The Difference Between Cold-Brew and Iced Coffee

The popularity and variety of iced-coffee drinks have jumped in recent years, but all those extra options can be confusing for consumers looking for a refreshing summer beverage at their favorite coffee shop.

Two of the most common sources of confusion are the terms “cold brew” and “iced coffee,” which almost always refer to two different styles of coffee beverages. While both can be bold and refreshing coffee-based drinks, they vary substantially in how they are made and the way they taste. Here are three ways iced coffee and cold brew are different.

How It’s Made

Most iced coffees are brewed hot and then cooled down to serve, either by brewing coffee directly over ice or lowering the temperature more gradually. Ice is generally introduced into the final cup to lower the temperature even further. Sweeteners and other flavors are commonly added to round out the drink before serving, but the base flavor of most iced coffee is more akin to traditional hot coffee brewed from grounds.

Simply pouring hot coffee over ice “is probably the original version of iced coffee,” says Kevin Sinnott, author of “The Art and Craft of Coffee” and creator/host of CoffeeCon. “That method ensures we’re getting basically the traditional extraction of the coffee flavors.” Some iced-coffee enthusiasts start with a more concentrated brew that allows the coffee flavor to hold up to ice or other dilution, Sinnott says.

Cold brew, on the other hand, is made in an entirely different way. It’s generally coarse-ground coffee that is soaked in room temperature water for 12 or more hours, then filtered to remove the grounds before serving. This method creates a strong and smooth coffee concentrate with a considerable caffeine buzz that is often diluted with water or milk.

It’s surprisingly easy to make cold-brew coffee at home, with a number of popular tools and methods available, although the simple setup of a Mason jar and water generally works just fine. For an even faster route to a pitcher of tasty cold brew, try our ultra-convenient cold-brew pouches. Made with 100 percent select Arabica beans and roasted to perfection, these are expertly blended and ground to help you create a flawless cold-brew beverage at home without any mess or filtering.

How It Tastes

Sinnott says most iced coffee maintains more of the acid and bitter notes that make traditional hot coffee appealing to so many consumers. Cold brew, however, offers a different flavor profile, and can bring out fruity, floral or chocolate flavors.

“Even minute differences in temperatures make a significant difference,” he says. “This changes the balance quite a bit — for better or for worse — but I think everyone would agree it makes a different beverage.

“You’re going to have some significant reduction in acidity,” he adds. “Sometimes that’s OK — it smooths out a lot of coffees. I certainly find a softer flavor in cold brew than coffee, and sometimes the body actually appears to increase. It’s a sense of substance that I think is really enjoyable.”

How Caffeinated It Is

With cold brew the coffee grounds steep in water for hours, resulting in a highly concentrated beverage that typically offers higher caffeine levels than most traditional iced coffees.

“Caffeine is a slowly extracting substance,” Sinnott says. “It’s actually one of the last things to come forth in the extraction process; therefore, longer extraction processes have increased caffeine. If you take something and brew it over a period of several days with some of these very slow-extracting cold methods, that’s quite a bit of added punch.”

These unique traits have combined to make cold brew one of the fastest-growing beverages in the coffee industry. Last fall at CoffeeCon Chicago, Sinnott says roasters told him they were seeing for the first time that iced coffee drinks, particularly cold brew, were remaining popular long after summer passed.

“We’re getting into the colder weather and people are still ordering cold brew,” he says. “I thought that was fascinating. It means it’s here to stay because people aren’t just looking at it as a seasonal drink anymore.”