The sun is out and you’re feeling the heat – but that doesn’t mean you need to give up on coffee!
If, like us, you want a cool, refreshing drink with a delicious coffee flavor, there are two options that are probably at the top of your list.
Iced coffee sounds like just the thing for a hot day. But hold on, what about cold brew? And what are the differences between them anyway?
If you’re feeling confused, don’t worry – help is at hand! Read on for our guide to everything you ever wanted to know about iced coffee vs cold brew.
Where did the idea of cold coffee originate?
Let’s begin at the beginning – who first had the idea of drinking coffee cold?
According to coffee mythology, iced coffee is a relatively recent invention and one that came about entirely by accident.
In 1957 a trade fair took place in the city of Thessaloniki in Greece. A representative of the company Nestlé was there to market a new chocolate drink for children. It was made by adding milk to chocolate powder and shaking it together.
During a break, our unnamed salesman went on the hunt for a cup of coffee. Finding no hot water and with thoughts of the chocolate beverage circling his mind, the salesman improvised. He shook together instant coffee, cold water, and ice cubes.
The iced coffee – known in Greece as a frappe – was born.
Though it’s a great marketing story for Nestlé, It seems difficult to believe that it took until the 1950s for someone to try iced coffee.
Other stories date its invention to the seventeenth century, when the Turkish army departed Vienna. They apparently left behind a coffee bean surplus, and the Viennese used them to experiment with new brewing methods (1).
Still others credit the French. It’s said that iced coffee originated from an Algerian drink known as Mazagran.
Named after the town where it was first drunk, Mazagran was a mixture of espresso, lemons, ice and cold water. It was introduced into France in the nineteenth century, and from there gradually evolved into the iced coffee we know today (2).
Despite becoming well-known in the USA only recently, cold brew coffee also has a long and mysterious history. Many believe it was first brewed in Japan at the start of the seventeenth century. Records from that time refer to “Kyoto-style” coffee, brewed with cold water.
Others speculate that the Japanese actually took the idea from Dutch traders. Cold brew would have been well suited to being taken on long voyages. Yet others claim it was first drunk in Java, Peru or Guatemala (3).
So iced coffee and cold brew were created independently of each other. But no-one knows for sure when or how it happened.
Iced coffee and cold brew: it’s all in the water
So much for the history. The main difference between iced coffee and the cold brew is in the brewing method. Simply put, iced coffee uses hot water whilst cold brew – as its name suggests – uses cold.
There are, however, two quite different methods for making iced coffee. The first is simply to brew it as you would a normal coffee, then leave it to cool and add ice. Simple to do, but the results aren’t good.
Soon after brewing, you’ll find that the coffee begins to oxidize, turning darker brown in color. In other words, it begins to go stale. If you’ve ever ordered an iced coffee and found it unpleasant and bitter tasting, odds on that’s the way it will have been prepared.
Some chains, it’s rumored, actually use up coffee that’s been brewed and not drunk in this way. It’s hardly surprising that the taste leaves a lot to be desired.
The Japanese style of iced coffee creates an entirely different drink, and one that is far superior in flavor. Also known as “flash chilling” the technique here is to introduce ice as soon as the coffee is brewed. This way the flavors and aromas unlocked by the hot water are preserved.
Placing ice at the bottom of a Chemex, AeroPress or V60 can get very good results. Alternatively, you can use a French press or other coffee maker and simply pour the coffee over ice cubes as soon as it’s brewed.
Whilst both techniques for making iced coffee involve hot water, cold brew uses cold water instead. You may have heard that the best water temperature for making coffee is about 205 degrees Fahrenheit. So how can using cold water ever get a good result?
The answer is time. For cold brew, the coffee grounds sit in cold water for up to 24 hours to allow the flavor to be extracted. Take a look at this YouTube video to see the results.
Is cold brew or iced coffee easier to prepare?
So you’re looking for a cold coffee that’s easy to prepare – should you go for iced coffee or cold brew? The answer is, it depends on what you mean by “easy”.
Making cold brew coffee
Cold brew is very simple to make. All you need is coffee, water, and a French press. If you don’t have a French press, a large container, cheesecloth and a sieve will do the job just fine.
There’s no set ratio of coffee beans to cold water. That’s just a matter of personal taste. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, though, try three-quarters of a cup of beans to four cups of water.
Just grind your beans to a coarse consistency, put them in the French press or your chosen container, and cover them with cold water. Put the top on your French press (but don’t press down on the plunger) or cover your container with cheesecloth. All you need now is patience.
Because while it’s very easy to make cold brew coffee, it does take time. As you’re using cold water, you need to leave the coffee beans for far longer to infuse. That’s a minimum of 12 and anything up to 24 hours at room temperature.
