There’s iced coffee and then there’s cold brew; they’re both cold coffee drinks, so what’s the difference between the two?! It all comes down to time and method. Read on as we explore the similarities, differences, and everything there is to know about iced coffee vs. cold brew.
Whether you’re a year-round cold coffee lover, or strictly a summertime sipper, you’ve likely headed into a coffee shop and asked for an iced coffee…or a cold brew…but did you know there’s a difference? It’s true: the great iced coffee vs. cold brew convo continues.
Then throw in other iced drinks like iced lattes and iced americanos and you’ve got even more drinks to contend with. There’s just as much variety in cold drinks as there is in hot coffee drinks! All delicious, all similar, but all different with their own characteristics and brew methods.
Next time you walk into a cafe or want to make a homemade version of your favorite chilled coffee, let this guide help you understand the differences between iced coffee and cold brew so you can have the perfect cup – exactly what you’re looking for – every time!
The Main Differences: Time and Brew Method
To put it most simply, the main differences between the two are the time and brew methods, because otherwise, they’re both made with the same ingredients!
Cold Brew is a type of iced coffee, made by steeping coffee grounds in cold water for an extended period of time (usually overnight 12-24 hours), then strained. There is no heat involved in this process, hence the name cold brew.
Cold brew is known for its smoothness; it’s less acidic taste than hot-brewed coffee and is very easy to drink. It’s generally much stronger and often made in a concentrate so that when it is served over ice it’s not watered down and the smooth, rich, bold coffee shines through.
Cold brew technically is iced coffee because it’s coffee over ice, but iced coffee is not cold brew. But let’s step into the barista’s shoes and see how iced coffee technically differs.
Iced Coffee is when coffee is traditionally brewed hot and then served over ice. Ideally, the coffee is brewed strongly so that when it’s poured over ice, it isn’t diluted. Sometimes the coffee is first cooled, then poured over ice, to prevent further dilution too.
Other times, like in the pour-over method, coffee is brewed with less water and directly over ice for the perfect cup.
Why Do They Taste Different?
Many factors influence the flavor of any type of coffee, from how it’s brewed, to the grind, to the roast of the beans.
The biggest flavor difference between cold brew and iced coffee comes from the brewing method: the process of extraction, which is influenced by temperature and time.
Cold brew requires time to extract flavor, because there is no heat involved. The coarse grounds release their flavor into the water as they soak for hours and hours. On the other hand, when coffee is brewed with hot water, it is a much faster process, because the heat speeds up the extraction process, which is why iced coffee (made with hot coffee first) takes much less time.
Heat is also why iced coffee tends to taste more acidic and have more nuanced flavors than cold brew: the heat extracts more of the oils from the coffee grounds, resulting in a more acidic, bitter, bold, and robust cup of coffee.
Oftentimes, these nuanced flavors are lost in cold brew because heat hasn’t been added, which is why it’s a smoother, more mellow cup of chilled coffee with more sweet, chocolatey notes that have been extracted in the process.
Then you throw in espresso – very short time, very hot heat – for a totally different flavor!
The Price Difference
Make your way into any coffee shop and you might be surprised at the price tag on a glass of cold brew coffee. Why is it more expensive than iced coffee? It all comes down to time.
Cold brew takes much longer to make (as we’ve covered). It also uses more coffee beans, so there is inherently more cost to make it, too.
Which Has More Caffeine?
Ah, the answer to the great question of which has more caffeine: cold brew vs. iced coffee? Cold brew is touted for having a high caffeine level, but as the New York Times points out, this varies greatly between coffee shop cold brews, store-bought cold brew concentrates, and homemade versions.
When it comes down to it, cold brew can be stronger, but it can also be weaker than iced coffee. By making homemade cold brew, you have much more control over the caffeine levels depending on how long you allow the coffee grounds to steep.
Cold brew, and especially a cold brew concentrate, is almost always, at least, enjoyed with ice, which dilutes it. It’s often enjoyed with added water, milk, cream, and more, which will further dilute it and reduce the caffeine content in one glass of cold brew, keeping it in line with a cup of coffee.
Iced Americanos and Iced Lattes
Now, this is a whole other realm of coffee drinks, because iced americanos and iced lattes are both espresso-based iced coffee drinks.
Iced Americano: freshly brewed espresso served over ice.
Iced Latte: freshly brewed espresso over ice and topped off with lots of milk.
Which Is Better: Iced Coffee or Cold Brew?
Spoiler: it’s a trick question! It all comes down to what you prefer.
Are you looking for a smooth, mellow iced coffee drink that’s so sippable you might not even want to add creamer to it? Then cold brew is your jam!
Are you looking for a bright, fruity, intricate drink that is refreshing but reminds you of your favorite hot coffee? Go ahead and enjoy an iced coffee.
Making them at home? Then let your timeline decide for you.
If you need coffee ASAP, you better make a pour-over iced coffee. If you want some concentrate in the fridge to enjoy throughout the week, then assemble a batch of cold brew that will be ready to enjoy tomorrow and for days to come.
Either way, you really can’t go wrong with a refreshing iced coffee (er, um…cold brew).