Cold Brew vs. Iced Coffee: an Investigation

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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  • Erin Nemastil

    Cold brew 4 lyfe. I wish Starbucks didn’t water theirs down, though.

  • Sonia

    Drinkin’ that Grady’s right MEOW!

  • Clairebear

    It requires a lot of grounds, too. I am making my own lately using my French press.

  • Amy L Campbell

    Where does Eliza L. work? I want some of that lawsuit-worthy cold brew

    • gracesface

      coffee shop near me uses wood-fired coffee – that stuff is like JET FUEL for sure.

  • Catherine


  • Autumn

    Cold brew all the way! A shop I worked at in college makes a drink with their homemade cold brew, a shot of vanilla and some cream. It’s The Best. Starbucks has a similar drink but it’s not nearly as tasty.

  • Adrianna

    I’m not into coffee, but I enjoy the occasional cold brew. It’s great when coffee shops that sell iced tea actually cold brew it. (Black iced teas will be more opaque.)

    Cold brewing tea at home is also the easiest thing ever.

  • Arden

    This reminds me of the Crooked Media/Jon Lovett rant about iced lattes. After hearing his rant, I now use his tip of ordering espresso on ice and adding in the almond milk from the counter myself, thus saving like $2-3 on an (unfortunately) almost daily basis.

    • Abi Svoboda

      Oh but that’s definitely not ethical! Don’t treat your baristas like they aren’t people, please– and if you’re using a product the right thing to do is pay for it.

    • Julia

      As a manager of a small cafe (who moonlights as a barista when the actual barista doesn’t show up), it drives me batty when customers do this. I understand that it saves money for you, but it is extremely expensive for the establishment when upwards of fifty customers a day are using a latte’s worth of milk rather than the traditional (and budgeted for) topping off.

    • Not Lenny!

      We definitely had some unkind names for people who did this when I was a barista.

      • Arden

        Ahh I did not know this was seen as uncool by baristas! Keeping that in mind from now on.

        • ace

          i called it a ghetto latte back in my day, ive moved on to asking for whipped cream instead 🙂

  • I feel like I should let the people know that “more caffeinated” can be AN UNDERSTATEMENT, I once drank a large of Gregorys Coffee cold brew and spent the next EIGHT HOURS feeling like it had forcibly ejected my spirit from my body to vibrate nauseatingly on the astral plane. Would not recommend unless you want to shake a lot and possibly hallucinate.

  • Reed Winckler

    I agree with nick cho- too bitter and metallic!! iced coffee all the way, though this shit’s too confusing 😉

  • Jake Tuckey

    Cold brew made from dark roast beans is a no no. It will be bitter due to the fact I’d it sitting in water for up to 12 hours and the “burnt roast” coating on the beans gets dissolved off into the coffee. The best flavor comes from light roast and med or dark roast beans mixed together and brewed from that. Very smooth and No bitter or metallic taste. Also the bitter or metallic taste can come from hot brew coffee being served next day as iced coffee.

  • knightsbridge

    I had to buy cold brew while on a trip. The choice was Starbucks unsweetened and Stok. I bought both. NEWS FLASH. I poured a cup in a mug, put it in microwave for 2 minutes 25 seconds. This was a fabulous cup of morning coffee (added half and half) ever. After perking coffees 30 years. Expensive coffees. Great perks etc. I am done. I only buy cold brew and make it hot. It tastes the same to me! Keep your grimes and washing pots. A little more expensive ? $3.99 for 48 oz or 4.79 . Starbucks and Stok are the same.
    Blue bottle cold brew is the best, but the price is very expensive.
    I tasted cold brew cold, it tastes great with ice cubes. Star bucks has a dark roast and a medium roast, sometimes I mixed them.
    I think the cold brew idea is fairly new. I am so glad Stop and Shop has all of them.
    I am not a barraster, but I know what a good cup of coffee should taste like. My husband was hesitant, he now loves it.
    Bottom line is anything in your article saying negative comments, is rubbish. This is great cold and hot. LESS WORK FOR MOTHER

  • Court E. Thompson

    “what is our generation if not highly opinionated about superfluous things?” LIFE

  • Amelia Diamond

    I hate cold brew so much

    • Deeks

      It is the worst.

      Year-round iced coffee forevermore.

  • I’m sipping on an Iced Coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.

  • Alyssa Neilson

    this is a case for the FBI *kris jenner voice*

  • *worth noting* as a former barista, many of my customers would tell me that drinking cold brew was easier on their stomach than regular coffee or espresso…possibly b/c of the “less acidic” claim?

    • Adrianna

      Yes, that’s why I’ll drink cold brew occasionally but rarely standard coffee. It obviously varies – sometimes the cold brew is very concentrated. I’m a huge tea drinker, and I definitely taste/experience the difference with cold brewed black tea

  • Lindsey Lacy

    I work in the food industry and have been working on cold brew projects recently. The price increase between cold brew and conventionally brewed coffee is not due to labor, but due to higher-quality beans and requiring more quantity of beans. You need more beans to produce a concentrated cold brew liquid as compared to the thermal brewed coffee. Also, the less acidic claim is true!

