Cold Brew vs. Iced Coffee: All Differences Explained

  • Date: March 9, 2021

There are few things more refreshing than an ice cold coffee on a sweltering summer’s day. When the humidity is high and the mere thought of a steaming cappuccino is enough to make you break out in a sweat, it’s time to put your daily caffeine hit on ice – quite literally! But while most coffee lovers will be familiar with the refreshing relief of a cold brew or an iced coffee, they might not be familiar with the many differences between these two types of coffee. 

There are actually several key differences between cold brew and traditional iced coffee. While the brewing temperature might be the most obvious – cold brew is made with cold water, while iced coffee is made with hot water and then chilled – timings, extraction methods, flavors, and even the coarseness of the coffee grounds all differ between these two types of coffees. 

Our guide to cold brew vs. iced coffee is here to help you understand all the differences between these summer staples. We will run through how these differences impact the coffee in your cup and help you decide just which type of coffee is best for you.  

Main differences between cold brew coffee and iced coffee

For those coffee drinkers who think that cold brew and iced coffee are fairly interchangeable, it may come as a surprise to learn that there are actually more differences than similarities between the two. In fact, one of the only things they really have in common is that they are both brewed from coffee beans!

To help you understand what sets these two types of coffee apart, we’ve drilled down into the specifics and raked up a bit of history.

Where do they come from?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both cold brew coffee and the more traditional iced coffee have rather utilitarian histories, borne on the backs of Dutch traders, Japanese tea brewers, and 19th Century French soldiers. 

Despite being a relatively recent fixture on the menus of many cafes the world over, cold brew coffee has been around for nearly 400 years. The technique of cold brewing was first used in Japan for steeping tea leaves, and was developed sometime before the 17th Century.

Then, in the early 1600’s, Dutch traders brought their own version of a boiled-down coffee substance to Japan’s shores. This Dutch coffee, which was highly convenient and ideal for long sea voyages, quickly gained popularity far and wide across Japan. Before long, Japanese brewers were developing their own methods of brewing this popular new drink, including – you guessed it – a cold brew method. 

This new way of cold brewing coffee was particularly popular in the Japanese city of Kyoto, earning it the nickname, “Kyoto coffee”. Kyoto coffee is a very distinctive type of cold brew, perhaps most famous for the elaborate apparatus used to extract the coffee concentrate. 

Also known as slow drip coffee, Kyoto coffee uses tall towers and a series of glass tubes and vessels to let water drip slowly over coffee grounds, one drop at a time. The water runs through the grounds, before eventually being extracted as cold brew coffee. 

While the techniques and varieties of cold brew coffee have changed over the centuries, with full immersion cold brew perhaps being the most popular and best known method and style in the 21st Century, the tall, elegant Kyoto cold brew towers are still a fixture in many trendy cafes globally.

The earliest iterations of iced coffee as we understand it today (coffee that has been brewed with hot water before being chilled) are thought to have emerged in 19th Century Algeria. French troops who were posted to Algeria began mixing coffee syrups with water, creating a cold coffee beverage that came to be known as mazagran, which was named after the town in which these French soldiers were posted. 

Although the French soldiers eventually left Algeria, they didn’t leave their newfound iced coffee behind. Soon after the French troops arrived back in France, Parisian cafes began serving their own versions of mazagran – this time served with milk, rum, or even lemon!

Once iced coffee hit the continent, it quickly spread far and wide. Many other countries began to serve their own version of mazagran, from Spain and Portugal, to Austria and Germany. The different methods of preparation and consumption developed over the years, eventually leading us to our modern day version of iced coffee.  

Timing and temperature

It is in the interplay of brewing time and brewing temperature that the real differences between cold brew and iced coffee come into play. In fact, these two factors are actually directly responsible for many of the other differences between these two types of coffee, such as their caffeine content and flavor profiles.

Cold brew coffee is exactly what it says it is; coffee that has been brewed exclusively in cold water. A cold brew coffee mixture can either be kept in the fridge or at room temperature while the brewing process is underway, but at no stage is any hot water used. This use of cold water is what gives cold brew coffee its distinctive flavor – but more on that later!

Because it is being brewed at low temperatures, cold brew coffee needs to be brewed for longer. If you are keeping your cold brew mixture in the fridge, it can be brewed for up to 24 hours. The timings are slightly shorter when brewing at room temperature – up to 18 hours, depending on taste. Basically, the colder it is, the longer your coffee needs to brew. 

Which brings us to iced coffee. Despite the slightly misleading name, iced coffee actually starts out its life as hot coffee. Whether pulled as a hot shot of espresso, brewed on your stovetop or plunged in a French press, the coffee portion of your iced coffee needs to be piping hot before it can be iced. 

