with two “starter” wood chip samples — Hickory and Applewood — and there’s enough of the chips to do 10-12 “smoking sessions” per wood type. They also offer a set of four 4oz infused woodchip jars (each with enough wood chips to do 50+ smoking sessions) that include mesquite and cherrywood on top of the hickory and applewood that came with the Smoking Gun itself. You aren’t limited to Breville’s wood chips either, some third party makers offer much larger sizes (pint jars) of wood chips, including this set by Cameron Products but keep in mind whatever wood chips you buy, they have to be very tiny chips, pieces measured by millimeters, not centimeters or bigger.
With all that said, you’re not limited to using wood chips… but more on that later.
Applying Smoked Hickory, Mesquite, Applewood and Cherrywood to Iced Espresso
My first experiments were with using the Smoking Gun’s four different wood chips, applying them to an iced americano.
For the iced americano, I made it using the following method: I iced up a 6oz cappuccino ceramic cup, getting it really cold. I brewed a double shot directly into the cup, letting the cold ceramic cool down the hot brew. Then I brewed a second double into the cup. Then I added about 30ml of iced water (no ice at this point), and stirred. Then I poured all the mixture into a 350ml pitcher with several ice cubes inside, and stirred again, getting the beverage down to about 2-4C in stages (cooling espresso in stages results in a better beverage). By the time it was completely cooled down, I had about 250ml of iced americano.
Next, I fired up the Smoking Gun with one of the four wood chips, and applied the smoke to an empty whiskey decanter, upside down. This literally takes only a few seconds, and scant pinch of wood chips. A little goes a long way where smoke production is involved. I sealed up the whiskey decanter briefly (to contain the smoke) and flipped it over. Next, I removed the decanter’s lid, quickly poured the iced americano into it, and resealed it. I gave the beverage a vigorous shake, and let it sit for a minute. I repeated the shake, and waited another minute. Repeated it a third time, waited a minute, then poured it out over ice cubes in glass.
The coffee used was Pilot Coffee’s Heritage Blend which is a lighter, yet fully developed roast that shows zero “roasty notes” but a lot of flavour of chocolate, caramel and red fruits.
I tasted the iced americano three ways: straight with no (other) modifiers, then with cream, then with sugar (liquid form) and cream. I repeated this test with all four woods. Here’s the results (which were uniformly blah, but held some promise).
Smoked Applewood Iced Americano: Ranked 2nd last (3rd place), the applewood provided a great “nose” to the iced americano, but actually harmed the taste in the cup; it almost developed a sour taste straight. With cream, it didn’t fare much better, retaining that soury-note. Sugar helped, but not much.
Smoked Mesquite Iced Americano: Ranked last (4th place); unlike the applewood, the nose on this one wasn’t good; it almost smelled like wet socks. In the cup, it was slightly more sour and super-roasty (like burnt barley) than the applewood was, but on the plus side, the taste was more faint compared to the hickory. With cream, the smoke flavour almost disappeared though I could still detect it on the nose. Once I added sugar, it completely disappeared, just leaving me with an iced, sweetened cappuccino.
Smoked Hickory Iced Americano: Ranked first on nose, 2nd on taste of the bunch. Super good nose straight up, but maybe that’s because I’ve always loved the smell of hickory smoke. Taste was sharp and not good, though the smell made up for the cup taste somewhat. Once I added cream, the nose went away and it got very weird and unpleasing. Then I added sugar and bam, it became delicious. Very weird hills and valleys on this one.
Smoked Cherrywood Iced Americano: A close second on nose to the Hickory, but first overall in taste and impact. The Cherrywood’s nose was noticeably sweeter than all the others, though also fainter than the others – very delicate. Straight up in the cup, it was the “softest impact” of all four woods and didn’t make the iced americano taste any worse than a plain iced americano; but it did make it taste slightly different. With cream, it was pleasing and the nose was almost identical to without cream. With sugar and cream, it was the best tasting beverage of the bunch, and I’d give it just a slight, slight nod over a plain iced americano with sugar and cream.
[LEFT]: All Prepped – smoke made, espresso cooled down, vessels ready
[RIGHT]: Steeping time – and additional smoke – remember to give it some good shakes
[LEFT]: Pour it out – the smokey aroma is evident; you can even “pour” some smoke into the glass
[RIGHT]: In the glass, for a dramatic effect, you can carefully layer some smoke for sensory hits
So is smoking iced coffee and espresso a good thing? I still can’t tell you yes or no definitively. My test results here were not great overall (the only one I’d do again just for drinking enjoyment is the Smoked Cherrywood variant), but the thing is, this is new territory, so the parameters I came up with for this quick test may not be the best ways to experiment with smoking iced coffees and espressos. One thing that nagged me is that perhaps I allowed the liquid to have too much smoke exposure. Have a look at this video of Jamie Boudreau building a smoked cocktail, and pay attention to what he says about the time of smoke exposure:
Also did you notice what he used to generate smoke? Lychee rose tea! Which leads me to my next suggestion: we don’t necessarily need to use a wood to apply smoke to an iced americano; we could use a wide variety of items. And the thing is, wood might not be the best smoke generator. Take a look at what Anomander Coffee had to say about this on twitter:
“A lot of wood smokes carry lot of perceived sweetness versus flatter to heavier tastes – like meat – but can be odd in sweet items, like coffee. While smoky notes can emphasize other aromas present in the coffee, it can be real ugly if (you have) a more delicate roast and the only smokey aroma present is unintentional.”
There’s a lot of other items to experiment with applying smoke to iced coffees — and many of these ideas are pulled from the cocktails / bartending world — including citrus peel, dried herbs, various teas (wow, getting tea involved in making a better iced coffee drink!), and so on and so forth. Here’s a few I plan on trying down the road:
- crushed, dried nuts (not sure if they’ll work, as they have a lot of liquid content, but I’ll give it a go, incl cashews, almonds, pecans, and pistachios)
- dried lavender flowers,
- dried citrus peel without the pith (orange, tangerine, but not lemon or lime),
- dried mint,
- dried wintergreen leaves,
- a variety of tea leaves,
- bay leaf,
- dried basil,
- tobacco leaf (via a cigar).
I’ll experiment with longer smoke exposure and shorter smoke exposure.
Anything that can make an iced coffee or espresso taste better, I’m all for exploring. The Smoking Gun is a fun tool that is relatively quick to use (each round of the experiments above took me only about 5 minutes, starting from making the beverage, finishing with the 3rd shake and pour from the decanter), and using it with other burning elements generating smoke won’t be too difficult. The bonus is, this product will get a lot of use in my kitchen with other things, from smoking salt on the fly to smoking cheeses and roast potatoes and leek and… you name it.