Drinks

Cold Brew Versus Iced Coffee: Which Is Actually Better?

May 23, 2017

Cold brew, they told us. Cold brew is better than iced coffee. It cropped up in coffee shops, on blogs, in grocery stores, and in DIYs on sites like this one. Google searches for both "cold brew" and "cold brew coffee" both peaked in July 2015. The buzz was palpable. You could get a cold-brewed coffee nearly anywhere you went; iced coffee fell from its pedestal. We sneered. We'd found something better, and it was inky-dark and chocolatey tasting. Anyone asking for plain old iced coffee might have been told that the shop only carried cold brew.

But in the past few years, iced coffee seems to be creeping back into beloved status—a return championed by coffee nerds and baristas, though seeming to go buck what the coffee trends had been indicating (i.e. cold brew all the way). Why?

The rise of cold brew as seen on Google. This graph shows the popularity of the search term "cold brew coffee" between 2004 and the present. (That little peak in 2007? I think that's when the New York Times published a recipe for "Cold-Brewed Iced Coffee," on June 27.) Photo by Google Trends

A few weeks ago, I ran into a friend outside of Darleen Scherer's Bushwick, Brooklyn coffee shop Supercrown. "Their coffee is really good—but they don't have cold brew," he said, disappointed. Twenty minutes later, talking to Darleen, she reiterated this: iced coffee only; no cold brew. And she has a real philosophy on why.

But first! We should define some terms. Cold brew is what you get when you grind beans medium-coarse, soak them in cold water for 12 to 24 hours, strain out the grinds, and then dilute the resulting concentrate with water or milk and serve over ice. Iced coffee has a less clear definition, but has traditionally been coffee brewed just as you would were you going to drink it hot, left to chill before adding ice and doctoring to the drinker's preference.

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Top Comment:
“Then I boil water 2 part water to one part cold brew. Mix together. The temp is warm. Then I microwave just enough to drink at my preferred temperature. So I love cold brew hot. Does anyone do this? It is an extremely smooth cup. It's takes more coffee per cup than my traditional French press but very good. ”
— Matt T.
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But it should be said that Darleen—and a whole host of other coffee experts who sing the praises of iced coffee over cold brew—aren't making iced coffee that way. "If you brew hot coffee and put it to the side, after 30 minutes, it starts to break down and oxidizes," Darleen told me over the phone. That is, the flavor changes and starts to become what we might call "stale."

To minimize this oxidization, Darleen and other iced coffee lovers have turned to the Japanese method of making iced coffee, wherein ice is substituted for half the water used to make a cup of coffee, and you brew the coffee right over the ice. (So, for example, if you would ordinarily brew a pot of coffee with 600 grams of water, you would instead put 300 grams of ice in the bottom of your Chemex or other pour over method, and pour 300 grams of not-quite-boiling water over the grounds. More on the process here.) This is also the method of choice for Lem Butler, Counter Culture's wholesale customer support—who is fresh from winning the coveted title of 2016 U.S. Barista Champion.

Darleen, who brews a huge variety of beans at Supercrown, chooses to make iced coffee using the Japanese method because "those nuanced flavors come out when you brew with hot water." As a result, Japanese-style iced coffee is fruitier, more acidic, brighter, and more aromatic than cold brew, which she describes as "almost like a rubber mallet" that mutes the flavor of the beans you're brewing with.

This isn't to say that cold brew doesn't taste good—the method makes a drink that's creamy, chocolatey, and rich-tasting. (Lem attributes that creaminess to oxidization.) It's just that when you make cold-brew coffee, you're not so much tasting the nuances of the beans as you are tasting the cold brewing method. Japanese-brewed iced coffee, on the other hand, is "what hot coffee tastes like," said Lem, "but cold."

More: Darleen mixes iced coffee with lemonade in Supercrown's Laura Palmer.

For a Japanese-style iced coffee, sub half the water for ice cubes and brew the coffee right over them. (A Chemex is great for this, but you can use any pour over-style brewer.) Photo by James Ransom

Ultimately, one isn't necessarily better than the other; as with all things coffee, what you choose to make comes down to what you prefer. That's why Joe Coffee, a chain of coffee shops in New York and Philadelphia, offers both iced coffee and cold brew on their menu. Drinking iced coffee and drinking cold brew are two "totally different experiences," Joe's director of training and quality control, Caleb Ferguson, told me. (He personally prefers iced coffee, which Joe makes by brewing hot coffee and then immediately adding ice—a method slightly different from the Japanese one.)

