By: James Cusk

May 6, 2023

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Cold Brew vs Iced Coffee: What’s the Difference?

The other day an elderly gentleman at the local cafe where I get my coffee was getting irritated with the barista. He wanted an iced coffee, but the barista explained that this cafe didn’t have iced coffee but only served hot coffee, espresso drinks, and cold brew.

The elderly gentleman struggled to understand:

  • Was cold brew different than iced coffee?
  • Is cold brew an iced coffee alternative?
  • If he ordered a cold brew would he be satisfied or annoyed?

The truth is a lot of people struggle to explain the key differences of cold brew vs iced coffee.

Which is a shame because, despite both being cold coffee drinks, they taste different, their effect on your body is different, and the pricing is often different.

In this post, we’re going to give you all the info you need to know to decide between an iced coffee or cold brew or something else on the menu completely.

Cold Brew Vs. Iced Coffee: The Basics

These two types of coffee beverages are quite distinct in terms of their brewing process, flavor, and characteristics.

Different brewing processes

  • Cold brew: Cold brew coffee is made by steeping coarsely ground coffee beans in cold water for an extended period, usually 12 to 24 hours. The coffee grounds are then filtered out, leaving you with a smooth, concentrated coffee. Cold brew can be served over ice, with milk or water to dilute it, or even heated if desired.
  • Iced coffee: Iced coffee is simply hot brewed coffee chilled and poured over ice. This method typically uses a standard drip coffee maker, espresso machine, or pour-over method. Once the coffee is brewed, it’s cooled down by refrigeration or pouring it over ice.

Different flavor and characteristics

  • Cold brew: Due to the long steeping process and the absence of heat, cold brew coffee tends to have a smoother, less acidic, and less bitter taste compared to iced coffee. The flavor profile is usually characterized by its natural sweetness and rich, full-bodied taste. Cold brew is also more concentrated, which means it has a higher caffeine content.
  • Iced coffee: Since iced coffee is brewed with hot water, it retains the acidity and bitterness that are typically associated with hot coffee. When the hot coffee is cooled and poured over ice, some dilution occurs, which can alter the flavor and strength of the coffee. The flavor profile of iced coffee varies depending on the beans used and the brewing method, but generally, it is less smooth and sweet compared to cold brew.

To recap: cold brew and iced coffee differ in their brewing processes, flavor profiles, and characteristics. Cold brew is smoother, less acidic, and more concentrated, while iced coffee is brewed hot and tends to retain the acidity and bitterness associated with hot coffee. It’s worth trying both to see which one you prefer!

Remember: iced coffee is just coffee brewed hot (read: normal brewing methods, such as a drip coffee maker or french press) and then refrigerated.

It is literally that simple. You can also brew hot coffee and then pour it over a cup full of ice cubes to cool it down immediately. The ice cubes melt fairly quickly, and your coffee is more lukewarm-to cool instead of ice cold, but it’s a similar effect.

This is why iced coffee is pretty cheap. At Starbucks, a venti (that’s 20oz) of iced coffee is around $3.45.

Fun Iced Coffee Fact: Not too long ago some customers brought a lawsuit against Starbucks for underpouring. You see, when you order a venti iced coffee, you’re not getting 20z of cold coffee. You’re getting roughly 14 oz of coffee and then the rest of the space is filled up with the ice. Personally, I think the lawsuit is absurd. An iced coffee includes ice – if you ask for no ice, then you’ll get 20z of coffee. But anyway, back to the post.

Second, cold brew coffee is not brewed hot. That’s the key difference.

That’s why it’s called cold brew. Basically, ground up coffee beans are collected in mesh bags, and then stored for a specific amount of time in the fridge in a vat of water (usually between 12 and 24 hours in the fridge). This is called cold brewing. Generally, the longer the brew time, the more smoothe the cold brew will taste.

A venti cold brew at Starbucks, by the way, costs roughly $3.95. So it’s more money, but not by much. That extra charge is, I’d figure, the time it takes to brew.

Fans of cold brew maintain a few things:

  1. Cold brew is less bitter and less acidic than iced coffee, making it a smoother drink.
  2. Cold brew has more caffeine and gives you a stronger kick.
  3. Cold brew is healthier for you than just iced coffee.

Let’s take a look about how true those claims are.

What’s so special about cold brew coffee?

Besides being brewed in cold or lukewarm water, cold brew supporters maintain it has a lower amount of acidity.

This has more or less been debunked. While cold brew may taste less acidic, it’s actual pH levels are aligned with iced coffee.

Does cold brew have more caffeine than iced coffee?

Cold brew supporters also maintain their cup of cold brew will give them more energy than your cup of iced coffee.

Is this true?

Turns out, yes.

Cold brew – as shown by the nutritional information available at Starbuckcs – contains 20% more caffeine than their iced coffee of the same size.

Caffeine Addict Note: Hot coffee still contains the most caffeine, 20 milligrams per ounce vs the 12 milligrams per ounce of cold brew.

But that’s just for Starbucks coffee. The actual caffeine amount will change from brand to brand.

This is why some coffee drinkers maintain cold brew wrecks havoc on their stomach but iced coffee does not.

As glorious as caffeine is, it’s rough on the stomach.

Is cold brew healthier?

Cold brew is neither healthier nor unhealthier. It has caffeine, so it comes with the same pros and cons of caffeine intake. Depending on where you get your cold brew, it may have a little more caffeine than you’re used to or drastically more. In which case, the pros and cons are the same but the effects are exacerbated.

Cold Brew vs Iced Coffee: A Recap

  • Cold brew is less acidic than iced coffee? Mostly bullshit. Listen, I drink cold brew every day. I get where cold brew supporters are coming from. When you compare cold brew from you local cafe with iced coffee from Starbucks, the cold brew tastes less acidic. But that’s less because it’s cold brew and because you’re comparing the cold brewing methods of two radically different cafes. Starbucks cold brew – without cream – is definitely just as acidic.
  • Cold brew is healthier than iced coffee? More bullshit. Cold brew can, depending again on who is making it, contain significantly more caffeine.
  • Cold brew costs a lot more than iced coffee? Once again, depends. If you’re at starbucks, the difference between a cold brew and an iced coffee is about 50 cents.

So, again, what’s so special about cold brew?

It’s just another way to brew coffee. Coffee is a world of granular detail. The differences between a macchiato and a latte are small yet, to coffee lovers, huge. Same with the differences between a moka pot or an aeropress or a french press.

Some people just prefer cold brew. Others prefer iced coffee.

However, it’s worth clarifying: this post mostly has covered cold brew found at big chains like Dunkin and Starbucks. There is a whole world of craft cold brew where, when you find the right brand, you’ll likely become a cold brew fan for life.


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