What’s the Difference Between Cold Brew and Iced Coffee?

Iced coffee has never been hotter, but a crowded market place often leads to product confusion, and it seems one needs a degree in coffee studies from UC Davis to navigate all of the iced coffee options on the market these days. While we’re certainly not here to tell anyone how to enjoy their coffee, it helps to know the difference between cold brew and iced coffee before you get an unsolicited lecture from an overzealous barista. More so, each way of making iced coffee has its pros and cons, which is helpful to know before you drop your hard earned cash on that next brewing device.

Cold Brew

Technically speaking, all cold brew is iced coffee, but not all iced coffee is cold brew. Cold brew, rather confusingly, refers to the brewing process, which uses cold to room temperature water over a long period of time to a make concentrated brew that’s low on acidity but big on body and caffeine. From the classic Toddy method to fancy, spiraling glass towers, there’s a lot of variations within the cold brew category, but they all produce a flavor profile that is immediately recognizable (and somewhat divisive in some specialty coffee circles).

As long as you plan ahead, cold brew is one of the easiest ways to make iced coffee at home. Our recipe uses a French press, which provides both a vessel to steep the coffee and a filtering mechanism to remove the grounds when you’re done.

Pros: Easy to make. Long shelf life as a concentrate.

Cons: High levels of caffeine can have an adverse affect on some.

Japanese Iced Coffee

One of the classic ways of making iced coffee is often called Japanese iced coffee. This method is essentially normal filter coffee brewed over a bed of ice. The ice chills the hot coffee quickly, which preserves the more volatile acids and creates a crisp, refreshing cup of coffee. To keep from diluting the finished beverage too much, most recipes subtract the mass of the ice from the brew water (for example: to make a single cup one might use 20 grams of coffee to 200 grams of water, brewed over 120 grams of ice.) For best results, use thick, cube-shaped ice that melts slowly and evenly.

Pros: Crisp, light and refreshing. Preserves much of the acidy.

Cons: Difficult to achieve a full extraction due to the smaller brew ratio. Light body makes it less ideal for adding milk compared to other iced coffee methods.

Flash Chilled

Flash chilled might be the least common way of making iced coffee, but it’s the favorite of many coffee professionals, and for good reason. This method uses a heat exchanger to flash-chill hot brewed coffee without diluting it. Previously, flash chilled coffee was only made by hardcore home baristas armed with repurposed wort chillers, but thanks to one of our favorite coffee devices from 2017, flash chilled iced coffee has never been easier. The Coldwave Coffee Chiller uses narrow, frozen cylinders to chill your coffee from piping hot to ice cold in under a minute. This allows you to fully extract your coffee (Read our full review here).

Pros: sweet, delicious, fully-extracted iced coffee.

Cons: Long periods between brews to refreeze the heat exchanger on consumer flash chillers.

difference between cold brew and iced coffee

Iced Americano

As long as you have an industrial espresso machine at your disposal, it’s hard to find a faster iced coffee method than the iced Americano. This classic drink just uses espresso, water, and ice. Many barista pull the espresso directly into the ice water to minimize dilution. Like cold brew, the iced Americano also has its detractors, as some coffee professionals believe the emulsified oils taste unpleasant at lower temperatures.

Pros:  High concentration of espresso allows for easy chilling with ice without too much dilution.

Cons: Not all espresso blends work well as an iced Americano.

Conclusion

Which iced coffee method is best? Well, that’s up to you to decide for yourself. Coffee professionals, however, are unanimous in agreeing that putting your leftover coffee in the fridge to slowly chill down is the worst.

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