Some five years ago, Arsalan Pourmand left his job managing a rock-climbing gym in New York to help a friend open a coffee shop — a business about which he knew nothing. But Pourmand proved to be a quick learner, especially since his habit had him drinking numerous cups a day. When he tasted cold-brewed coffee for the first time, it was love at first sip. A beverage with higher levels of caffeine but none of the acidity or bitterness of traditionally prepared coffee, cold brew became a new obsession. Pourmand wanted to know where he could buy it, but he learned that it was hard to find.
So he started experimenting at home, making a gallon of cold brew at a time. “My kitchen looked like a meth lab, with beakers and glass tubes,” he said. “No one had seen anything like it.”
But beyond knowing that the coffee grounds must sit in cold water for hours, giving the brew its high caffeine content, there was still much to learn to produce the desired result. As many East Coasters know, the key to a good glass of iced coffee is to not simply put ice cubes in hot coffee.
“The more I learned about it, the more I learned there’s no good way to make it,” said Pourmand, who studied architectural design in college. “So I decided to take the problem-solving skills I learned in architecture and apply them to making coffee.”
The result is four-year-old Flux Cold-Brewed Coffee, which is made in Berkeley. Pourmand has lived here for the past several years; although when we spoke recently, he was visiting New York in hopes of securing funding to take his coffee start-up to the next level.
Flux can be found in bottles at Berkeley Bowl, and on tap at Café Yesterday on University Avenue and Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. However, it’s mainly sold at climbing gyms, where Pourmand got his start.
“When I started selling it, people saw it as a high-end coffee drink. My biggest customers were the rock-climbing gyms, and they still are,” Pourmand said. He says that Flux has come to be seen as an alternative energy drink.
“Coffee is such a traditional drink that, given the option, most people will have it hot,” Pourmand explained. He also noted that warming your hands on the mug is often part of the ritual. “I’m trying to veer away from having people think of it as a high-end coffee drink but more like a high-end energy drink that happens to be a coffee drink too.”
Unlike many of the complicated coffee drinks now on offer — say a Starbucks’ Frappuccino which contains plenty of milk, sugar, maltodextrin, pectin and natural flavor — Flux’s ingredient list is short and unsweetened: coffee and water.
Flux sources its coffee from Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Timor; all of it is certified fair trade and organic, though Flux as a company isn’t certified organic yet.
Because cold brew isn’t easy to make, Pourmand says the products you can sometimes find on the market are inconsistent, at best. Flux is made in a closed system to prevent oxidation, which means that the coffee is never exposed to air once it’s brewed. It also goes through extensive filtration, and from there it’s transferred either to bottles or kegs, where it’s on tap at the Grand Lake Theater and Café Yesterday.
Café Yesterday is owned by Aaron Hubbard, an Indianapolis transplant who is now Pourmand’s business partner. Hubbard, 26, met Pourmand, 29, through Akiva Resnikoff, owner of The Cookie Department, over beers at the Westbrae Biergarten. Pourmand was then a roast master for where Resnikoff sourced his coffee for his Awaken Baked cookie.
In addition to the straight coffee, Café Yesterday serves a Triple Rock Brewery beer made with Flux. (Both a stout and a porter have been made using Flux so far, with more in the works.) Flux has also collaborated with The Seven Stills of SF, a San Francisco-based whiskey company, which will be debuting its whisky made with Pourmand’s cold brew in the coming weeks.
Hubbard, who became an avid coffee drinker as a teenager, said Pourmand was the one who introduced him to cold brew.
“It was amazing. It was something I never had before,” said Hubbard. He said that when the pair first met, they “hit it off as young entrepreneurs talking about coffee, and the conversation never stopped.”
Hubbard moved to Berkeley because he wanted to pursue a career in coffee, and he figured that Berkeley was a good coffee town. “I wanted to do what I love,” he said. “Coffee is the second largest commodity in the world, so I figured why not?”
Hubbard took over the four-year-old café last year. He changed several things about its operations: the café now roasts its own coffee, sources all its pastries and bagels from West Berkeley, and promotes local art, music and comedy in its monthly comedy nights on the third Saturday of the month. They also hold charity events.
Noting that it’s difficult to differentiate a café in such a place as Berkeley, he said, “We’re all about love, music and passion for coffee.” But one thing that does set Café Yesterday apart is its relationship with Flux. So far, it’s the only coffee shop in town offering Flux from a keg.
Flux isn’t the only cold-brew brand made locally. Oakland-based Jittery John’s version is a blend of coffee beans and chicory. It pairs particularly well with milk, according to its makers, and is available in the East Bay at Star Grocery, Doughnut Dolly and Homeroom.
Meanwhile, Pourmand and Hubbard hope to break next into tech companies, where their high-energy brew would, they say, be a natural fit.
In the meantime, the duo are trying to spread the gospel of cold brew to caffeine and energy drink lovers everywhere.
“We’re working on making cold brew available in fridges and offices regionally and possibly nationwide within the next two years,” said Hubbard. “That might be a little ambitious, but we have some things in the works.”