Iced Coffee vs. Cold Brew, an Explanation

ice coffee at a cafe

by Matt Gibson

When the temperatures soar in summer, many coffee drinkers look to iced coffee drinks instead of their favorite hot coffee beverages. But should you stock up on iced coffee or cold brew this summer? What’s the difference between the two? Which one is right for you? The answers to all these questions and more will be answered right here in this article. 

What Is Iced Coffee?

Iced coffee is just coffee brewed normally, then allowed to cool down, then poured over ice. Iced coffee tastes about the same as regular coffee, though it is often thinner, or more watered down due to the melted ice. If you have an electric drip coffee maker, all you have to do to make iced coffee is to brew a pot and turn off the burner, allowing the carafe to cool to room temperature, or place the carafe in the refrigerator to chill. Then, when the coffee has reached the desired temperature, pour it over ice and enjoy.

Typically the iced coffee that you find in coffee shops is made from cold brew coffee. However, some coffee shops use regular coffee to make their iced coffee. The iced coffee you order may actually be the same coffee that they were serving warm the prior day. Iced coffee is brewed with heated water, which can lead to a somewhat bitter extraction. The hot water brewing also extracts more flavor and oils from the coffee grounds, for a more full bodied brew than cold brew coffee, but the extracted organic coffee compounds can also add to the bitterness.  

The science behind iced coffee is worth noting as well. Heat changes the chemical makeup of coffee when it is brewed. The makeup is altered again as the liquid’s temperature changes from warm to cool. Just like your coffee begins to go stale as soon as the beans are ground due to oxidation. The same thing happens to your coffee after it is brewed. Coffee beans are most flavorful just after being ground, and iced coffee is also best just after it is brewed. Brewed coffee actually goes bad quicker than coffee grounds, and it is best to drink your iced coffee the same day you brew it, or the following day at the latest. 

What Is Cold Brew Coffee? 

Cold brew is not brewed in the traditional manner, using heated water to extract the flavor, and natural compounds from your coffee grounds. Instead, cold brew coffee uses room temperature water and an extended, 12 or more hour brewing time to extract a more concentrated brew. To make cold brew, use medium, medium-coarse, or coarse sized coffee grounds. After allowing the grounds to soak for at least 12 hours. When the grounds are finished steeping, the liquid is then filtered, removing the grounds, and is typically refrigerated to prolong its shelf-life. 

Cold brew is never exposed to any heat like it is in most brewing methods, using time instead of heat to pull the flavors, caffeine, oils, sugar, and other coffee solubles out into your cup. The result is a much more concentrated coffee, which can be diluted with milk, creamer, water, or ice, or consumed straight, if you dare. Cold brew doesn’t have quite the strength of an iced espresso, but it’s still pretty strong, generally offering up double the caffeine content of a regular cup of coffee.

Even with it’s high caffeine content, cold brew is smooth and sweet, with a light body and low acidity, and little to no bitterness. Cold brew coffees often have sweet, chocolatey notes, though the type of coffee used will be the biggest contributor to the final flavor notes. Cold brew coffees are doubly concentrated, so it won’t taste quite as watered-down as iced coffee when mixed with ice and is often diluted.   

Not all cold brew coffee is super high in caffeine, so pay attention to the label on bottled cold brews. Not everyone likes high levels of caffeine, and those who are not used to highly caffeinated drinks can get the jitters from super strong brews.

So there are different caffeine levels available to different people’s needs. That being said, there are a lot more very potent cold brew options than there are mild ones, so if you are sensitive to caffeine, consider yourself warned. Cold brew coffees are not completely lacking acids either. Sometimes cold brews have a very acidic pH, but the drink doesn’t seem acidic. Cold brews generally have a less acidic pH than regular coffee, but they still have an acidic pH.  

Iced Coffee vs. Cold Brew: Flavor & Caffeine Content

Iced coffee has the same caffeine content as regular drip coffee, while cold brew can vary in caffeine content greatly but is typically much stronger in caffeine than drip coffee, often at least double the strength, both in flavor and caffeine before dilution.

The heat applied during regular brewing methods makes iced coffee medium to full-bodied, but with regular coffee flavor, which can easily taste a bit watered down, once the ice melts a bit. Cold brew coffee is bold and flavorful, but smooth and light bodied, with no recognizable acidity and little to no bitterness. 

The extended extraction time produces more nuanced coffee flavors by allowing the palate to focus more on the flavors within the bean, and less on the acidity, oiliness, or heaviness of brew. Though the flavor is more powerful than iced coffee, cold brew can be light and refreshing on the palate. Dilute it with milk, cream, water, or ice to your preference. 

Iced Coffee Versus Cold Brew: Which One Is Better? 

Coffee is a special drink, and coffee drinkers are a widely varied group of people. There are some people who prefer an iced version of regular coffee, and consider cold brew to be a bit too mild, or sweet for their taste. Some people enjoy the strength of cold brew and the muted acidity. Cold brew drinkers enjoy the light body but intense strength, while iced coffee lovers like the normalcy of a regular cup of joe in chilled form. There is no right or wrong answer, as it really is a matter of preference and good beverages can be concocted using both methods. 

However, we really like cold brew coffee, and you can’t beat the energy that the extra-caffeinated option provides. Then again, sometimes a regular coffee on ice can really hit the spot. It’s a tough call. 

There are many different types of iced coffee and cold brew available on the market in ready-to-drink options and coffee shops. Give each of them a try and see which one you prefer the most. You might end up liking both of them equally and alternating between the two. Coffee and variety are a wonderful pair. 

Learn More About Cold Brew Coffee and Iced Coffee

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