If you are making your iced coffee with a shot of espresso, the water you use will nearly be at boiling point. Espresso is typically made with pressurized water at about 200-205°F. While it doesn’t use pressurized water, coffee that is percolated on your stovetop or in a coffee maker requires water to be heated to the same temperature.

Remember how we said that coffee brewed at colder temperatures will require longer to brew? The same principle applies to hot brewed coffee. A single shot of espresso typically takes between 25-30 seconds to extract, and a percolator or French press coffee can be ready in around five minutes, making for a fast and furious caffeine fix!

Now that your coffee is piping hot and ready to go, how can you best turn it into iced coffee? Well, just as it is brewed quickly, any coffee that is made hot should also be drunk quickly. After all, there is a reason Italians drink their espresso standing up!

For the best-tasting iced coffee, your hot coffee should be poured over ice to chill it quickly. You can then top it up with whatever your heart desires – water, milk, flavored syrups, or even whipped cream!

Caffeine changes

For many coffee enthusiasts, the question of just how much caffeine is in their coffee cup is one of the most important they can ask. Whether you’re trying to cut back on your caffeine intake or you need a little more get up and go in the morning, knowing how much caffeine your coffee contains is crucial. 

Due to the ways in which they are brewed, there are some differences between the respective caffeine contents of cold brew and iced coffee. These differences can become even greater if you’ve left your cold brew for longer; a 24-hour cold brew will be more highly caffeinated than a 12-hour cold brew. 

While the exact caffeine content of cold brew can differ depending on how long you’ve brewed it for or the amount of coffee you’ve brewed it with, you can expect your average cup of cold brew to contain around 200 milligrams of caffeine per 16 ounces. By comparison, a standard iced coffee made with a single shot of espresso would only contain 60 milligrams of caffeine.

The main reason that cold brew is so strong is that the cold brew process actually produces a coffee concentrate. This concentrate will need to be diluted before drinking, so it is always possible to control the amount of caffeine in your cold brew by simply diluting it a little more.

Flavor changes

One of cold brew’s greatest claims to fame is that it produces a much smoother, less acidic cup of coffee than coffee that has been brewed with hot water. This has to do with the long, slow brewing process at lower temperatures.

The oils and bitter notes in coffee can not be released during the cold brew process, as these are typically only released when the temperature of the brewing water reaches 140°F. This is a far cry from the room temperature – or even refrigerated –  water that is used in cold brew.

Without these acidic, bitter notes, cold brew is widely regarded as a much smoother, almost sweeter cup of coffee. If you struggle with the acidity in a typical cup of coffee, then cold brew could be a good caffeine alternative for you. 

As iced coffee is brewed with hot water, and therefore passes the 140°F threshold, iced coffee is more likely to have a similar taste and flavor profile to normal, hot coffee. If you are able to drink most coffee comfortably, and good quality beans have been used in the brewing process, then iced coffee shouldn’t present any difficulties (or stomach upsets!) for you. 

One thing that is crucial in the making of iced coffee, and will go a long way to reducing any excessive acidity in your beverage, is to ensure that you have cooled your hot coffee quickly. The bitterness and acidity in your coffee will become more pronounced the longer it is left, so drink up and don’t let it sit for too long!

Beans

It goes without saying that you should purchase the best quality beans you can afford if you really want to elevate your coffee, regardless of how you intend to brew it. For both cold brew and iced coffee, make sure the beans you intend to use are freshly roasted to ensure maximum depth and flavor. 

Besides these two rules of thumb, the beans you choose for either cold brew or iced coffee are entirely dependent on your own personal preferences. Light roast, medium roast, or dark roast; all work well with either type of coffee. 

The key difference between cold brew and iced coffee in the bean stakes is the grind size, particularly if you are making your iced coffee with espresso. 

Espresso coffee is usually made with a fine grind, which allows for the hot, pressurized water to flow evenly through the portafilter and produce an espresso with its iconic, foamy crema. 

A fine grind will not work for cold brew coffee. In order for the water to properly saturate the coffee grounds, a coarse grind is best. The same grind that you would usually use for French press is a good guide here. 

This coarse grind also makes it much easier to filter your cold brew at the end of the brewing process, and prevents it from adopting a harsh, bitter taste due to over extraction. 

Water quality

Regardless of which type of cold coffee you are making or how you are making it, water plays a key role. 

When it comes to cold brew, the cleanliness of your water is key. Without high temperatures to kill off any bacteria that might be lurking in your water, it is important to use water that has been properly filtered when cold brewing.

