What’s The Difference: Cold Brew vs. Iced Coffee

Helder Mira

We can already feel it in the air. It is getting hotter, muggier, and the process of making a warm morning cup of coffee has suddenly become less appealing. Yet, all the same, we need our morning (and afternoon, and evening) boost in order to get through the day. So what better to go to than something a bit cooler?

For the most part – every cafe now will have the option for you to choose between either a cup of iced coffee or a cup of cold brew for you to sip on through the summer heat. While both are dark, cold, and caffeinated – they are really different in how they are made and their overall flavor. Yet, despite these significant differences, a surprising number of people aren’t really familiar with the disparities between the two beverages. We wanted to take the time to really break it all down and lay out the differences between iced coffee and cold brew in a clear and easy-to-understand way. We promise – it is more substantial than one being more expensive and the other cheap.

Extraction Basics

Water In, Coffee Out

So before we dive into the nitty-gritty here about the differences between these two types of caffeinated beverages it is worth going over a basic principle of brewing up a cup of joe. Excluding Turkish Coffee, or percolator methods (espresso), most all coffee is brewed using an infusion method. Infusion, broadly speaking, is a process by which a chemical compound is pulled into a solvent by being suspended in said solvent over time.The amount of time that each infusion takes can vary depending on what type of plant or herb you are using and both the type and temperature of the solution. When it comes to your common cup of coffee in the morning, that’s generally considered to be a faster infusion – just a few minutes of pouring hot water over a bed of grounds. The principle difference between iced coffee and cold brew is when this process happens, how long it takes, and the temperature at which it occurs.

Iced Coffee

An Underrated Option

To put it bluntly, iced coffee has gotten a bit of a bad wrap over the past four or five years. People have knocked it for being too acidic, too bitter, and generally not as smooth or enjoyable as cold brew. It is hard to argue the relative merits of taste – people will like what they like – but what we can say for sure is that there are things that you get with an iced coffee that you simply can’t find in a cup of cold brew.

First and foremost, when you brew coffee hot, you’re simply going to get more out of your grounds. This is because the warmer your substance is, the more soluble it becomes. In the context of coffee, that means you are going to get more of the well-dissolved solids like sugars, fats, and other compounds from your grounds and into your solution when you brew it hot. This is because hot water is full of active particles that are bouncing around quickly, more easily penetrating the cell walls of the coffee grounds. As a result, iced coffee will have a broader flavor profile than your common cup of cold brew.

Best Cold Brew Coffee Makers

When it comes to making cold brew, there are a lot of different ways to do it. We rounded up all of them with our list of the best cold brew coffee makers.

Yet, with that being said, not all iced coffees are created equal. What you’ll commonly find in your regular cafe when you order iced coffee is a cup that was brewed hot, left to sit for an extended period of time, and then poured into a pitcher and thrown in the fridge. It tastes bitter, super acidic, and devoid of all flavor except for the strong roasted notes. Unfortunately – this is where iced coffee got its bad reputation.

We have good news for iced coffee lovers. There is a way to have your cake and eat it too. Usually referred to as the Japanese iced coffee method, brewing your coffee over a carafe filled with ice will make it so the solution will cool immediately, preserving flavor and preventing oxidization of coffee oils. Our suggestion for this method is to use a pour-over brewer, 30 grams of coffee, 165 grams of ice, and 335 grams of hot water.

Rules for iced coffee:

  • Brew directly over ice.
  • Account for dilution by weighing out cubes.
  • Serve immediately.
Jonathan Lin

Cold Brew

The Summertime Darling

The new darling of the summer coffee drinker, cold brew has risen from obscurity to ubiquity in a surprisingly short amount of time. Not only is it now available at just about every cafe across the country, but it is increasingly showing up in little glass bottles, cute cartons, and even large plastic jugs in grocery stores. Strong, inoffensive, and smooth, it offers up a refreshing way to start out a hot summer day or to keep it going.

Yet, while cold brew is enjoying a great deal of popularity at the moment, it isn’t without its detractors. Because cold brew is only and always brewed by steeping coffee grounds in room temperature or cold water for anywhere between 12 and 24 hours, it doesn’t have a very interesting or broad flavor profile. While that is far from the point of coffee for many people (we see you, caffeine fiends), it is worth considering before you throw that nice 1 pound bag of craft roasted coffee in your Toddy brewer.

10 Best Bottled Cold Brew Coffees

Whipping up your own cup of iced coffee or cold brew takes time. If you don’t have a whole lot of that, then you should consider picking up one of these 10 best bottled cold brew coffees.

The reason that cold brew doesn’t boast the same complexity in its tasting notes is because not all of its dissolvable solids can be infused into a cold solution. Since particles move around in cold water at a much lower rate than they do in warm or hot water, the coffee grounds end up releasing less of the stuff that makes a cup taste interesting. Cold brew methods try and compensate for that by using a higher ratio of grounds to water than your normal coffee would, which accounts for the higher caffeine content and price. Even with that higher asking price, the resulting product isn’t going to turn up too many people’s noses. If anything, the solid base of cold brew coffee concentrate provides a good platform for adding in things like soda water and simple syrup for a coffee soda.

If you are looking to make some for yourself to store in your fridge for the week – there is a myriad of ways to do it. We would suggest picking up a brewer with a built-in micron filter for easy cleanup, or if you want to save some cash – you can just as easily throw grounds in a jar, pour in water, and filter the grounds out using a fine mesh colander.

Rules for cold brew:

  • Don’t use super high quality beans.
  • Grind extra course.
  • Let sit for anywhere between 12 and 24 hours.

How To Make The Perfect Pour Over Coffee

Just because it is hot out doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a warm cup early in the morning. Learn how to make your own perfect pour over coffee and save a bit of dough at the cafe.