Here's the Difference Between Iced Coffee and Cold Brew (and How to Make Both)

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Cold brew and iced coffee are not one and the same, so you'll want to try both before committing to one cup.
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Rather than heading into your favorite local coffee shop these days, you're working on your professional at-home barista skills. Though you aren't quite ready to buy a milk frother and try your luck at latté art, you may dabble into iced drinks as the days grow warmer.

Before you start to whip up masterpieces, though, it's essential to know the difference between various beverages.

Like, what is cold brew, exactly? And how is it different from iced coffee? Most important of all, you'll want to know how to make the best quench-thirsting and energy-boosting cup. Here, registered dietitians and coffee masters from around the world share their insights.

What Is Iced Coffee?

Well, it's coffee with ice, right? Sort of. But there's more to your beloved to-go iced coffee than two ingredients.

As Lisette Gaviña Lopez, a fourth-generation coffee roaster and the Executive Marketing Director for F. Gaviña & Sons Roasters and Don Francisco's Coffee, defines it: Iced coffee is made with double-strength brewed coffee. This means that you brew your coffee hot how you usually would, but you double-up the amount of grinds while using the same amount of water.

How to Make Iced Coffee

There are many methods for making iced coffee at home. Some will use a pour-over while other may rely on a French press. You can also go the simple route and use a traditional coffee brewer. Whichever route you take, registered dietitian Kaleigh McMordie, RD, provides these easy-to-follow instructions:

  1. Select whole beans of your choice. Grind them based on the method you're making coffee. Medium to coarse is best for French press or pour-over, while finely ground beans are ideal for a coffee maker.
  2. Get the water hot, but not too hot — around 200 degrees Fahrenheit or just below boiling.
  3. Use two tablespoons of coffee for six to eight ounces of water if you're storing the coffee overnight. If you're drinking right away, double the amount of coffee because the ice will dilute the coffee.
  4. Brew!
  5. Then, chill the coffee and store in the refrigerator before pouring over ice. If you want to drink the coffee right away, pour directly over ice once brewed, stir and then add more ice as needed.

How It Tastes

Tony Raffa, the founder of Zombie Coffee & Donuts in Georgia, describes the taste of iced coffee as smooth, light and refreshing — but also a tad acidic.

That's because iced coffee is first made with hot coffee, and the heating process causes the beans or grounds' oils to oxidize quickly. Sometimes, this can create a sour-ish taste; however, adding milk can help balance this out.

Iced Coffee's Caffeine Content

Generally speaking, Melissa Nieves, RD, says iced coffee tends to have the same amount of caffeine as a hot cup of joe. That's around 96 milligrams per a standard eight-ounce cup, per the Mayo Clinic.

Tips For Making the Best Iced Coffee

If you want to get the most out of your at-home iced coffee, these hacks and tricks will make a difference:

  • Try the Japanese-style pour-over: When Graham Peeples, the Director of Beverage of Methodical Coffee, makes iced coffee, he utilizes the Japanese-style pour-over method for a brighter and more complex taste. This involves adding ice to the bottom of the pour-over vessel before you begin your brewing process. "As the coffee drains, it will gradually cool down thanks to the ice in the bottom vessel," he explains. "This provides a bit of a cleaner taste and is best when poured over fresh ice."

  • Always make iced coffee fresh — and use a cocktail shaker: While you can make hot coffee and let it cool while you sleep, Lopez says this will jeopardize the taste and the vitality of your cold cup of joe. After you finish brewing, she says to let it cool down to room temperature. Then, add in cream, sugar or other flavors and pour into a martini shaker with ice. Then, pour over fresh ice. "The result is a perfectly aromatic, flavorful, and evenly mixed cool coffee drink," she raves.

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What Is Cold Brew?

Ask anyone who is Team Iced Coffee or Team Cold Brew, and they'll be quick to share the differences between these two blends. Not only do they have various taste profiles, but they are created differently.

"Cold brew coffee is a slow-brew method that replaces heat with brewing time," Lopez says. "This means that instead of using water that is just under boiling temperature to brew through a paper or metal filter for four to six minutes, cold brew is made with coarsely ground coffee steeped at room temperature or in a refrigerator for 18 to 24 hours. It's also filtered through a paper, mesh or cheesecloth to remove solids."

Get the Cold Brew recipe and nutrition info here.

How It Tastes

Cold brew is one of those taste profiles you either love or hate. It has a thicker body that's almost syrupy, Peeples says.

Because it's heavier and has a lower acidity level, he says it pairs well with milk and sugar rather than drinking it black. You can also add creamy oat milk to your brew.

Cold Brew's Caffeine Content

The caffeine in cold brew can vary. For example, eight ounces of Chameleon Cold Brew has 200 milligrams of caffeine while eight ounces of Starbucks Cold Brew has about 100 milligrams. Cold brew uses less water per coffee grounds than iced coffee, which means it's usually more concentrated. Since cold brew is meant to be used as a concentrate, you can cut down on the caffeine content by adding milk or cream or a plant-based alternative.

Tips for Making the Best Cold Brew

If you have more time to experiment with at-home brewing, try these tricks from the professionals themselves:

  • Don't throw away older coffee beans: Ever wondered what to do with those random beans left at the end of a bag? Before you toss out unused or older coffee, Peeples says to test it with a cup of cold brew. Because it's a very forgiving brewing method, he says it's hard to make a batch that tastes bad. "If you have a few bags of coffee that are almost empty, throw all those coffee beans together and make a batch of cold brew with them! You'll probably be pleasantly surprised with the results."

  • Test different brew times and recipes: Everyone will have a varied preference for the taste and strength of their cold brew. That's why Peeples recommends experimenting with the time you leave it lingering to determine your preferred profile.

    "If you are brewing in a vessel with a spout at the bottom, don't be afraid to pour a little bit at different times in the brewing process to see when that particular coffee tastes best," he explains. "Every coffee is going to brew a bit differently, and even things like the type of water you use will affect the flavor. Use filtered water when possible."
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