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Cold Brew vs Iced Coffee: Which One is Right for You?

The two drinks couldn’t be more different.

by Ever Meister | August 01, 2022

The words “cold brew” and “iced coffee” might seem interchangeable. As the days get longer and the weather warms, we’re all reaching for something cold and refreshing, but that’s where the similarities between cold brew and iced coffee end.

So what are you ordering when you see “iced coffee” on your favorite café’s menu? Why does the cold coffee beverage at one coffee shop make you feel like your heart is going to explode from caffeine while the other might taste less intense? Your inner coffee lover asked, and we listened. In this article, we’ll break down the differences between cold brew coffee and iced coffee so that you can brew either beverage at home and determine your perfect coffee match.

What is Iced Coffee?

If you walked into a coffee shop in the 90s, you likely had iced coffee — and the jury’s still out on whether it was any good or not. Traditional iced coffee is literally hot coffee served over ice (think iced americano). Until the advent of cold brew, many coffee shops simply brewed regular coffee with a coffee maker, chilled it, and served it on ice. Some would even use iced coffee as a way to repurpose old, hot coffee as it sat around.

Iced coffee’s history is a little unclear. There’s some evidence that iced coffee has been around since at least the 1840s, but iced coffee is often associated with Japan’s coffee scene: some even call iced coffee “Japanese-style iced coffee.”

Japanese-style iced coffee isn’t just throwing old drip coffee in the fridge and waiting for it to cool down. Instead, as Peter Giuliano — who is often credited with popularizing iced coffee in the United States —explains that this style of iced coffee, now often referred to as flash-brew, is made “with hot coffee brewed directly onto ice, the chilling and diluting effects incorporated into the recipe.”1

Guiliano, the executive director of the Coffee Science Foundation, first tried iced coffee on a trip to Japan in 1994.2 He describes the experience of ordering an iced coffee, known in Japan as aisu kohi, compared to what he expected based on iced coffees he’d had in the United States: “I was expecting the battery-acid flavors I’d become accustomed to back home, but instead I discovered a completely different drink — clear and crisp, multilayered and transparent, refreshing and complex.”

In general, flash-brewed regular iced coffee is made just as you’d make a pour-over, but with some of the brewing water diverted to ice. For example, suppose you were going to brew a Kalita Wave at a brewing ratio of 30 grams of coffee to 500 of water. In that case, you might only brew with 300 grams and place 200 grams of ice into your carafe so that the coffee brews directly onto the ice.

The idea behind this brewing method is that you can still get the beautifully nuanced and bright flavors inherent in coffee — just simply in an iced format. Because you’re brewing the coffee with hot water, the coffee is still extracting all the flavors you’d expect to get and then is rapidly chilled by the ice. Iced coffee is a great way to brew a cold coffee drink at home and doesn’t involve any extra gear if you have a pour-over set at home. However, brewing iced coffee (which is almost always made-to-order, but some cafés have figured out bulk brewing recipes) can take a long time and doesn’t keep as long as its cold coffee counterpart. It can also be hard to figure out a recipe you like, and you might have to play with other variables like the ratio of coffee to water to ice or the grind size when first learning how to make iced coffee.

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What is Cold Brew?

If there’s any “trend” that has completely changed the way we drink coffee, it’s cold brew. For how quickly it seemed to charge into all our lives during the 2010s, it’s actually been around for almost as long as the discovery of coffee itself.

So, what’s the history of cold brew anyways? Cold brew also has its roots in Japan and likely traveled around the globe through spice trading.3 Cold brew pops up throughout history: in New Orleans, in Algeria, in Cuba…but it didn’t really gain much traction until the 1960s when a man named Todd Simpson took a trip to Peru and was inspired to invent the Toddy brewer.4

Even still, cold brew doesn’t become the cultural phenomenon it is today. I’ve been told that home Toddy brewers could be found on the walls at Peet’s and Starbucks during the 1970s and 80s. Yet, they still didn't catch on in the way they would a few decades later, when Stumptown's Duane Sorenson decided to put cold brew in amber bottles called "stubbies," making cold brew one of the most popular drinks in the world.

The real difference lies in the brewing process. Cold brew is made by extracting flavor out of coffee without any heat. Instead, coffee and water sit together fully immersed for anywhere between 12 to 24 hours. The resulting brew is heavy, smooth, and virtually free of most of coffee’s inherent acidity. Since hot water isn’t being applied to the beans, they extract totally different flavors.

If you have a jar and a sieve, you can easily learn how to make cold brew — you just can’t drink it right away. One of the pitfalls of cold brew is that it’s a drink you can’t enjoy immediately, and you can’t rush the process. But cold brew keeps well in the fridge, is great for folks who find coffee to be too acidic, and can yield enough to make a “concentrate” so you can enjoy more later. Cold brew concentrate is essentially the ground coffee bean, brewed without hot water. It’s also simple to do on a bulk scale, so you might see coffee shops with huge buckets filled with coffee: that’s cold brew.

Which Drink is Right for You?

We’ve laid out some of the pros and cons of iced coffee and cold brew: one can be enjoyed immediately, but is sometimes difficult to brew, while the other offers a uniquely smooth drinking experience, but you have to wait to drink if you don’t have any on hand.

However, certain coffees take well to cold brew while others shine as iced coffee. This isn’t a hard and fast delineation, but in general, lighter-roasted coffees with more floral or delicate notes tend to do well as iced coffee or even as an iced latte. Because cold brewing mutes some of the acidity within a coffee, you might miss some of the nuances that make a lighter-roasted coffee fun, like the jasmine notes of a beautiful coffee from Yirgacheffe or the orange flavor of a high-elevation Colombian coffee.

If you like nutty, chocolaty, darker-roasted coffees, cold brew is an excellent way to enjoy them cold. Cold brew emphasizes smoothness and roundness, so in general, it’s best to find coffees that provide a robust flavor punch. Coffees from Central and South tend to provide coffee beans with flavor compounds that work well as cold brew, particularly coffees from Brazil. Coffee blends also excel in cold brew since their flavor profile is designed to be consistent and enjoyable to a large audience.

However, don’t let these guidelines stop you. I once worked at a coffee shop that only served cold brew and only used a single-origin coffee from Ethiopia for cold brew. I’ve made every coffee I drink during the summer using an iced coffee method, and since I mostly buy blends for the house, that’s usually what’s being iced. Iced coffee and cold brew can bring out vastly different flavors within the same coffee, so if you're an avid coffee drinker, you too can explore the varieties while staying refreshed and caffeinated.

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