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Cold Brew vs Iced Coffee: What’s the Difference?

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Cold Brew vs Iced Coffee

If you’ve ever been faced with a choice between iced coffee and cold brew, you may have wondered… how different are they?

In fact, there are quite a few important differences between these two types of coffee – and it’s worth understanding the distinction. There are two important aspects to this comparison: the way each drink is prepared and the differences in resulting taste.

We’ll start by comparing the preparation methods and then move on to outlining the differing taste profiles of these delicious summery drinks.

Preparation

The main difference between iced coffee and cold brew is how each drink is prepared. Iced coffee is exactly what it sounds like: regular brewed coffee poured over ice. To make it, you brew hot coffee using any brewing method. You can refrigerate this hot coffee or brew it directly over ice. Cold brew, on the other hand, is made by steeping coarse coffee grounds in cold water for 12 to 24 hours. But what exactly is happening here? Let’s break it down.

iced coffee vs. cold brew

Time and Pressure

The process of drawing flavor from coffee beans is known simply as “extraction,” and this is influenced by countless different factors. Most notable, however, is time. The different flavor compounds in coffee beans are extracted at different speeds, and so the total time spent brewing can have a profound effect on what comes out of the beans.

In the case of espresso, all these important flavor compounds are able to be extracted so quickly thanks to the high pressure within the machine. Instead of pressure, cold brew uses time to fully extract the beans. Iced coffee is made fairly quickly without significant pressure, so it relies on another factor: hot water.

Preparation of cold brew coffee

Image credit: The preparation of cold brew coffee by Sage Ross is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Water Temperature

In much the same way that more pressure leads to faster extraction, so too does a higher temperature. This is why a drip coffee machine needs to use hot water. Try pouring cold water over your grounds and you’ll end up with only slightly brownish water. But leave that cold water in your grounds for hours and you’ll end up with flavorful cold brew.

Flavor Extraction

All these factors affect how quickly flavor will be drawn out of coffee beans. Think about a spectrum of intensity: there’s espresso with high temperature and high pressure (and a super short amount of time), traditional drip coffee with low pressure but high temperature (and a moderate amount of time), and then – at the very end of the spectrum – our magical cold brew. Cold brew is all about low temperature, low pressure, and a whole ton of time. This is why the resulting taste can be so different from other methods of preparation.

iced coffee preparation

Iced Coffee, Image credit: nots12311, Pixabay

Because the cold brew method relies on a long and drawn-out extraction period, it’s able to access the most stubborn of flavor compounds inside coffee beans. These are – of course – the smooth, sweet chocolatey notes.

This is different from the method of creating iced coffee, which is really just traditional drip coffee that has been cooled. If you think back to the spectrum of brewing methods, traditional drip preparation requires much less time than cold brew. Thanks to the high heat, the process of extraction happens much more rapidly, and the resulting flavor compounds are bold, bitter, and acidic. Because of the high water temperature, iced coffee doesn’t have cold brew’s mellow, chocolatey flavor.

RELATED READING: A comparison of the 5 most popular iced coffee makers in 2020

The Result

As a result of these differences in preparation, the taste profiles of cold brew and iced coffee can vary dramatically.

Cold brew is mellow and complex, and it’s famous for the sweet, indulgent taste that we all know and love. In addition to this unique taste, cold brew also has much more caffeine than traditional iced coffee. With a longer extraction period, more caffeine emerges from the beans.

Of course, all this is not to trash traditional iced coffee. Many coffee drinkers love the bright bitterness of well-brewed coffee, and – if chilled properly –all of these delicious fruity notes can be locked into iced coffee.

cold brew coffee

Cold Brew, Image credit: Taylor Rose, Pexels

In Conclusion

The next time that someone tries to swap out cold brew for your iced coffee – or vice versa –make sure to think carefully about what you really want. Explore your options a little and be sure to compare these two preparations. Maybe you’ll find that you really prefer one to the other – or maybe you’ll just know that some days you need cold brew, and other days you need a delicious iced coffee.

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Header image credit: CC0 Public Domain, Max Pixel