Summer is on its way, and with it comes the season of iced coffee. You can expect to see a lot more chilled options at your local coffee shop in the months ahead, and you may even be tempted to brew up a cold coffee beverage at home.
Another thing you’ll start to see more of this time of year are signs advertising cold brew. If you’re scratching your head wondering just what the difference between cold brew and iced coffee is, you’re certainly not alone.
We’re here to clear up the confusion. Let’s take a deep dive into the difference between iced coffee and cold brew, including variations in taste, how they’re made, and how they’re best enjoyed.
How Iced Coffee is Made
Technically, any coffee that is served over ice—including cold brew—is iced coffee. Think of it this way: all cold brew is iced coffee, but not all iced coffee is cold brew.
That being said, when most people talk about iced coffee, they’re talking about coffee that is brewed hot before being chilled and served over ice. When you order “iced coffee” at a coffee shop, this is what you’re getting.
The actual methods used to brew iced coffee vary. French press and pour over methods both make excellent iced coffee. Some would argue that the best iced coffee is made using espresso, which is diluted with water and served as essentially an iced Americano.
How Cold Brew is Made
The major distinction here is that iced coffee is brewed hot, while cold brew is brewed cold. As you might imagine, this process takes longer. Quite a bit longer, in fact.
Cold brew coffee is made by steeping coarse or medium-coarse ground coffee in cold or room-temperature water for at least 12 hours. As a general rule, the longer the coffee grounds are allowed to steep, the more flavorful the resulting cold brew will be.
Actual methods of making cold brew vary. While steeping for many hours is common, cold brew is often made in an apparatus that allows cold water to very slowly drip, one drop at a time, into a bed of coffee grounds.
In either case, it is time, not heat, that extracts the flavor from coffee beans to make cold brew coffee. Once the brew has been steeped or allowed to drip for a long enough time, the grounds are filtered out, leaving you with a beverage that is ready to drink.
Differences Between Cold Brew and Iced Coffee
Now that we’ve covered brewing methods, let’s take a closer look at the ways the resulting brew actually differs. As it turns out, cold brew coffee and iced coffee are two very different animals, and they are each unique in several distinct ways:
The terms “stronger” and “weaker” can mean a few different things when talking about coffee. That being said, cold brew is almost always stronger than iced coffee in the sense that it is more concentrated.
The strength of cold brew coffee varies depending on how long you steep it, but it is typically intermediate between traditional coffee and espresso. Cold brew coffee is often thinned with water before being served to make it less powerful.
While cold brew coffee can be said to have a stronger flavor than iced coffee, that’s not where the difference ends. Cold brew and iced coffee often have very different flavor profiles, and your taste buds may prefer one over the other.
The flavor of cold brew coffee is often described as smoother, less bitter and less acidic than traditional iced coffee. That’s because the essential oils and acids that lend these flavors to coffee are not water-soluble. Without the use of heat, they stay in the coffee grounds instead of ending up in your cup.
Cold brew coffee is often said to have twice the caffeine (or thereabouts) as regular iced coffee. This is usually true, although it might be a little misleading. Because the cold brew process results in a more concentrated coffee liquid, it also contains more caffeine.
But cold brew is usually mixed with water before being served, typically at a 1:1 ratio. It doesn’t take a math wiz to realize that twice as much caffeine ends up being pretty much the same amount of caffeine as regular iced coffee when it’s diluted by half!
Which is Better—Iced Coffee or Cold Brew?
At the end of the day, only you can decide which type of chilled coffee beverage you prefer. When cold brew first started to gain popularity in the U.S. around 2015 (for the record, they’ve been making it in Japan since the 1600s), it was touted as being superior to iced coffee due to its bold, smooth flavor profile and lack of bitterness and acidity.
While these characteristics are generally accurate, they might not be to everyone’s taste. Along with the absence of bitterness and acidity, the cold brew process tends not to impart the unique flavor notes that come with many single-origin coffee beans.
If you’re the sort of coffee drinker who really enjoys tasting the difference between, say Sumatran and Ethiopian coffee beans, then you might find cold brew a bit lifeless. And for that matter, some people like just a little bitterness and acidity in their coffee.
One genuine advantage of cold brew coffee is that, because it is more concentrated, it’s great for serving over ice. Traditional iced coffee often starts to taste more and more watered-down as the ice in your cup melts. But with cold brew, it’s easy to start with a stronger, more concentrated coffee so that it actually tastes better as the ice gradually melts.
Of course, iced coffee has an advantage in that it is much easier and less time consuming to make at home. No matter what traditional coffee brewing method you use, all you need is a refrigerator to transform your brew into refreshing iced coffee.