In a specialty beverage world so consumed with process, it's a miracle there are any mysteries left. Anyone can find out how their cold brew got from bean to keg, which whiskey barrels their imperial stout was aged in or how their mixologist made that weird port syrup that kicked their favorite cocktail up a notch.
So it felt a little weird to spend $6 on an 8-ounce bottle of lightly tinted liquid that the knowledgable barista at Copa Vida in Pasadena could only say was made with coffee and water, extracted, somehow, with sound waves. "They actually don't tell us how it's made," he said, accustomed to the line of questioning from curious customers.
The drink is called "elixir" and so far it's only being made by one company, Elixir Specialty Coffee. It's sold in small, capped jars labeled with the coffee's country of origin and a number from one to 24, which corresponds to the number of hours that they do whatever it is that they do to it. The higher the number, the darker the liquid, though all of it looks like whiskey and tastes like watered down cold brew (at first). A few sips in though, and the complexity of this bizarre caffeinated drink emerges.
True to Elixir's branding tagline, the liquid feels like tea, both in its light body and its mix of fruity and herbal notes. There is zero bitterness and even a natural sweetness, especially in the lower-numbered batches. The energy boost comes not all at once — as is the case with an espresso jolt or a crack-y cup of over-concentrated cold brew — but in a gradual and sustained way, with no crash. You can still get a good night's sleep if you drink it in the later afternoon.
Copa Vida is the first American account for this Australian-born beverage (the American-sold products are made in California). It's being introduced to the L.A. market by Nick Griffith, a partner of Elixir Specialty Coffee in the U.S., who spent years as an award-winning barista for Intelligentsia before defecting to the cocktail game. (You can now find him tending bar at Honeycut and The Normandie Club.) Since launching the product earlier this month with only the 8- and 14-hour brews, Copa Vida has added hours nine and 13.
More exist, as shown in photos from Elixir's Instagram account. There's an entire rainbow (as they call it) of the beverage lined up at one of the eight coffee shops where it's available in Australia. The company says it will be rolling out more Elixir dealers in the coming weeks and have a statewide launched planned for the summer.
But all this still begs the question: how the hell is it made?
Like espresso and brewed coffee, Elixir is still the same two ingredients we're accustomed to imbibing for our morning rush — coffee and water. What differs, then, is the extraction process, which scientific research has shown can totally be done with sound waves.
"Sonication-assisted extraction," as it is also referred, consists of putting ground coffee beans and water into a chamber that is then circulated with high-frequency sound waves. The ultrasonic waves destroy the cell walls and diffuse the caffeine and some of the flavors throughout the water.
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The technique is already being used in the culinary world thanks to a $5000 device called Sonicprep, which can rapidly infuse ingredients and create quick emulsifications. It made the transition to the spirits world last year, when bartenders started using ultrasonic extraction to age and infuse whiskeys in mere minutes, not months or years. "Basically, the Sonicprep allows liquids to mingle with and pass through porous materials extremely effectively," a chef-scientist told Punch Magazine.
Though the company prefers to keep a mystery around the way it makes its Elixirs, the light and refreshing drink could be sonic technology's first commercially available coffee application.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Nick Griffith as Elixir's importer. He is a partner in the business. The story also said that the available hours range from 1-18. They range from 1-24. There are also eight Elixir dealers in Sydney.