When the time has passed, the process couldn’t be easier. If you’re using a French press, depress the plunger and you’re ready to go. If your cold brew is in a container, use the cheesecloth to line a sieve and pour over the coffee to filter out the grounds.
The resulting coffee concentrate can be kept in the fridge for up to two weeks and used as and when you need it.
Making iced coffee
Iced coffee, on the other hand, can be ready very quickly. Use the Japanese method and you’ll have a delicious, chilled drink in just a few minutes. There is, though, a bit more to do to prepare it.
Because you’re going to be adding ice to the brewed coffee, there’s a risk that you end up with a watery drink. Avoid that by measuring out half your usual quantity of hot water to brew your coffee.
Replace the rest of the water with the ice in your pitcher or cup. As an alternative way to avoid diluting the taste, some people suggest using frozen drip coffee for the ice cubes (4).
Just make your coffee however you do usually, only with half the amount of water. Pour over coffee is generally considered to get the best results, but there’s nothing to stop you using a French press if you prefer. Then just pour your finished coffee straight over the ice.
Take a look at this YouTube video to see how it’s done.
So which is easier?
In a nutshell, both coffee methods are pretty simple to make. Cold brew really couldn’t be easier. You’ll need to allow for its lengthy brewing time, but once made it will keep for up to two weeks. Iced coffee requires slightly more work to prepare, but the finished drink is ready in minutes.
Which tastes better?
So far it seems there’s little to choose between iced coffee and cold brew. Both drinks have long pedigrees and both are easy to prepare. But what you really want to know is: which has the better flavor?
Both drinks have ardent enthusiasts ready to argue to the death that one or the other is best. The reality, as you might expect from the different brewing techniques, is that they have different characteristics. Which one you prefer is a matter of personal taste.
A good iced coffee will preserve all the flavors and aromatics of the hot drink. It will have a bright, crisp acidity that’s all the more pronounced because it’s drunk cold.
Cold brew, on the other hand, flattens out many of the flavors of the bean. The long, slow brewing process creates a smooth, rich drink, with chocolatey flavors and low levels of acidity. It’s often considered to be better than regular coffee for people with sensitive digestive systems.
Interestingly, despite the popularity of cold brew, some blind taste tests suggest a majority favor Japanese style iced coffee (5).
Of course, other factors will influence the flavor of the finished drink. First and foremost amongst those is your choice of coffee beans…
Which beans work best for iced coffee and the cold brew?
Different beans and roast levels work better with the different techniques.
Darker roast beans are recommended for the cold brew. That’s because the brewing technique brings out darker, richer flavors. You’ll likely lose the distinctive flavors of light roasted, single origin beans in the long-brewing process. As these beans are usually more expensive, why waste your money?
The low water temperature means not all of the solids from the coffee bean will be dissolved during cold brewing. As a result, the freshness of the bean is less important than for hot coffee. Take advantage by using slightly older beans for your cold brew.
Good iced coffee brewed in the Japanese style, on the other hand, is a delicate drink where the flavors of the original bean will shine through. This is the beverage in which to invest your expensive beans!
The best way to work out whether iced coffee or cold brew better suits your palate? Make both and see which you prefer!
Which is more expensive?
You might imagine that two cold coffees that are simple to make might be about the same price. You’d be wrong. Cold brew is consistently more expensive in American coffee shops than iced coffee.
In 2016, an iced coffee in Starbucks would set you back $2.95. A Narino cold brew at the same chain cost $3.45 (6).
There are even costlier variations on the theme. A number of coffee houses are now introducing nitrogen into their cold brew. It’s said to produce a creamy mouthfeel and a smoother chocolate flavor. You’ll pay a lot for the privilege – a Starbucks nitro cold brew will cost you $4.45.
Coffee manufacturers claim that the higher prices are the result of higher costs. Cold brew requires a lot of beans for the amount of coffee that’s produced. It also takes a long time to make (7).
Less convincing is the argument that coffee houses have to invest in specialist equipment. As we know, cold brew can be made with little more than an ordinary container and a sieve.
In reality, fashion is playing a part in setting prices. Cold brew is the hippest summer coffee on the block, and that’s reflected in the price.
That ends our comparison of cold brew and iced coffee. Both have origins shrouded in mystery. Both are simple to make. And both offer a refreshing chilled coffee on a hot day.
That, though, is where the similarities end. These are two very different drinks, with completely different flavors. If you prefer a bright flavor and pronounced acidity, iced coffee is likely to be your choice. If smoother, chocolatier flavors are your thing, try the cold brew.
We hope we’ve piqued your curiosity and you’re ready to experiment with chilled coffees! And if you have any questions, please comment and let us know.
My name is Kathy Gallo, Editor of Ag Ferrari, a Coffee buff. The guide you find here is designed exactly for you, and it is our hope that you find it not only interesting but also actionable.