To the uninformed coffee drinker, it may seem that iced coffee is just cold brew coffee with ice in it. But that couldn't be further from the truth. So how does cold brew coffee compare to iced coffee?
The main difference between cold brew vs iced coffee begins with the brewing process. The differences in the brewing process affects the coffee's taste, its caffeine content, and its level of acidity.
Next, we'll be exploring each of these difference so you can truly understand how the two compare, and which one is better for you.
Note: technically, cold brew coffee can be iced, making it "iced cold brew coffee." For the purpose of clarity, in this article we'll be referring to "cold brew" as coffee made from brewing coffee at room temperature, and "iced coffee" as hot-brewed coffee that has been chilled and iced.
Brewing Process Differences
Iced coffee is simply traditionally-brewed coffee that has been chilled and ice has been added. In other words, iced coffee can be brewed in a variety of different ways: pour over (such as with a Chemex) method, using a French press, with an Aeropress machine, and so on. The key here is that you use hot water when making the coffee. This actually changes the chemical composition of the final "coffee" product.
On the other hand, the brewing process for cold brew, while similar in some ways to traditional methods is different because you use cold water (or room temperature water) when making the coffee. For cold brew, you begin by steeping coarsely ground coffee beans in cold water for 12-24 hours (although some people only let it go for a couple hours), and then strain out the coffee, such as with a French press.
Flavor - Which Brew Method Is Tastier?
Exposing coffee grounds to hot water (i.e. "hot brewing") extracts more out of the coffee beans than cold water does. This brings out a wider range of flavor than cold brew methods, but this also means that if you're not careful the "wider range of flavor" can translate into bitterness.
That said, cold brew fans rave about how rich the flavor of cold brew coffee can be without the bitterness that's common in hot brew coffee.
On the other hand, hot brew fans point out that the greater diversity of flavor in hot brew coffee is one of the most important things that makes the coffee experience what it is.
As you can tell, whether the difference in flavor is good or bad is highly subjective, but what everyone agrees on is that there is definitely a difference in flavor. So you'll have to try it for yourself and form your own opinion. (And let us know in the comments below!)
Caffeine - Does Cold Brew Coffee Really Have More Caffeine?
The actual process of cold brewing does not in itself extract more caffeine than the hot brewing process does. That said, in order to get more flavor and strength out of the beans, most people use double the quantity of coffee grounds when cold brewing than is used during the hot brewing process.
Thus, when double the quantity of grounds are used during cold brew, the resulting coffee does have more caffeine than hot brew coffee that used half that quantity of grounds.
But to make things one step more complicated, it's important to note that most people dilute the resulting cold brewed coffee with water at a 1:1 ratio, thus making the caffeine content comparable to that of typical hot brew coffee.
Acidity Level - Iced Coffee Takes The "Prize"
Coffee grounds are more soluble at higher temperatures, which simply means that during the hot brewing process, more of the beans' acidic content is extracted, which means the resulting coffee is much more acid than cold brew coffee.
Why is that important?
While the higher acid content of hot brewed coffee does have an impact on flavor, it's more important to note that some individuals have a harder time digesting highly acidic (hot brewed) coffee -- but keep in mind we're not medical professionals here. That's why cold brew coffee may be more appealing to individuals with gut-related health problems.
So, Is Cold Brew Or Iced Coffee Better For You?
There are two main factors to keep in mind when determining which brew method (hot or cold) produces a healthier coffee: caffeine levels, and acid levels.
If you're more sensitive to caffeine than most people, then undiluted cold brew coffee is not your best choice. We recommend either diluting cold brew coffee with plenty of water, or going with hot brew coffee, or of course decaf beans are an option if you're completely caffeine intolerant.
If you have a sensitive stomach, you may want to try out cold brew instead of hot brew, at least for a period of time, and see if that impacts your digestion and overall stomach comfort level.
And if you don't have any of the issues mentioned above - caffeine sensitivity or a sensitive stomach - we suggest that cold brew coffee may be a slightly healthier choice because of the lower acid content, but we do admit that this is arguable. When it comes to how coffee impacts your health, you'll have to make your own conclusion based on your own body's condition and needs.
It's also worth mentioning that both for cold brew and iced coffee, it's common to add milk and sugar or some sort of creamer, all of which have an impact on the health benefits or disadvantages of the final coffee product. Keep this in mind and consider leaving out the sugar, creamer, and/or milk if you want to avoid possible health disadvantages.
What About Starbucks?
According to this press release, Starbucks states that their iced coffee is actually brewed double-strength, so keep this in mind if you're monitoring your caffeine intake.
They cold brew their coffee for 20 hours, which contributes toward a deeper, richer flavor.
Also worth noting is that their cold brew coffee has a small amount of calories and sodium whereas their iced coffee counterpart has none of either, unless you add milk, of course (source).
What About Dunkin Donuts?
Dunkin Donuts also brews their iced coffee double-strength, but they cold brew their coffee for only 12 hours (compared to 20 hours at Starbucks).
Most of the iced coffee drinks at Dunkin are flavored and thus contain a higher quantity of calories, carbs, sodium, etc compared to their plain cold brew option (source: Dunking Nutrition Guide PDF).
So there you have it, cold brew compared to iced coffee! Hopefully this comparison has helped you decide which option is better suited to your preferences and health needs. If you think we missed anything or you just want to share which coffee you prefer, leave us a comment below!