Cue the dramatic music.
Well, folks, this is it. The moment you’ve been waiting for, maybe without realizing you were waiting for it. The definitive, as-objective-as-possible, also-perhaps-slightly-biased analysis of the two methods of preparing coffee. Brewed hot versus brewed cold. The very idea of one being superior to the other is enough to get millions of coffee drinkers’ pulses racing in a way that has nothing to do with their caffeine consumption (for once). Where to begin? What could possibly serve as a starting point for such a contentious debate?
As hotly—or coldly—debated as the issue may be, there are several fair and square factors we can use to try to determine a winner as impartially as can be done. We can examine brewing technique, flavor profile, acidity index, nutritional value, the myriad contexts in which each type of brew can be enjoyed, even each brew’s indication of financial consciousness, and prudence. We’ll bet you’ve never thought so deeply about your choice of coffee before. It goes way beyond merely being a hot- or cold-brew “person.”
Lucky for you, all of that diligent comparing is precisely what we’ve done. We may make some enemies along the way, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take. Without much further ado, we present our findings. Come along for the ride, if you dare to see the conclusion we come to.
The proof of the pudding is in the brewing
Brewing coffee hot or cold can determine the entire experience, from creating the drink (including any additives you desire to use) to the enjoyment of said drink later (possibly much later). Let’s dive into the mechanics.
We’ve spoken before about the methodology behind the proper preparation of cold brew. It can essentially be thought of as the long game to hot brew’s short game. When you brew coffee hot—as many of you probably do every morning in your kitchen—it takes a few minutes for the coffee to strain through the boiling water and the flavor to be extracted from the beans. You can then enjoy a cup of piping hot, or you can cool it down, add ice cubes to it, and have an excellent iced coffee. Not to mention, of course, the myriad ways you can dress it up: as a cappuccino, a macchiato, any number of lattes…The list goes on. Oftentimes, you can use steamed or foamed milk to concoct these drinks, which pair well with the coffee’s warmth.
Cold brew, meanwhile, does not provide such instant gratification and yet eventually provides you with its own unique rewards. Now, the time difference may not seem so noticeable and noteworthy when you swing by the coffee shop to order a cold brew. Still, if you ever endeavor to make your own batch at home, you will understand that the process requires patience and care that is easy to bypass when you brew it hot. (Needless to say, only endeavor to undertake it if you have the time to wait.) Over a period of at least twelve hours, cold brew is made by soaking the beans in room temperature water and waiting for the flavor, caffeine, and everything else in the beans to thoroughly strain out. As with hot brew, cold brew can either lend itself to many types of coffee drinks or be enjoyed by itself, though the kinds of milk you would gravitate toward tend to be cooled or chilled to match the temperature of the brew.
So, you see, it all depends on whether you feel like playing the short game or the long game.
And it isn’t only about the length of time you’re willing to wait for the perfect cup of coffee. These variations in the brewing technique have their effects on other aspects of the coffee. One of these is the caffeine level. Cold brew is stronger and more caffeinated than hot brew due to the sheer disparity in time spent percolating. It is naturally bound to be more potent after half a day (at a minimum) of extraction and straining. Consequently, you probably need a smaller serving to get an equivalent or greater energy boost to the one you would get from a hot cup.
The other effects we’ll discuss at length in just a moment. Stay with us.
The flavor profile
This aspect is arguably the most instantly recognizable and the one that matters most to coffee drinkers. The brewing process and all other attendant effects take a backseat to the way the coffee tastes. So what are the signifiers? How do you tell a cup of cold brew from, say, a cup of iced coffee?
As we’ve discussed in previous articles, cold brew is less acidic in flavor than hot coffee—or iced coffee (speaking of), hot-brew coffee after being cooled and poured over ice. This might sound counterintuitive when you try to account for the higher level of caffeine, but the two are actually inversely proportionate. The longer the beans spend soaking in their own extract, the stronger the activating elements in the resulting liquid, and the bigger jolt of adrenaline you experience from drinking it. Meanwhile, that same period of soaking time means the flavor has time to even out and distribute itself in a balanced manner throughout the batch, leading to a smoother, richer flavor in the cup you drink. The cool temperature of the coffee also makes for less of a shock to the taste buds. (So be careful the amount you drink—don’t let the deceptively smooth consistency fool you into thinking you’re taking in less energy, or you’ll find yourself bouncing off the walls later on!)
Acidity & bite
Furthermore, while you can get a batch of hot-brew coffee down to the same temperature as a cup of cold brew, the flavor will not be the same because the beans have simply had less time to let their flavor gestate. Therefore, whether served hot or iced, a serving of hot-brew coffee will inevitably taste more bitter and acidic, which (if bitterness is not to your liking) might prompt you to use more sugar than you would use in a serving of cold brew. That nip of acidity has only a certain lifespan, though, as the ice cubes (if you take your hot-brew coffee iced) will melt and dilute the taste of the coffee. You’ll have to drink it a bit more quickly for the full effect…which, given the desire for that old energy boost, might be what you were aiming to do anyway.
