Cold Brew vs. Iced Coffee: an Investigation
07.31.17

Last week I got in a shouting match about cold brew coffee for 25 whole minutes. We weren’t arguing exactly, more just yelling in each other’s general directions. The topic of focus was certainly unworthy of such passion, but what is our generation if not highly opinionated about superfluous things? Fucking cold brew coffee! So many myths, so many lies, so many misconceptions! I let the conversation brew, so to speak, for a few days before deciding this shit needed to be settled quick, and in writing.

Below, coffee experts Nick Duckworth, Nick Cho, Emily Bergquist and Eliza L. laid down their personal truths re: the iced coffee/cold brew conundrum. Your challenge henceforth is to put your summer coffee uncertainties to rest forever and to not confuse their very similar names.

What’s the actual difference between cold brew and iced coffee?

“Cold brew is the strongest form of iced coffee,” Nick Duckworth tells me. Nick is one of the founders of Banter, an Australian-inspired coffeeshop in Greenwich Village. He says the term “iced coffee” is used very loosely, but that colloquially, “iced coffee is [hot] filtered coffee over ice, whereas cold brew is ground coffee beans soaked in water for 12 hours to form a concentrate.”

“Cold brew is coarse ground coffee steeped in room temperature water for 24 hours,” Emily Bergquist tells me, proving the definition varies shop-to-shop. She’s a barista at Konditori, a Swedish espresso bar in Cobble Hill.

So, while technically cold brew is a type of iced coffee, people usually differentiate between the two based on the temperature at which they’re brewed. If this distinction is widely understood — which I think it mostly is — why do baristas sometimes refer to them interchangeably? And why do some coffee shops price them equally, as if they’re the same?

Are coffee shops lying about which they’re serving?

“Most coffee shops don’t sell both iced coffee and cold brew,” says Bergquist, “so if you ask for iced coffee at a shop that sells cold brew, most likely the barista isn’t going to correct you. However, if someone asks for cold brew and the shop only serves iced coffee, a barista might let them know, because quality of the iced coffee won’t be up to par with the cold brew.”

Two baristas, who preferred to be unnamed, told me that some coffee shops refrigerate old coffee from the day before and pass it off as cold brew. “They make money off people not knowing the difference,” one said.

Duckworth, who serves legit cold brew at Banter, thinks people aren’t too picky about which they get. “Sometimes people don’t actually know what they want. At the end of the day, I think most people are just happy to get something with caffeine in it that’s cold.”

Is it actually more caffeinated?

“Cold brew is indeed more caffeinated than regular hot coffee,” notes Bergquist. “However, because it’s mixed with water most of the time, there isn’t as much caffeine in a cup of cold brew as there is in a cup of cold brew concentrate.”

Eliza L., barista of eight years and manager of a coffee shop, thinks cutting it with water dilutes the flavor. “A ton of places make their cold brew and then use it as a concentrate and add water (like Starbucks), which just tastes nasty.” She says the cold brew her cafe serves has double the caffeine content of filtered coffee, and is intense. She jokes that she’s waiting for a lawsuit.

Duckworth confirms: “The concentrate is diluted to whatever ratio the coffee shop may want, so essentially the amount of caffeine in the cold brew is in the hands of the barista.” That’s why sometimes cold brew makes you jittery and sometimes it doesn’t.

Why does it taste different from iced coffee?

“The thickness of cold brew comes from the 12-hour soaking process,” says Duckworth. “It’s like steeping a tea for 12 hours and then straining it, but using a whole bag of coffee beans instead.” He says the dilution process that follows thins it out, but again, that will vary by shop. Banter’s cold brew has a thick, chocolate-y taste.

The unique flavor of cold brew is divisive.

Nick Cho, founder of Wrecking Ball Coffee in San Francisco, is “widely regarded as one of the best baristas in the country,” and he hates cold brew. “I’m not saying people shouldn’t drink cold brew coffee, I’m just saying it’s not good.” Cho believes the process of making cold brew — which breaks down certain naturally-occurring acids in coffee — makes it taste bitter and metallic, like coffee that’s been sitting out too long.

Eliza says cold brew indeed tastes less acidic, which makes for a smoother drinking experience, if you’re into that. She warns: “Cold brew changes drastically from one cafe to the next,” so she suggests people find a place they like and stick with it.

Why is cold brew more expensive?

Everyone I asked chalked up the price hike to the increase in labor to make it. “Cold brew requires a lot more attention than drip coffee,” says Nick, comparing 12 hours to five minutes. “I guess you can put it down to a bit more love going into the cold brew-making process.” Fair enough.

However, iced coffee — filtered coffee over ice — does not require an increase in labor, so paying more for it doesn’t really make sense. One unnamed barista says some coffee shops take advantage of customer ignorance, charging cold brew prices for iced coffee, and advises customers to not be afraid to ask questions. “Always ask. Always!”

Bergquist points out that rent also plays a role: “Most of the time, [price differences between shops has] nothing to do with the quality of coffee but rather the price of rent for the shop.”

You heard it from the experts: Cold brew is brewed cold, takes longer to make, is more caffeinated, will vary in taste from shop-to-shop and can be misrepresented — so don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Speaking of questions, what are you sipping on right now as you read this?

Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

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