Judy Schlussel (left), who runs sales for Jittery John's, and co-founder Kristina Barnes at the Berkeley production plant the cold-brew coffee company moved into recently. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Judy Schlussel (left), who runs sales for Jittery John’s, and co-founder Kristina Barnes at the Berkeley production plant the cold-brew coffee company moved into recently. Photo: Tracey Taylor

When a man accidentally dropped a Viagra pill into his glass of cold-brew coffee recently, then wrote about it on Reddit, a certain Berkeley startup got a lucky break. The man wrote that he had to drink the coffee — pill and all — because the cold brew was just too good to throw away. For Kristina Barnes, co-founder of Jittery John’s, the first sign that her brand had had a moment of viral internet fame was when she noticed a sudden spike in online sales.

“People on Reddit asked the guy which brand of cold brew was so good, and after he told them it was Jittery John’s, it led to lots of new customers,” she said a couple of weeks ago at the cold-brew coffee company’s new West Berkeley production facility. “We couldn’t have asked for better free marketing!”

Marketing is not something the young company has done much of so far. Word of mouth has been the main way people have discovered the rich-tasting coffee concentrate that is sold in sturdy glass bottles evocative of those that held tinctures and tonics in days of old.

Jittery John’s makes concentrate and ready to drink cold-brew coffee, and both come in various bottle sizes and kegs. Photo: Jittery John’s

As well as being available to buy online, the brand is stocked in a selection of retailers such as Bi-Rite in San Francisco, Star Grocery in Berkeley, and Village Market in Oakland. You may also have spotted Jittery John’s at Doughnut Dolly’s, where it is makes for an ideal accompaniment to Hannah Hoffman’s custom-filled sweet treats, as well as at Temescal’s mac n’ cheese restaurant HomeRoom.

The opening of a new facility on Bancroft Way — in a building the company shares with architects Marcy Wong Donn Logan as well as the Cultured Pickle Shop — marks a new phase for Jittery John’s, one in which expansion, both into new retail locations and to its product line, are on the agenda.

Read more East Bay coffee stories on Nosh.

Jittery John’s had its genesis in 2012 in a home kitchen, as is so often the case with artisanal food businesses: that of John Kiechel, co-founder of the company with Barnes, but who is now more hands-off, having maintained his job in the design field.

Kiechel made the first batches of the cold brew and designer friends came up with the name for the product after all working “super late one night,” according to Barnes.

Kiechel’s cold brew, concocted in big Mason jars, quickly caught on among friends and colleagues, said Barnes, so they hatched a plan to bring it to market. That summer they sub-let a small commercial kitchen space run by Cassandra Chen on Fifth Street. Chen makes CC Made caramel popcorn, as well as Café Fanny Granola.

They found a great customer test pool in clients like HomeRoom — who had been making its own cold brew but didn’t want to continue doing so — as well as with office deliveries and other partnerships, such as one with delivery company Bloomthat.com that saw them delivering ready-to-drink Jittery John’s with milk and sugar already added.

What is cold-brew coffee anyway?

For those wondering what exactly cold-brew coffee is, Barnes firstly explains that it is definitely not iced coffee. Instead, it is coffee that is brewed without any heat, using cold water. The process takes longer than hot-brewed coffee, and cold extraction draws significantly fewer of the bitter acids from the beans than hot coffee extraction. Jittery’s adds chicory to the mix and the result is rich and smooth with a sweetness and a pleasing mouthfeel. A shot blended with milk and sugar tastes a little like a good coffee milkshake, says Barnes.

The walk-in fridge at Jittery John’s new West Berkeley production facility used to be owned by Cowgirl Creamery — a good omen, says co-owner Kristina Barnes. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Although it’s a concentrate, a little goes a long way, and a normal serving of Jittery John’s — about the width of two fingers in a glass — has as much caffeine as a normal cup of coffee, according to Barnes. But it delivers more of a “slow burn” than a “caffeine hit,” she said.

While relatively unknown until a few years ago, the cold-brew market has exploded recently. Some coffee shops make their own, big brand names like Blue Bottle and Stumptown offer their versions, and even Trader Joe’s has its own cold brew. Peet’s not only serves cold brew coffee in its cafés, all of its iced coffee drinks are made using its cold-brew method, replacing the traditional process.

It’s part of a broader expansion in the drinks market, says Barnes.

“The landscape of the beverage industry is changing dramatically,” she said, citing the popularity of drinks like kombucha, coconut water, and cold-press juices — not to mention fads like coffee beers and nitrogenated coffee. “And coffee is becoming the next wine,” Barnes suggested, “with its focus on sourcing and manufacturing.”

Barnes is aware what that all this competition means for her small startup. “Anybody can make cold brew,” she said, “but we are a tiny company making a product we are passionate about. We strive for the highest quality.”

One of the biggest challenges, Barnes said, is that the cold brew needs to be refrigerated. At the company’s new Berkeley kitchen, the walk-in fridge used to belong to the highly regarded Marin County cheese-makers Cowgirl Creamery — a good omen, she said.

Jittery John’s concentrate blended with milk and sugar makes for a drink with a rich ‘mouthfeel,’ says Kristina Barnes. Photo: Jittery John’s

Jittery John’s is now hand-making up to 150 gallons a week using coffee beans roasted in Berkeley and Oakland. Barnes and sales director Judy Schlussel are working on developing new retail and office outlets and the company is exploring new spin-off products. They currently have two: Concentrate and Ready to Drink, which both come in several sizes, including kegs. Just this week the company signed a deal with the Berkeley Bowl café to provide cold brew on its café menu, and the company signed an agreement with Dairy Delivery, a major distributor in the Bay Area. “So hopefully we’ll be showing up in  every store imaginable in the next few months,” said Barnes.

And the company is coming into its high season — once the sun comes back for longer than a couple of hours at a time, that is. As spring turns to summer, the new Berkeley plant will be working at full capacity.

Jittery John’s production facility is at 800 Bancroft Way, Suite #104, Berkeley 94710. It is not open to the public. Learn more about Jittery John’s on its website, where you can also place online orders. Follow Jittery John’s on Facebook and Twitter.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...