What’s the Difference Between Iced Coffee and Cold Brew?

Walk into any specialty coffee shop, and you’ll probably notice two listings for iced coffee on the menu: one generally written as iced coffee, and another as cold brew. And while they may sound like different ways of expressing the same product, there’s quite a difference between iced coffee and cold brew.

Here’s the skinny on cold brew vs. iced coffee.

What is Iced Coffee and How is It Made?

In the most obvious sense, iced coffee is just like regular ol’ joe—only poured over ice. To counteract dilution, the coffee is brewed at a greater strength. Or, as a clever work-around, some might also freeze coffee as ice cubes. This will often result in a brew that is refreshing, but trends toward bitter.

The alternative method to make iced coffee is frequently referred to as a “flash brew,” or coffee hand-poured over ice. The major difference between “flash”—or Japanese-style—iced coffee is that it comes in contact with hot water while cold brew does not. That means the coffee stands a chance at having more flavors extracted than a brew that only comes in contact with cold water. In many cases, you’ll end up with a sweetness—fruit-forwardness, even—to your brew that doesn’t exist in cold brew.

Most people will have their own formula for an ice-to-coffee ratio, but it’s worth experimenting with to see what gives you the best results for your taste. One simple rule of thumb is to start with a 50-50 ratio of ice and water while using about 24 grams of coffee for a 12-ounce cup.

What is Cold Brew Coffee and How Is Cold Brew Coffee Made?

If you haven’t deduced by now, when thinking about “What’s the difference between cold brew and iced coffee?” it’s really all about one thing: technique. Both are iced coffee, but boast different qualities depending on how you make it.

Cold brew’s technique is an unusual one – but worth the effort, all the same.

That extra effort is time. The difference between cold brew and iced coffee is it is made by steeping coffee grounds in ice water (using a filter net or any number of tailor-made devices on the market) for at least 12 hours; that means it never comes in contact with hot water, which has its pros and cons.

The benefit, depending on taste preference, is that the coffee never has a chance to develop the acidity of a hot cup of coffee or flash brew, and so it’s often described as having a fuller body with a rich, chocolate taste. Importantly, if you’re a person who takes coffee with milk or sugar, this is probably closer to the result you want.

Another major difference is that cold brew produces coffee concentrate; so, you want to store the cold brew in the fridge and then produce a 50-50 ratio of concentrate to cold water. And then add ice—should you want it.

It’s also worth noting that cold brew—again, because it never comes in contact with hot water—is a surprisingly cost-effective way to drink iced coffee. While there’s often an upcharge in a specialty shop because of the labor to make cold brew, the truth is that no hot water means it matters less what kind of coffee bean you’re using. Shops will often use beans with aging roast dates as cold brew to salvage their stock.

Both types of iced coffee have their place in any coffee lover’s vocabulary. Give both a try and see which you prefer.