Caleb suspects that cold brew rose in popularity because it is really easy to drink: It's chocolatey, it's creamy, and it's enjoyable to nearly any palate. Darleen agrees—but also thinks its popularity has to do with the marketing around it. Since cold brew is more stable than hot coffee is, it can be bottled or canned and sold. But Darleen has also noticed a macho spin on cold brew: Many coffee shops are putting it on tap, or infusing it with nitrogen so that it foams up when served, a lot like Guinness. And bottled cold brew? "Stubbies are basically in Red Stripe beer bottles," she said of Stumptown's bottled cold brew.

Photo by James Ransom

To see how Darleen's and Caleb's theories sat on a wide range of palates, I made three cups of cold coffee (all served black, with ice) and asked the Food52 team to come sample them without knowing how they were different. Here's how they described them:

Hot coffee left to sit for an hour: "Leftover coffee-tasting—filtery"; "Kind of watery, not very strong, tastes like Starbucks"; "Tastes like watered-down coffee. Not bad. I’d drink it" ; "Tastes bitter, almost like a really strong iced tea" ; "Okay, but thin"
Japanese-style iced coffee: "Toasty and yummy"; "A little burnt smelling, but I like it"; "The integrity of the bean has been maintained"; "Acidic. Smells like there are grounds in it, but tastes good"; "This one smells gooooood!"; "Builds up in flavor—you get a real coffee burst instead of a fade"
Cold brew concentrate, diluted 1:1 with water: "Not bitter at all"; "I like it! Very drinkable"; "Tastes the fanciest"; "Smells really good, like chocolate. Don’t like how it tastes, though—like it has grounds in it. Too rich of a taste"; "This one is super strong! Forward flavor"; "Cinnamony! But mellow"

The winner in our office? Most people voted for the Japanese-style iced coffee—which means that the theories might just be true, even for lovers of cold brew.

This article originally ran in April of 2016.

39 Comments

Sharlenie R. July 19, 2017
About 10 years ago I became a huge fan of cold brew due to the bitterness of hot brewed coffee, but for the last 4 or 5 years I've been doing the Japanese method exclusively — at first with a Vietnamese filter and now with an Aeropress. Much easier clean-up, fewer coffee beans used per cup, and I don't have to plan ahead.
 
Peg C. July 19, 2017
I, too, went from cold brew to the Japanese iced pour over method. However, I've also discovered I LOVE adding some seltzer or tonic to my iced coffee in the summer. Yummy and refreshing!
 
Decs July 12, 2017
I learned to make cold brew 35 years ago at the Market in Denver. I've been drinking it ever since. Anytime I serve someone a hot cup of coffee I use the cold brew concentrate and they tell me it tastes better than any other coffee and want to know how I made it.
 
Sherry E. May 25, 2017
to each his/her own! I like cold brew better for exactly the taste profile offered in explanation and no I do not add anything, but love the slight "thickness" of it, and the subtle sweetness- always found ice coffee no matter what the method of brew, "watery" and insipid in taste and in need of a bit of sweetness-
 
nola_t May 24, 2017
Cold brew, done right, is better if you're adding milk or sugar. The Japanese method tastes better if you're drinking it black, but all of those acidic fruit notes end up playing really terribly with milk. Serious Eats did a good piece on it: http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/05/whats-the-best-way-to-brew-iced-coffee.html I am from New Orleans, where cold brew has been the dominant way of making cold coffee for at least two decades. I concur that it's a place where a medium or Viennese roast works best. A dark roast tends to be muddy and a light one isn't quite assertive enough. It's probably another reason why cold brew sometimes fails in these head-to-head taste tests. Using exactly the same beans/roast is actually going to do most of the methods a disservice because each works best with a different roast.
 
Whiteantlers May 23, 2017
I have never cared for coffee-hot or iced. I drink a great deal of tea every day and have been since I was a kid. About 10 years ago, I happened upon an article for making cold brew coffee and since I was good friends with a coffee lover, decided to brew it up for her. She loved it-cold and hot-so I tried it myself and adored it. I used to make it several times a week and it was my morning cup during hot weather followed by tea (hot) the rest of the day. I find "regular" iced coffee insipid and watery. Cold brew coffee is rich and smooth, especially cut with half and half.<br /><br />In hot weather, I cold brew tea and have at least 2 pitchers of a different type (black, oolong, green and so on) going in the fridge all season long because tea will always be my preferred caffeinated beverage.
 
Janet B. May 23, 2017
I guess I've been making iced coffee "Japanese style" for 20 or so years, and didn't know it. I greatly dislike cold-brew coffee, it doesn't have enough acidity, but iced coffee, done this way, is honestly better than hot coffee.
 
creamtea May 23, 2017
I have been brewing it ~double strength in a a Melitta cone over a glass chockful of ice for several years.
 
