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

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Cold Brew vs Iced Coffee

Surely we’re all familiar with the panic that arises when our barista responds to our order for “A cold brew, please” with “Is an iced coffee okay?” Is an iced coffee really an okay substitute? There actually are countless important differences between these two types of coffee – and it’s worth understanding this distinction.

There are two important aspects to this comparison: the way they’re prepared, and the differences in resulting taste.

We’ll start off looking at the preparation, and then move on to outlining the differing taste profiles of these delicious summery drinks.


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.

This is why, for example, a short shot is notably tart, while a long shot has a more bitter taste. Professional baristas know that if they need to brighten up some slightly stale beans, they can be sure to end shots earlier. If they want to play up some big chocolate flavor, they can simply let a shot run a second or two longer than normal.

Preparation of cold brew coffee

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

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.

Think about squeezing your tube of toothpaste – if you squeeze as hard as you can, you’ll have a big glob shoot out all at once. But if you apply gentle pressure, you’ll need to squeeze for a lot longer just to get the same amount of toothpaste out. In this metaphor the toothpaste is what’s imparted to the finished product – but in the case of coffee, pressure is just another factor alongside 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.

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 chocolatey and bitter notes.

This is as opposed to 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 those with the classic coffee taste we are all most used to. Because this process is not drawn out in the same way the cold brew method is, there simply is no way to extract those magical chocolatey notes which are last to escape the bean.

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 much more complex-tasting, and it can be characterized by the bitter and indulgent taste that we all know and love. In addition to this disparity in taste, cold brew also has much more caffeine than traditional iced coffee. This is for the same reason that there’s the variation in taste. With more time spent extracting, more of the caffeine content is able to be coaxed out of the beans.

Of course, all this is not to trash traditional iced coffee. Many coffee drinkers love the brightness 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