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

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Cold Brew vs Iced Coffee

For those who like their coffee beverages cold, there are several options, but the most popular is iced coffee. Iced coffee products make up 25% of the menu in an average coffee shop. Cold brew first appeared on menus in large chains and local shops in 2015. Since then, they have rapidly grown in popularity. Now customers are trying to decide which cold cup of caffeine to chose. Do you know the difference between iced coffee and cold brew? If not, you’re about to find out.

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The Overview

Iced coffee and cold brew taste different, even if brewed with the same roast. This is due to the brewing process. Iced coffee is brewed hot and then poured over ice. This means it retains the qualities of a cup of hot coffee. Cold brew, on the other hand, has a brewing process all its own. Large batches of coffee grounds are steeped in cold water, usually in a water to coffee ratio of 3 to 1, for 12-20 hours. The longer the cold brew steeps, the bolder the flavor. If cold brew is over-steeped (longer than 24 hours), it can become very bitter.

Brewing Process Breakdown

Why does the brewing process make a difference in the taste? The oils and acids in coffee are called soluble compounds. They are part of what gives coffee their signature aroma and taste. When water runs through coffee grinds, it pulls out the natural oils. However, the temperature of the water makes a big difference. When hot water is used, more of the oils and acids are released at a quicker rate. These oils oxidize which gives coffee it’s bitter or sour characteristic. When cold water is used, less of the compounds oxidize and the oxidation is slower. Some of the compounds left behind contribute to the bitter flavors in coffee. Therefore, cold brew tends to be much smoother, less aromatic, and slightly sweeter in flavor than black iced coffee.

coffee brewing

Image credit: Joe Ross, Wikimedia

Caffeine Level

Is there a difference in caffeine level? Sometimes. Several variables determine caffeine level. These include the roast used, the grind, the temperature, and the amount of coffee used in proportion to water. Referring to the Starbucks website, a 12 oz iced coffee has 120 mg of caffeine, while their 12 oz cold brew has 155 mg of caffeine. However, this may not always be the case. If choosing a cold coffee beverage with a higher caffeine content is important to you, ask your barista about caffeine amounts per drink. Another option for more caffeine is to go to a coffee shop that sells nitro cold brew. This is simply cold brew mixed with nitrogen. Like beer, it comes out of a tap and has a foamy head. Starbucks reports that their 12 oz nitro cold brew has 215 mg of caffeine. Nitro cold brew is not served over ice, because most nitro cold brew systems are refrigerated and the nitrogen makes it cold when it comes out of the tap as well. Avid drinkers of nitro cold brew enjoy the coldness without the ice, the smooth flavor and mouthfeel, and the added caffeine boost.

coffee warning sign

Image credit: CC0 Public Domain, Max Pixel


Iced coffee and cold brew are both delicious choices. What you’re looking for in your cup of coffee, however, will determine the one that’s best for you. If you like the bold and slightly bitter taste coffee can offer, prefer more acidity in your coffee, or enjoy the aroma of coffee, then iced coffee is your friend. If you prefer a smoother taste, less aroma, or a slightly sweeter finish then cold brew is the winner for you. Happy coffee drinking.

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Header image credit: CC0 Public Domain, Max Pixel