Although it may not be immersed in water for up to 24 hours, making hot-brewed coffee still requires water that is of superior quality. Whether you are making espresso, French press, or brewing coffee on your stove top, water remains the primary ingredient. By using high quality filtered water you will avoid added chemicals, such as chlorine, that might be in your tap water and negatively impact the taste of your coffee. 

When is the best time to drink these coffees?

Both cold brew and iced coffee are summer staples, and go hand-in-hand with the warmer months. As well as being incredibly refreshing on a sweltering, sticky day, both these coffees are relatively healthy, and can be enjoyed on a regular basis. Just go easy on any whipped cream or sprinkles!

When it comes to timing your caffeine hit throughout the day, whether you should reach for a cold brew or an iced coffee will depend on a couple of factors. 

Firstly, your individual tolerance to caffeine might have an impact on your choice of icy, refreshing beverage. While up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is considered a healthy allowance for adults, individual reactions to caffeine vary widely. 

If you are the type of person who struggles to sleep after a couple of coffees throughout the day, you should probably stick to a cold brew in the morning only, as its higher caffeine content might keep you jittery into the small hours. 

However, if you can sleep like a baby after having an after-dinner espresso, then feel free to reach for a cold brew at any time!

Which one is for you?

If you’re new to the world of cold coffees, but love a latte or crave a cappuccino, you might be better off starting with a traditional iced coffee – the flavor profiles and brew techniques will be more familiar territory.  

Traditional iced coffee is also very easy to adapt, meaning you can make any flavor or style that suits you. If you like your coffee on the sweeter side, why not give this iced vanilla latte a spin? Or put a spin on your favorite style of hot coffee by making an iced mocha!

Iced coffee can also do double duty as an after-dinner drink and a dessert. If you are feeling particularly decadent, try your hand at an affogato – the ultimate version of iced coffee! 

To make an affogato, pour a shot of espresso or hot brewed coffee over a scoop of ice cream and top it off with whatever you like – sprinkles, syrup, chopped nuts or a dash of liqueur. Not only is it delicious and easy to make, affogato is also the perfect dessert for dinner parties – deceptively simple, but oh so sophisticated!

If you would like to try something different however, and have both the time and fridge space for making cold brew, you may very well find that you have a new favorite in this centuries’ old classic!

Due to the long, slow nature of the brewing style that gives cold brew it’s very name, a little more preparation is required if you are going to make cold brew coffee your caffeinated tipple of choice. 

While iced coffee might be as simple as pouring an espresso shot over ice and topping it off with milk, crafting your ideal cold brew requires time, patience, and trial and error. Whether it’s perfecting your grind size, finessing your coffee to water ratio, or even playing around with dilution, cold brewing coffee is an art form that demands practice. 

Once you have perfected your cold brew however, you’ll find that it pays off in spades. A big batch of cold brew can last for up to a week to ten days in your fridge, making it a very quick caffeine fix and well worth the initial outlay of brewing time. 

Besides this, cold brew is perfect for anyone who might be sensitive to hot-brewed coffee, but still covets that daily cup of java. As we touched on earlier, the relatively low acidity of cold brew makes it an ideal choice for anyone who is seeking a smoother cup of coffee.      

Where can I find cold brew or iced coffee today?

If you’re unable to make your own coffee, you need not fear; it is just as easy to pick up a cold brew or iced coffee from your local cafe as it is to order any other type of traditional coffee. 

Despite having a more expansive history than iced coffee, cold brew coffee has only recently enjoyed a popular resurgence in modern day cafe culture. Until fairly recently, cold brew coffees and their unique brewing apparatuses were only seen in trendy cafes, well away from the mainstream coffee shop scene.

Today however, cold brew coffee is a permanent and popular fixture in coffee shops and cafes right around the globe. Popular chain coffee shops such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee have taken the leap into the cold brew world with their own versions of this once cult product. 

Not only that, but cold brew coffee also comes pre-packaged and sold in bottles and cans, meaning that you can now get your cold brew on the go.

Unlike it’s trendier cousin, iced coffee has been featured on the menus of coffee shops – including those in the mainstream – for many years. One of the most distinctive and notable versions of modern iced coffee is the frappuccino – a blended beverage made of ice, coffee and syrup that is ubiquitous among popular coffee shops.

In fact, the very first blended iced coffee is thought to have emerged from a Californian coffee shop chain. The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a popular chain headquartered in Los Angeles, claim to have made history with their iconic Ice Blended® drink, which was whipped up by one of their baristas in 1987. 

Regardless of whether you make it yourself, buy it from a barista, or pick it up from a convenience store, any type of cold coffee is guaranteed to be refreshing and easy to drink. The only decision that remains is: will you choose cold brew or iced coffee?

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