Doug May 30, 2016
I prefer several 2oz shots of espresso, poured over ice. If you just use brewed coffee, the ice dilutes the flavor.
 
Philip May 7, 2016
I grew up drinking iced coffee made from concentrated instant coffee. I never could make it as well as mom. I love cold brews and at home I us cooled espresso, I let sit about 20 minutes. I like just about all methods as long as they are strong enough
 
Matt T. May 7, 2016
I make a cold brew concentrate. Then I boil water 2 part water to one part cold brew. Mix together. The temp is warm. Then I microwave just enough to drink at my preferred temperature. So I love cold brew hot. Does anyone do this? It is an extremely smooth cup. It's takes more coffee per cup than my traditional French press but very good.
 
Jim May 7, 2016
Why do you make a concentrate? I make my cold brew the strength I want to drink because of acid. Like you microwave if want hot. Do I need more info on cold brew?
 
Matt T. May 7, 2016
That's a good point. The concentrate is pure laziness. I'll try your suggestion and see how much better it is. Thanks.
 
Sarah May 6, 2016
I have yet to have a decent cup of cold brew outside of my house. It was bizarre to add water when I learned this brew method and think that baristas are afraid to dilute too much. What I have found in coffee shops is a bad cup of coffee labeled "cold brew" - too strong and not diluted enough. My coffee preparation, learned from a southern friend, goes by the 1/3 cold brew, 1/3 water, and 1/3 milk (pinch of sugar). It is amazing every time. Low acid, smooth and perfect - cold water in summer or boiling in winter.
 
Camille May 6, 2016
I love cold brew versus iced coffee. I too have found it to be less acidic and smoother tasting. I only add my choice of milk (no sugar) and couple of drops of vanilla. Yum!<br />However, the only downside I found as time has moved forward these tasty concoctions increased my blood pressure. Interestingly enough, I stopped drinking and blood pressure is normal ( I've always been at the low end). Go figure!?
 
molly May 6, 2016
I've been making cold brew in the summers for about 10 years. I use French Market canned coffee, soaked overnight, then strained through cheesecloth (twice). I love the stuff!
 
Karl L. May 6, 2016
For the ultimate in cold brewing, I've started experimenting with piling ice cubes on top of ground coffee in a filter and letting them melt through. <br />Results are still inconclusive.
 
Craig May 6, 2016
I cold brew just to make ice cubes out of the concentrate. When I need an iced coffee, I smash enough cubes in a plastic bag to fill my cup halfway, then pour a very strong hot brew over the top. You still end up with some crushed ice in the cup to keep it cold. Most importantly, the ice doesn't weaken the coffee as it melts.
 
Laura415 May 28, 2016
Me too just without the cold brew. I make too much coffee and pour the remainder into ice cube trays. I'm a slow drinker so I used to hate the watery mess the regular iced coffee becomes.
 
Susie H. May 6, 2016
I'm passionate about iced coffee - but this article leaves out IMO the very best ways to enjoy an iced cup - 1) iced espresso and 2) vietnamese style drip coffee.
 
Doug May 24, 2017
Would you tell us about the Vietnamese drip, please?
 
Catherine May 6, 2016
When I worked as a barista (from 2008-2010), we served cold brew, but we only brewed it from lighter roasted bright-tasting beans like our Ethiopian. Anything dark or earthy would just end up muddy in the cup. (It probably didn't matter so much if you were adding sugar and milk.)<br /><br />I'm definitely in favor of matching your brewing method with the strengths of the beans you have. It can make a huge difference in the flavors you highlight.
 
Janice D. May 6, 2016
If you don't have time to make your own cold brewed coffee try this- Grady's Cold Brew. You can find it in most Whole Foods as a concentrate or buy the bean bags and make it yourself. Yum, so addictive!
 
Emily May 6, 2016
Maybe this is sacrilege, but--I, too, make cold-brew tea, using a Mr. Tea machine. Do you think I could use the Mr. Tea machine to make the Japanese style iced coffee?
 
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Caroline L. May 6, 2016
I love cold-brew tea, too! (If it's sacrilege, we're in it together.) While I'm not familiar with the Mr. Tea machine, any kind of pour-over coffee setup can be used to make Japanese-style iced coffee.
 
Stephanie May 6, 2016
If I remember correctly from before my Mr. Tea pitcher broke and then I lost the thing decades ago, it pretty much is exactly the same thing as the Japanese-style method! Pour hot water over to melt the ice in the pitcher and make it iced...
 
Emily May 6, 2016
Cool! I'm going to try it today and report back. I just got this Mr. Tea about 6 months ago, and I love it! It is so easy to keep a big pitcher of iced tea around every day and making it non-sweetened prevents me from over-indulging in sugared sodas so much. Thanks!!