Beyond the natural flavors, both styles of brew are receptive to and compatible with various additives. We’ve praised the combination of cold brew and almond milk, for example, but almond milk also works in a cup of hot or iced hot-brew coffee (though the flavors may not be as balanced due to the heightened acidity of the brew). Flavor shots are also a widely favored method of adding excitement to a cup of coffee prepared either way. Cold brew, thanks to its more chocolatey texture, might prove a better match for a rich and creamy flavor swirl like hazelnut or caramel. At the same time, a cup of iced hot-brew coffee might do better with a fruity flavor shot like blueberry. Or, if you take your hot-brew coffee hot, maybe a classic dollop of milk or cream, or a teaspoon of sugar—or both—will do the trick.
As with every facet of the coffee experience, it really all depends on your preference at the end of the day. Maybe you prefer more bite to your coffee. Perhaps you would instead opt for an understated flavor. Suffice it to say there are countless ways to make the most of either type of brew.
But we’re not here to validate preferences! We have a cold hard judgment to make! Moving on.
Best uses & practices
One of the most apparent differences in how hot brew and cold brew are used has to do with… what’s happening directly outside. That’s right, a lot of people—yourself probably included—frequently base their coffee choices on the season and temperature. If you live in a climate zone that gets a lot of snow, you might be more inclined to warm up with a cup of hot-brew coffee served hot, or, when the temperature starts to rise and the world starts to thaw out, convert that brew into a cup of iced. If you live in a place where conditions trend toward the warmer, it could be more convenient to have a batch of cold brew on hand as a constant coolant.
Then you have those people who swear by one or the other type of coffee regardless of the climatic conditions. Some of us will go for a chilled cup of coffee (whether cold brew or iced hot-brew) even when there’s a blizzard beating at our door. Others can never stay cozy enough and will drink their coffee hot even during a heatwave. Again, to some degree, it is a matter of preference.
The cold brew curve
However, cold brew carries some distinct advantages in this category. Because it is already brewed cold, in the context of a climate-controlled room for a number of hours on end, there is a reduced risk of its losing the properties that make it what it is. A hot cup of hot-brew coffee can go cold if left unattended and subsequently need to be reheated; an iced cup of hot-brew coffee can be watered down by melting ice cubes if it is not consumed quickly enough. Cold brew is cold from the outset, and more full-bodied in flavor, so drinking a cup at your leisure or forgetting about it for a few minutes will hardly dismantle the whole experience. Plus, anything you add to it (like plant-based milk or an aforementioned flavor shot) will have time to incorporate and mingle its flavors with the richness of the brew for a possibly even better cup of coffee. Not to mention, if you’re looking to make your coffee a little fancier, that you can take your time while preparing the cold brew to research some recipes for experiments you can conduct with it drinks you can put together with it (and there’s no shortage). No shade to hot brew; there just seems to be a little more flexibility in what you can do (or choose not to do) with a batch of cold brew.
We can go on about flavor, caffeine levels, and brewing technique all day—but does the combination of factors in one type of brew actually make it nutritionally superior to the other? This can be a tricky subject to quantify, as coffee, on the whole, has become a pendulum in which scientists, nutritionists, dietitians, and health experts swing back and forth every few years. It’s good for you! It’s bad for you! It sharpens your concentration! It stunts your growth! What to believe, and from whom?
No matter the general feeling on the long-term benefits or drawbacks of all coffee, people will continue to drink it and to rely on it. So we figure we may as well compile the evidence there is in favor of the two styles of brew.
Both styles, for example, are popular diuretics, which have been known to regulate the digestive system and promote a healthy and functional digestive tract. They also can act as metabolic stimulants thanks to their caffeine content, which helps to increase the rate at which a resting body burns calories and thus help to maintain or lose weight. Cold brew, though, because it is more caffeinated than a hot brew, has been shown to increase the metabolic rate to speed 11% faster than hot brew can do. Whatever your personal “numbers” goals are, cold brew might help to get you there faster. It also generally takes less of a toll on your stomach since it is less acidic.
Meanwhile, despite the adverse effect, you might imagine the extra caffeine could have on your heart, cold brew (and, to an extent, hot brew as well) could in fact lower your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Coffee across the board is high in magnesium and other compounds that stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels. Cold brew, having steeped as long as it does during the brewing stage, has filtered these compounds more thoroughly and can transfer them in a purer, stronger form into your bloodstream. (As a disclaimer, this isn’t an exhortation to go wild and drink ten cups a day; that sort of activity could have adverse effects.)
Another common effect of the decreased stress on your heart is an uplift in mood. The caffeine content—which, as we’ve stated, is higher in cold brew—can make you feel happier and more motivated in addition to more energetic. This is an especially noticeable effect in coffee drinkers who do not get enough sleep on a regular basis. Speaking of which, that energy uptick can help you fall and stay asleep more easily on the other side of an active day. And it improves your mental acuity and alertness, which lessens your risk of developing brain-centered illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s later in life.
