Summer is (basically) here, which means that it’s iced coffee season. Head to your local coffee shop and you’ll probably find options for iced coffee and cold brew. And if it’s a fancy coffee shop, you’re likely to see even more options, such as pour-overs (aka Japanese style) and iced Americanos. If you’re wondering what the differences are between these drinks, you’ve come to the right place.
First things first: What is iced coffee?
Put simply, iced coffee is coffee that is — you guessed it — served over ice. Cold brew is one method of preparing iced coffee, but not all iced coffee is cold-brewed.
“Coffees served cold and over ice are just as diverse as coffee served hot,” said Peter Giuliano, chief research officer for the Specialty Coffee Association and executive director of the Coffee Science Foundation. “There are dozens of different iced coffee preparations, all of which have different flavors and attributes. The specialty coffee world is constantly developing new beverages and preparations, and giving them names to reflect the diversity in preparation style and flavor.”
Here are some types of iced coffee you may find at a coffee shop (minus cold brew, which we’ll get to in the next section):
Drip: If you order iced coffee, this is most likely what you’ll get. This method involves brewing coffee hot and pouring it directly over ice or chilling it slowly in a refrigerator (although many experts will tell you the latter is “a terrible idea”). It’s a common practice to increase the strength of the brewed coffee to account for the dilution that happens when the hot coffee is poured over ice. For instance, Starbucks’ iced coffee is brewed double strength with filtered water and sweetened.
Iced Americano: Espresso shots are topped with cold water and served over ice, yielding “a wonderfully rich cup with depth and nuance,” according to Starbucks.
Pour-over (Japanese style): Popularized in Japan, this style of preparing iced coffee is something you’re more likely to find at a specialty coffee shop. To make it, ice cubes are placed at the bottom of a pour-over device (like a Chemex) so that when the warm water is poured over the grounds at the top, the brewed coffee drips directly and immediately onto the ice. This method is particularly good for preserving the delicate, nuanced flavors of specialty coffee beans.
What is cold brew?
Unlike the other methods listed above, cold-brew coffee is made without heat — and, therefore, takes several hours to prepare.
“Classically, cold-brewed coffee is made by steeping coffee grounds in either room temperature or chilled water for many hours,” Giuliano said. “The resulting concentrate is filtered and diluted with water, and either drunk on its own or in other beverages.”
“Cold brew is almost always a full-immersion method where all of the coffee and all of the water are together in the same vessel,” Bailey Manson, innovation manager at Intelligentsia Coffee, told HuffPost.
Manson added that you can make cold brew in pretty much any vessel that holds liquid; it doesn’t have to be a fancy pitcher dedicated to making cold brew. A jar, a pot or even a bucket would work.
“Filters for making cold brew are sometimes paper, but it’s more common to use cloth, felt or some kind of mesh, nylon or metal,” he said.
At Brooklyn Roasting Company, cold-brew coffee is brewed via cold extraction over a period of 12 to 24 hours.
“Our recipe for cold brew calls for about twice as much coffee per measure of water as our hot-brewed coffee,” Jim Munson, founder and president of Brooklyn Roasting Company, told HuffPost. “Instead of using roughly 2 gallons of water to 1 pound of coffee, we use about 1 gallon of water to 1 pound of coffee.” He explained that this ratio is the product of experimentation and yields, in the company’s experience, optimal flavor.
“In the absence of heat, everything slows down,” Munson said, adding that if the coffee company used the same ratio for cold brewing as it uses for hot-brewed coffee, then the end result would be a weaker beverage. To avoid a weak, watery cup of coffee (especially on warm days when the ice it’s served with will melt faster), Brooklyn Roasting Company makes cold brew with a 1-to-1 ratio.
Differences in flavor
Exact flavor profiles will vary depending on the type of coffee you use, but in general, the cold-brew method will yield a drink that has a smooth, sweet flavor that’s less acidic than other types of iced coffee.
“The grind we use for making cold-brew coffee tends to be coarser because the coffee beans will be in contact with water for a longer period of time,” Munson said. “The resulting brew is very soft and sweet compared to traditional iced coffees, which tend to have sharper, more bitter notes.” He attributed the popularity of cold brew in specialty coffee shops in the United States to the “softer, cleaner, more balanced character” of the resulting drink.
If you have a favorite coffee bean blend you enjoy at home, consider making it into cold brew to see how it tastes when prepared via cold extraction.
“Any kind of coffee beans can be used to make iced coffee and cold brew, depending on the flavor you’re going for,” Giuliano said. “For example, I like to use bright, citrusy coffees to make a refreshing iced coffee on a hot day, or I might like to use a chocolatey, nutty coffee for a cold brew to serve with milk.”
However you decide to make or order your coffee, the final flavor is a delicate balance of the many variables that go into the brewing process: the roast of the beans, the grind, the water temperature and the brew time.
“All of the variables in coffee brewing alter the chemistry of the resulting drink and, therefore, the flavor and caffeine content,” Giuliano said. “It winds up being a balancing act of multiple variables!”