When it comes to chilled coffee drinks, what is the difference between cold brew and iced coffee? It’s all in the method. When it’s too hot outside to swallow a steaming caffeinated beverage, much less hold it, you probably don’t even care, but you’re definitely more likely to choose a cold cup of java for your morning jolt or afternoon pick-me-up.
You’ve seen this cold brew coffee trend the last several years. Yet cold brew coffee is almost twice the price as iced coffee at the local coffee shop. You grapple with the conflicting values of thriftiness and coffee snobbery. What makes cold brew coffee so special anyway?
Well, there’s the less watered-down taste of course. To do that, this higher-end chilly coffee retains its integrity in one main way: The coffee is brewed in cold (or room temperature) water, rather than hot water. Shocker, we know. But there’s much more to it. Let’s delve into the details of this popular summertime drink and also tell you the best way to make both at home so you can save a few dollars.
Cold brew is created by steeping medium-to-coarse ground coffee in room temperature water for 12 hours or longer and then filtering out the grounds for a clean cup without sediment. Unlike regular coffee, cold brew is never exposed to heat. Cold brew uses time, rather than heat to extract the coffee’s oils, sugars, and caffeine.
Cold brew coffee is for those who plan ahead. It’s a long, gradual process, that can take up to 24 hours, like making sun tea, only without the sun. The result is a very smooth, rich infusion, with low levels of acidity, which can be a relief to those with sensitive digestive systems. But this process can flatten a coffee’s taste, leaving behind the nuances of properly ice-brewed coffee, which some describe as a full-bodied, Guinness-type mouthfeel. The upside: The cold-brew process, while it takes time, is less fiddly than ice brewing—basically, you just set it up and walk away till it comes time to strain the concentrate.
Iced coffee is created like any regular hot coffee brew method. It’s simply hot coffee that has been cooled down so that it can be poured over ice.
Pouring day-old cold coffee left in the pot over a handful of ice cubes is not iced coffee—at least, not optimal iced coffee. Letting brewed coffee sit around for awhile causes it to oxidize, making the flavor go bitter, flat, and otherwise funky.
Those who are really serious about making good iced coffee use the Japanese method: pour-over coffee set up to drip onto ice cubes, instantly cooling the brew. This method does a pretty good job preserving the richness, acidity, and aroma of fresh coffee while simultaneously making it heat wave–ready. You’ll want to use only about 10 percent more coffee in this method. The slow cooling (pouring drop-by-drop onto ice) ensures minimal dilution, unlike pouring a bunch of hot coffee onto cubes, which causes more dilution. So properly made iced coffee shouldn’t end up watery.
With temperatures rising, maybe it’s time to try some of our cold coffee concoctions.
You can brew the coffee in a 32-ounce French press if you prefer. Place the ground coffee and water in the pitcher, place the plunger lid on top, but don’t press the plunger down. After the coffee grounds have steeped, gently press down on the plunger until the grounds reach the bottom of the pitcher. Then proceed with step 2 of the recipe. Whichever method you choose, the coffee needs to steep for at least 12 hours, so plan accordingly. Remember to make a batch of Simple Syrup before you begin. Get our Basic Cold Brewed Coffee recipe.
Bodum French Press Coffee Maker, $15.39 on Amazon
This classic French press makes up to eight cups at once (hot or cold as you prefer).
This cold, caffeinated beverage can get you feeling festive fast. It’s actually more of a cold brew coffee than an iced coffee. Simply steep some coffee grounds in cold water the day before, then strain no sooner than 12 hours later. Lastly, spike the cold brew with some amaretto and Pernod (an anise-flavored liqueur), and you’ve got a slightly buzzy, biscotti-flavored iced coffee. Get our Boozy Biscotti Iced Coffee recipe.
3. Southeast Asian Sweet Coffee (Vietnamese Coffee Ice Pops or Iced Coffee)
Vietnamese and Thai coffees are both made by combining strong brewed coffee with sweet condensed milk. Thai grocery stores sell a ground-coffee mix that contains herbs and chicory. You can brew it as an everyday coffee, with or without the sweetened condensed milk (but that particular type of coffee is delicious sweetened). If you cannot find it, try making this Southeast Asian coffee using espresso. The results will still be delicious. The coffee can be served hot, at room temperature, chilled, or on ice. Get our Vietnamese Coffee Ice Pops recipe, or our plain-old (equally delicious) Southeast Asian Sweet Coffee recipe.
Coffee and chocolate are two beans that belong together. We might call the combination “mud,” but we sure wouldn’t mind swimming in it. Coffee ice cream blends with milk and crushed chocolate wafer cookies, and then it’s all drizzled with hot fudge sauce. Get our Mud Pie Milkshake recipe.
5. Coffee Flip
Frothy, creamy, cold, this after-dinner drink is part dessert, part relaxer, and part energizer. These are all things you want after a nice big social meal. Don’t be scared of the egg whites. They’re what make this drink so cloudy and effervescent. You can make your own coffee liqueur, or just buy one of the many brands, like the most mainstream, Kahlúa. Heavy cream and ice and you’ve got a drink to remember. Get our Coffee Flip recipe.
We know there are people who go wild for coffee ice cream. And we don’t blame them. This recipe takes it to the next level on both fronts: the coffee and the ice cream. Get our Espresso Gelato recipe.
For a coffee dessert that also serves as a frozen cocktail, this Kahlua-spiked treat is just the thing. It’s smoothed out with condensed milk, but plenty potent thanks to the aforementioned coffee liqueur, plus 2 cups of espresso. Get our Spiked Frozen Coffee Shots recipe.
— John Birdsall wrote an earlier version of this story on July 7, 2015.
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