The overall conclusion is that cold brew supplies many of the same benefits of hot brew, just in a greater concentration. There may be such a thing as too much of a good thing, but we don’t think that phrase was meant to apply to prevent heart disease and memory loss.
The economy in a cup
In a financially strapped global environment like the one we currently find ourselves in the middle of—and in all probability will continue to wade through for the foreseeable future—a deciding factor in many consumers’ coffee culture could be the cost of one brew versus another. Suffice it to say neither hot nor cold brew is going to break the bank, at least as long as you drink it in moderation. 😉
Nevertheless, it requires a certain level of consciousness and familiarity with your own financial personality to determine which style of brew is more beneficial to you. Coffee, like every other product and consumable good, is an investment, and you need to know the implications of choosing to invest in one versus the other.
Inflation with ice
A cup of iced coffee, or any coffee that is not served hot straight off the press, is becoming increasingly expensive by the single serving. Any extra effort on the baristas’ part to prepare the drink is reflected in its cost. At some individual vendors in cities like New York, the price of a cold brew or iced hot brew spiked by as much as a third from summer 2015 to summer 2016–$1.60 to $2.40, for example. This is bad enough for cold brew itself, though perhaps understandable when the time it takes to brew is accounted for. It is especially egregious inflation for the iced hot-brew coffee, as it can contain less liquid than a cup of hot coffee to make room for the ice cubes, which then melt and weaken the flavor. Of course, chain coffee vendors like Starbucks can hike up prices seemingly at random to maintain their overhead—easy to do by adding a few cents onto drinks which already take more time to prepare. The time of year has a lot to do with it, too. In keeping with the preference trends discussed above, many locations don’t even serve cold brew or iced coffee during the colder months.
The at-home cost
Obviously, there are many factors at play in the price of a cup of coffee, hot or cold brew. Maybe a few more factors when that coffee is cold. It isn’t always a question of spending that money out of the house, though. Especially not in 2020.
Given that most of us have spent the past several months in some form of reduced outdoor activity and social interaction—if not outright lockdown—and, thus, more time in our own homes with more time to prepare our own drinks, the chances are that we have all spent less money on externally prepared coffee, such as at coffee shops or fast-food chains than we are accustomed to. Some of us might even be realizing what an impact our coffee habit had had on our bank accounts, and how much less space that habit has occupied of late.
And given that you can use the same beans to make either type of brew, your money becomes linked primarily to your time (pretty sure somebody said that time is money). You can make a pot of hot coffee and enjoy the immediate returns throughout your day, only to repeat the process the next day; or you can make a batch of cold brew, which is a considerable investment of time but yields a greater, longer-lasting amount of drinkable coffee. Whichever investment is the one you feel better prepared to make is the one you should go with.
Making a cost-effective decision
In the final analysis, cold brew can safely be considered the bigger investment and the bigger “risk,” as it were. Whether you’re ordering it at a coffee shop or preparing it yourself, you need to have more means (money, time, or both) at your disposal to be able to truly afford it. It can pay many dividends, as we’ve elaborated over the course of this post, but it isn’t worthwhile or recommended for everyone. On the other hand, its benefits pay their own dividends in the long term, so it may be worth the investment now.
The most likely arrangement is that you don’t intend to go “all in” on one style of brew or the other, and instead sometimes drink coffee hot and sometimes cold. But, again, for the purposes of this article, we are trying to come to a decision.
And we think we’ve just about come to it by now.
Now that we’ve bean through it all…
(Oh yes, we went there.)
So here we are, having weighed up everything from caffeine levels to cost-effectiveness…and with the task staring us straight in the face to choose between hot brew and cold brew. You’re probably screaming into your screen by now at how we’ve managed to put off the ultimate decision.
Well, scream no longer. That ultimate decision, for us at least, tips the scales in favor of…cold brew. You can’t be entirely surprised, given the business we’re in and the topics we’ve explored before in this forum. In the long run, we feel that it proves a bit more versatile, definitely gives you plenty of bang for your bean on the flavor spectrum, retains the boldness of its flavor for longer, and—while a bit more time-consuming to make at home—is no harder on your wallet than its hotly-brewed counterpart. Plus, at the risk of your calling us cold-blooded, there’s just no feeling quite so refreshing as drinking from a carafe of coffee brewed cold, no ice cubes necessary.
This is not to diminish from hot brew in any way, shape, or form: there are legions of devotees to the hot-brew camp the world over, and they are perfectly justified in their devotion. We just personally tend to err on the chill side.
What do you think of our findings? Anything we missed or neglected to address? Which camp are you in, and how do you defend your choice? Or do you even have a preference at all? Like and comment on this post to let us know—we’d love to hear your thoughts.
Raise a cup!
Sources for further reading:
Healthline on the nutritional benefits of cold brew: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/cold-brew-coffee-benefits
Insider on the steadily rising price of iced coffee: https://www.insider.com/why-iced-coffee-costs-more-2016-6