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The Difference Between Cold Brew and Iced Coffee, Explained

When Starbucks first introduced cold brew in 2015, iced drink sales reportedly surged 20 percent — and sales have yet to slow. In the second quarter of 2023, cold drinks made up a whopping 75 percent of beverage sales at U.S. Starbucks locations. The chain didn’t invent the concept, of course; cold-brewed coffee has long been a New Orleans delicacy, and chains like Blue Bottle and Stumptown have been using the technique since the early aughts. Still, Starbucks did bring cold brew into the mainstream. These days, most coffee retailers — from national brands to tiny shops with cult followings — offer it year-round. Canned and bottled versions of the beverage also abound, thanks to its relatively shelf-stable conditions.

But despite widespread availability and appeal, confusion still plagues the category. What’s the difference between cold brew and iced coffee? What the hell is nitro cold brew? And why is it all so expensive? The simple answer: Coffee can be complicated! But we’re here to clarify all the information. Here are six of your burning questions about cold brew, answered.

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

The primary difference between cold brew and iced coffee is the method in which the two are prepared. Iced coffee is brewed like hot coffee and chilled — by either pouring it over ice or refrigerating it for a few hours — before it’s served cold. Cold brew, though, is only “brewed” in name. Rather than going through the traditional coffee-making process, cold brew is made by steeping coarsely ground beans in room-temperature water for six to 12 hours to produce a concentrate. This concentrate is then diluted with cold water or milk, a process that is most often associated with tea as it can yield softer, more aromatic flavor profiles.

Further differentiating cold brew from iced coffee is the level of bitterness and acidity. As there is no hot water used in the “cold brewing” process, bitter compounds in coffee beans are not released, meaning cold brew can taste slightly sweeter than iced coffee. Additionally, many cold brew devotees claim that it tastes less acidic than standard iced coffee, and can be much easier to drink. According to some estimates, cold brew coffee can be up to 70 percent less acidic than iced coffee.

Why is cold brew more expensive than iced coffee?

Unlike typical hot coffee or iced coffee, which can go from whole bean to mug in a matter of minutes, cold brew requires more time and effort to produce. As cold brew needs to steep for at least six hours, retailers have to start steeping their grounds hours before ready to serve it. And once the supply runs out, it’s done for the day — there’s no running back to make a fresh pot.

This is tricky business, especially in a model as mercurial as hospitality. If the weather is unseasonably warm or a large party arrives unexpectedly, a small coffee shop can quickly deplete its pre-made stock of cold brew concentrate, leaving those in need of a cool drink empty-handed. As such, retailers will often hedge their bets by pricing their cold brew higher than their hot and iced coffee, which they have in a relatively unlimited supply.

Is cold brew stronger than iced coffee?

Cold brew concentrate is stronger than iced coffee. Because this concentrate is made with a higher ratio of coffee to water than iced coffee, the resulting beverage will have a much higher concentration of caffeine. But as water or milk cut the concentrate before serving, the overall drink becomes less caffeinated, so its strength depends on how much it’s diluted.

However, traditional brewing with hot water extracts more caffeine, so a large cup of iced coffee could still contain higher concentrations than its cold-brewed counterpart. There are a multitude of factors that impact the level of caffeine in beans used for typical coffee brewing, including where they’re from, their blend, and how they’re roasted, ground, and brewed.

What is nitro cold brew?

Nitro cold brew enriches coffee with nitrogen gas for a slightly carbonated, creamier texture. As nitro cold brew must remain pressurized, the drink is typically offered in canned formats for on-the-go consumption or on-tap in coffee shops, similarly to how nitrogenated beers are served. And if you’ve ever enjoyed a Guinness — the first in the beer industry to opt for nitrogen over carbon dioxide — you’re probably aware of just how much nitrogen can alter a beverage.

Similarly to Guinness, as nitro cold brew is poured into a glass, its small bubbles create a froth that rises to the top and creates a creamy head. As such, nitro cold brew will often drink much smoother than standard cold brew. Additionally, the process of nitrogenating cold brew reduces acidity even further, so it may even eliminate the need for creamer or other sweeteners.

Can I make cold brew coffee at home?

You can make cold brew at home, and it’s also incredibly easy to do. But first, you’re going to want to secure whole coffee beans, not pre-ground beans from the store. Pre-ground beans tend to be too fine, which means you may risk over extracting flavor during the process and wind up with too bitter a brew.

Once you have your beans, pulse them into a coarse grind similar to the size used for a French press. Cover the coarsely ground beans with water and allow them to sit for six to 16 hours. (For the best results, steep your grounds the night before you want to drink cold brew to allow ample time for the flavor to develop. In the morning, all that’s left to do is strain, pour your concentrate into a glass, and mix with equal parts water or milk. It’s easy like Sunday morning, even if it’s a Tuesday and you’re late for work.

How long does cold brew concentrate last in the fridge?

If you make your own cold brew concentrate, it will remain at peak freshness for about 24 to 48 hours. For more longevity, store your concentrate in an airtight container and it will remain consumable for approximately 10 to 14 days. After the two-week mark, cold brew concentrate may turn cloudy and develop less-than-ideal aromas and flavors, which means it’s time to get rid of it and make some more. For store-bought cold brew concentrate, expirations dates will vary, so always be sure to check your label before prepping your morning cup of joe.

The article The Difference Between Cold Brew and Iced Coffee, Explained appeared first on VinePair.

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