Cold brew coffee and iced coffee look identical. If you put each coffee side by side, it would be difficult to differentiate which is which just by looks alone.
Although they look similar, they are vastly different beverages. If you were to taste each side by side, one is refreshing with a light body, and the other is smooth and slightly sweet. Read on to find out how iced coffee and cold brew differ (both in brew method and taste) and which one would suit your taste best.
What is Iced Coffee?
Iced coffee is such a general term for coffee served with ice. There are various ways you can make iced coffee, but we’ll be talking about the most popular way to brew it: brewed coffee that’s cooled down quickly over ice.
As you can imagine, pouring hot coffee over ice results in a diluted brew. That’s why most chain food stores you get iced coffee from taste watery and flavorless. In general, iced coffee is enjoyed plain, with sugar, with milk, or both together.
What is Cold Brew Coffee?
Cold brew coffee is brewed with cold water and steeped for at least 12 hours. Cold brew coffee takes longer to brew because cold water doesn’t extract the oils and flavor from coffee as rapidly as hot water does. With cold brew, as long as you immerse your coffee grounds in water, you can prepare it in any container you like. Popular choices at home would be a mason jar, french press, a Clever Dripper—even a cup would work.
Since cold brew coffee is smooth and not acidic, many people choose to add a small amount of cream or milk with sugar.
Difference in Flavor
When coffee is brewed hot for iced coffee, it undergoes a chemical change called oxidation, which gives it a stale or rancid taste. (Source) While this doesn’t happen immediately, the heat speeds up the process since the moment beans are roasted they begin to oxidize, albeit at a slower rate. Big food chains produce coffee this way, which is why iced coffee from large chains tends to taste watery and flavorless.
Specialty coffee shops have begun to flash chill their iced coffee, which is brewing hot coffee directly onto ice. This method keeps all the natural aromas released with hot water by cooling it immediately and preserves a lot of the flavor. Iced coffee made this way is brighter, stronger in flavor, and crisper!
In comparison, the cold water used in cold brew alters the flavor significantly. Cold water doesn’t extract the same things from coffee that hot water does. Thus, the flavor of cold brew coffee versus traditionally brewed iced coffee is significantly different. Cold brew coffee is smoother and sweeter than brewed iced coffee, most notably because it lacks the acidity and bitterness found in hot brewed coffee.
Differences in Caffeine
Depending on the brewing method used, caffeine content can vary wildly between iced coffee and cold brew. Generally, cold brew coffee will have more caffeine than iced coffee because it sits for longer periods. At most coffee shops, cold brew will have roughly 50 mg more caffeine than the average iced coffee (Source).
However, caffeine levels can vary wildly among Ready-to-Drink (RTD) coffee brands that sell cold brew, ranging as little as 50mg of caffeine or as much as 400m.
Contrary to popular belief, the type of beans used doesn’t affect the caffeine content.
Differences in Price
An iced coffee typically costs around $2-$3 USD, while cold brew coffee costs around $3-$4 depending on where you go. Cold brew coffee is more expensive than iced coffee because it takes longer to brew. It also uses more coffee beans than brewed coffee, since it produces a concentrated amount of coffee. The same amount of coffee beans makes a smaller amount of cold brew coffee than brewed iced coffee. If you prefer a stronger, smoother brew, then paying the extra dollar for cold brew is worth it!
Which is Right For You: Iced Coffee or Cold Brew?
Neither cold brew coffee or iced coffee is better than the other. Every person has different tastes and may prefer one drink to the other. Iced coffee suits someone who is looking for a light, refreshing drink with a classic coffee flavor that they can easily add milk or sugar into. Cold brew coffee better suits someone who is looking for a smooth and sweet coffee that is a little more caffeinated and wants to add a small amount of cream or milk. Traditional iced coffee will always dilute further as the ice melts, while cold brew will still retain a strong coffee flavor after.
Our suggestion is to try both and see what you like best! For easy brewing, check out our top coffee bean recommendations and our cold brew coffee kit that has all you need to make the perfect cup of cold brew at home.