The Surprising Difference Between Iced Coffee And Cold Brew

milk pouring into two glasses of iced coffee, difference between iced coffee and cold brew

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If you’re a coffee fan who melts at the mere thought of summer humidity, you’ve likely heard of cold brew coffee or iced coffee.

But what is the difference between iced coffee and cold brew? Aren’t they just the same thing with slightly different names?

Not exactly. Here’s the tea: cold brew is a type of iced coffee, but iced coffee is not a type of cold brew. Iced coffee has become a term loosely used to describe several cold coffee beverages in recent years, but not all iced coffee drinks are created equal.

But don’t get us wrong, on a hot day, just about any type of cold coffee over ice sounds like a good idea.

So let’s take a closer look at the key difference between iced coffee and cold brew to determine which is right for you.

The Difference Between Iced Coffee And Cold Brew

Coffee pouring into mason jar filled with ice on wooden table, brewing method for cold brew

What’s Cold Brew?

What makes cold brew different from other cold coffee drinks lies mostly in the brewing process (more on that in a moment).

The term “cold brew” refers to the brewing method, not the serving temperature, as the cold brew is brewed slowly using cold water.

Cold brew coffee is also smoother and less acidic than traditional iced coffee. Cold brew lacks the bitterness often associated with iced coffee, which is why many prefer to drink cold brew coffee black.

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What’s Iced Coffee?

Iced coffee is exactly what it sounds like. It’s regular coffee that is brewed hot and then poured over ice. Voila!

It takes time and advanced planning to prepare cold brew vs. iced coffee, that’s incredibly easy to brew, which is one reason it’s so popular. It’s delicious on its own or served with your milk of choice and a little sweetener.

The flavor of Iced coffee is less robust than cold brew, and iced coffee is higher in acidity

Brewing Methods

Cold Brewing

As the name suggests, cold brew coffee is brewed with cold water (or room temperature), which is one major difference between iced coffee and cold brew.

Another big difference between iced coffee and cold brew is brewing time.

Cold brew is steeped slowly (12+ hours slow), allowing all of the fruity, bright notes to be extracted from the coffee grounds without bitterness. This slow extraction is also what makes cold brew less acidic.

It’s a time commitment for sure, but cold brew remains the best iced coffee to make at home because it is so easy, and the result is so delicious.

No special equipment is needed to make cold brew. In fact, our favorite method for making cold brew is the French press.

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Iced Coffee

On the other hand, Iced coffee can be ready in mere minutes.

Simply grind and brew your coffee using hot water and your preferred coffee apparatus (french press, pour over, drip coffee, etc.) and pour it over ice. Done.

Iced coffee is obviously more susceptible to dilution from the ice cubes, so keep that in mind when preparing it. After all, iced coffee is nothing more than regular hot coffee poured over ice.

If you’re not in a hurry, but don’t have 12 or so hours to cold brew coffee, pour your hot brewed coffee into a container and refrigerate for no longer than 30 minutes before pouring it over ice.

The trade-off here is that the nuances of the coffee will fade the longer it sits in the fridge, so chill it only briefly before enjoying it over ice.

man in hawaiian shirt pouring coffee from hario carafe into pint glass with ice, best iced coffee to make at home

Caffeine Content: Cold Brew vs. Iced Coffee

Another major difference between iced coffee and cold brew is the caffeine content.

Traditional iced coffee is made using coffee brewed hot much faster, resulting in a coffee with less caffeine but much higher acidity (sensitive stomach? Cold brew may be your best bet).

Because cold brew is steeped over such a long period of time, the result is a highly caffeinated cold brew concentrate.

Those with caffeine sensitivities should be careful when reaching for that high-caffeine cold brew. Adjusting the caffeine content in cold brew is relatively easy, however.

Simply adjust the coffee to water ratio when diluting your coffee concentrate. The ideal cold brew ratio will be a matter of personal preference.

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Flavor Profiles: Cold Brew vs. Iced Coffee

One of the defining characteristics of cold brew coffee is its incredibly smooth taste, often highlighted by fruity or floral undertones.

Because the brewing method for cold brew allows plenty of time for all of the unique flavors of the beans to be extracted, the result is a robust cold brew concentrate.

Cold brew concentrate is delicious when diluted with water or milk and poured over ice. 

On the other hand, the flavor of iced coffee is less pronounced due in part to the hot extraction process and the dilution of the coffee from the ice. You’ll notice subtle nuances in cold brew vs. iced coffee that can be slightly bland overall.

hands pouring cream into mason jar of cold brew beside jug of cold brew on wooden table, brewing method for cold brew

Shelf Life: Cold Brew vs. Iced Coffee

A key difference between iced coffee and cold brew is shelf life. Ever taken a sip of refrigerated coffee from earlier that same day only to find that it’s bitter and tastes terrible?

Yeah, that happens with iced coffee.

Hot-brewed coffee begins to deteriorate when it starts to cool (yep, even in your morning mug). Hot coffee is best served fresh within about 30 minutes of brewing. So what happens when you pour hot coffee over ice to make iced coffee? 

It immediately loses flavor and begins to expire even faster. Cold coffee will only last a few hours, so don’t brew a big batch of hot coffee and think you’ll have iced coffee for days.

Now, this is just the opposite with cold brewed coffee.

While the brewing process for cold brew may take some patience, the payoff is huge. When cold brew concentrate is stored properly, it will continue to taste amazing for 7-10 days!

So, how do you store cold brew? Use a container(s) with a lid (or cover with tight-fitting plastic wrap). Much like dairy products, cold brew coffee tends to absorb other aromas in the fridge, so you’ll want to store it covered to keep it tasting its best.

Store the concentrate in a sealed container in the fridge and dilute it with water or milk as needed, rather than diluting it upfront and storing the ready-to-drink version.

Closing Thoughts

Whether you prefer cold brew coffee or iced coffee, we can all agree that both are superbly refreshing on a hot summer day.

If you’re trying to determine which is the best coffee, cold brew vs. iced coffee, there really is no right answer. Since one defining difference between iced coffee and cold brew is flavor, choosing which is better really comes down to personal preference.

The best iced coffee you can drink is sometimes one that’s most readily available to you. If you have some time to steep your cold brew coffee, we’d say cold brew is the way to go.

If you don’t have hours, grab a cold brew at your local coffee shop and taste the difference for yourself. Then save yourself a heap of money and start making cold brew at home.