For ages, iced coffee reigned supreme as the a.m. beverage of choice for sticky summer days. But a few years ago, a smooth new player came onto the scene—without the flat, diluted flavor of the traditional French roast on the rocks. The identity of this mysterious newcomer: Cold brew, of course.
These days, iced coffee is becoming more and more of a rarity in coffee shops, bumped down on the bill as cold brew continues to gain in popularity. But what’s the difference between the two, exactly?
According to Jim Munson, founder and CEO of Gwyneth Paltrow-approved Brooklyn Roasting Company, it’s all about the brewing time and temperature. “In the old days, iced coffee was just hot, brewed coffee put over ice,” he says. “Some people would chill it first and then add ice. Others would brew it hot at double the strength, then pour it over ice where it could dilute to an appropriate level.”
Cold brew, on the other hand, doesn’t involve high heat or near-instant brewing technology. Instead, coffee grounds are steeped in a jar full of water—room temperature or colder—for up to 24 hours. “Cold brew is generally made at a much higher [coffee-to-water] ratio, to compensate for the lower rate of extraction at lower temperatures,” says Munson “The longer extraction time, lower temperature, and higher brew strength… [create] a softer, richer flavor profile, with significantly less bitterness.”
Cold-brewed coffee may have less acidity than its hot-brewed counterpart… but if you’re watching your caffeine intake, iced coffee may be a better bet.
There are also some subtle differences in the health benefits between the two. Cold-brewed coffee—the kind that never touches hot water—may have less acidity than its hot-brewed counterpart, depending on how it’s prepared. This not only makes it taste better, but some people find it’s easier on their digestion. Yet if you’re watching your caffeine intake, iced coffee may be a better bet, as it often has slightly less caffeine than a concentrated cold brew. For example, a 16-ounce Starbucks’ iced coffee has around 165mg of caffeine, while a 16-ounce cold brew clocks in at 205mg—yet, again, every cup will be a bit different.
But perhaps more importantly, both options pack the same perks that scientists associate with coffee in general, potentially reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, uterine cancer, and gout, as well as providing us with antioxidants. So if you’re ever faced with both options on a coffee-shop menu, know that neither one is dramatically better or worse than the other—and consider focusing more of your energy on the to-go cup vs. reusable mug debate instead.
Iced coffee may be primed for a renaissance—at least, if this Japanese java trend takes off stateside. Not a coffee drinker? Behold broccoli brew, the latest alt-latte to hit the wellness scene.
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