  • Kritsida

    I’ve always been confused with cold brew vs iced coffee, but now I can totally taste the difference! Cold brew is definitely stronger with a bitter/sour taste for me.
    x. kritsida

  • gracesface

    Tomorrow is my day off so tonight I can drink extra coffee!!! We are big fans of coffee concentrate + Trader Joe’s COFFEE SYRUP! (i.e. the infamous secret to Rhode Island’s Coffee Milk).

    • lp

      Um TJ’s is making coffee syrups? How dare they try to encroach on a R.I fave and some would say, secret!

      • gracesface

        Y’all have a good thing – it’s delicious!

    • Charlsey

      Please elaborate on this coffee milk

  • Mathew Larsen

    When using an equal amount of coffee beans and water in the brew process, cold brew will always have less caffeine than hot brew.

    Cold brew takes significantly more coffee beans to brew the same amount of coffee (at least twice as much coffee). Hot brew will always extract more caffeine from the same amount of beans. Caffeine is water soluble, the hotter the water, the more that’s extracted.

    So, while cold brew can have more caffeine than hot brew, per cup, it cannot have more caffeine when comparable quantities of beans and water are used. Even diluted cold brew has a much higher bean to water ratio than hot brew.

    To get an idea of the difference, using an equal amount of coffee, you get the following:

    Cold brew recipe: 1 cup coffee beans, 4 cups water. Yield ~3 cups coffee.

    Hot brew recipe: 1 cup coffee beans, 8 cups water. Yield ~7 cups coffee. (This is based on a 2tbsp coffee per cup, which is stronger than most people that I know like).

    • Mathew Larsen

      The 2 biggest reasons I use cold brew, it’s less acidic and I can make a 1 week supply at a time, since it doesn’t oxidize like hot brew. I can’t stand hot brew coffee that’s been sitting out for more than an hour, cold brew doesn’t have that issue.

  • Christian Petersen

    Call PJ’s Coffee in New Orleans to get your facts… They have been doing it since 1978 they were the 1st coffee shop to offer cold brew I guarantee it. The trademarked The Original Cold Brew as a matter of fact.

  • Cait

    A coffee cart bike recently showed up by my office selling nothing but $5 nitro-cold brew coffee in a very small cup. My friend asked for milk and was given a very stern lecture about how they don’t have any milk or cream because it ruins the authenticity of the coffee and that it is perfectly delicious just as they make it. It was pretty good coffee, but it was improved with the half and half she added at a nearby Au Bon Pain. The next day I went back for another cold brew with a different coworker who also asked for milk, a different person was working that day and she informed us that they didn’t have milk because the cooler on the bike couldn’t reliably keep dairy cold enough. Moral of this story: don’t trust the ‘experts’ to tell you what tastes good. I love good coffee, but sometimes a giant Dunkin Donuts french vanilla iced coffee with cream is perfect– only a few bucks and I am instantly transported back to high school in the late 90’s.

    • gracesface

      I LOVE Dunkin Donuts, grew up with it, but dang if the Dunkin Donuts I’ve tried in Texas have been baaaaaaaad…it requires the east coast water!!

    • Adrianna

      I think it’s fair to warn the customer that the nitro cold brew won’t necessarily need milk. My boyfriend needs to add milk to his three daily iced coffees, and doesn’t add any when he buys his $5 nitro cold brew. That said, the seller shouldn’t have been stern or condescending about it. Just a simple “try it without milk first, this is a little different than your standard iced coffee.”

  • nicolacash

    I pretty much only drink cold brew I make at home in my French Press, with a splash of plant-based milk. I might be too used to it because it doesn’t make me feel jittery/overly-caffeinated at all.

  • Paige Sharkey

    Ugh this helps so much. I always say “iced coffee” at my Variety on graham and I think I get cold brew and I’m just like ??????? wut am I drinking idk but it’s good

    • Haley Nahman

      Lol EXACTLY

  • Megan Cannon

    I am sensitive to caffeine, but I drink cold brew with no issues. I like it because the low acidity works on an empty stomach (I drink about 5 oz on ice with a splash of almond milk). Its a no fuss way to get my caffeine quickly before my 6am workouts with out grinding beans, brewing coffee, waiting for the right temp, cleaning coffee maker, etc. My husband and I also have different wake up times. I buy a huge carton from Costco of organic cold brew for $20 (each carton has 32 servings).

  • Rebekah

    “Eliza L., barista of eight years and manager of a coffee shop, thinks cutting it with water dilutes the flavor”

    Uh. Duh.? Isn’t that the definition of dilution?

    • Haley Nahman

      Right. I think she means: TOO MUCH

  • Wow, great article. Remind me not to read the comments next time!

  • Amy Johnson

    Cold brew with coconut syrup in. Thank me later.