Cold Brew vs. Iced Coffee: What's the Difference?

Get cold brew for your office

Spring has finally sprung, which can only mean one thing… Cold coffee season has begun! Foamy latte art is replaced by creamy iced beverages of all shapes and sizes, including iced lattes, iced coffee, and cold brew! And with a growing number of people turning to cold coffee during the Summer (let alone year round), this cold coffee season is sure to see more options than ever before.

According to a 2022 article from Timeout, cold coffee season begins “the final week of March. The season then peaks in the fourth week of July before trailing off in the first week of September.” In other words, the season is already underway!

This being said, for those less familiar with the coffee world or those just beginning to delve into cold coffee, the wide variety of beverage options can be overwhelming (especially, depending on their location, considering the price tag that comes with these cold beverages). While the spectrum of iced latte creations ranges widely - Commonwealth Joe’s “Vanilla Rose Cold Foam” points to how inventive cafes have gotten with their cold coffee selection - two standards one will see at almost any cafe are Iced Coffee and Cold Brew. For someone new to the cold coffee game, they may be thinking “both drinks are cold. What’s the difference?”

In this article, we’ll be answering that question, and others, surrounding common cold coffee drinks one is likely to see as the weather warms up and the coffee cools down!

Both Cold, Different Brew

Returning to our cold coffee newbie’s statement - “both drinks are cold. What’s the difference?” - they’re correct that both iced coffee and cold brew are, as their names suggest, cold! However, the key difference between these two cold coffees is the respective methods of brewing them.

Iced coffee, quite simply, is hot coffee that has been cooled, then poured over ice. In other words, iced coffee can be brewed as any other hot coffee would be brewed. Whether you’re using an auto-drip coffee machine, french press, pour-over, etc. this coffee can be chilled and paired with ice cubes, leaving you with iced coffee.

Cold brew coffee is, on the other hand, brewed cold. That is, when making cold brew, the coffee grounds are never heated. But, one may ask, how can you brew coffee without the hot water extracting flavor from the coffee grounds?

As Japanese coffee enthusiasts discovered in the 1600s, by submerging coffee grounds (similar to how one steeps tea leaves) for 12-24 hours in room temperature water or cold water, you create a rich coffee concentrate. Many refer to this concentrated coffee as “cold brew concentrate.” This concentrate is then diluted with water, adding more or less water depending on the cold brew strength and caffeine levels desired. The combination of this concentrate and water is cold brew: cold coffee brewed in an entirely cold or room temperature setting.

While cold brew can be made at home in small batches using paper or metal filters to submerge your coffee grounds, cafes often use large filter bags and toddies to brew large quantities of cold brew at a given time. Also, depending on the recipe and coffee beans the cafe uses to make their cold brew, the flavor of a cold brew can vary drastically from place to place.

So, while both end cold, iced coffee is brewed hot and poured over ice, giving it a weaker flavor and more acidity than cold brew, which is brewed cold over a long period of time. The coffee brewing method makes a big difference in the ratio of liquid to caffeine, the detection of bitter notes, and the acidity of coffee.

Looking at your local cafe’s drink menu with a newfound confidence, you can now differentiate iced coffee from cold brew. But, suddenly, you spot another unknown. Below “Cold Brew” sits yet another variation - “Nitro Cold Brew.” However, fear not! Once you understand cold brew, the jump from classic cold brew to nitro is a hop and skip.

What’s the Deal With Nitro?

The word “nitro” gives a flair to cold brew that, if one doesn’t know its significance, could simply sound like marketing speak. One could imagine a cup of fresh cold brew, energized with some secret formula, surrounded by a fog of nitrous smoke. The reality, while maybe less exciting, is delicious and does, in fact, differ slightly from your standard cafe-made cold brew.

Put simply, Nitro Cold Brew is a cold brew that’s been infused with nitrogen. Nitrogen bubbles are dissolved in the cold brew through a pressurized valve. This process is done when cold brew is offered “on-tap,” similar to how bars offer beers on draught.

When offering a beverage on tap, you need some sort of pressurized gas in order to propel said beverage from its keg out of the tap faucet. Most beer taps use CO2 tanks to dispense beer, as they give beer the carbonation (bubbles) that we’re used to. However, since carbonated cold brew doesn’t taste very good (trust us, we’ve tried it), cold brew taps use nitrogen tanks to dispense cold brew. The nitrogen’s effect on the cold brew leaves you with a sweeter, smoother cold brew that dons a signature layer of foam on top (similar to the foam you’d see on top of a Guinness) and a delicious flavor. In fact, the reason both cold brew and Guinness share this foamy top is because, unlike most beers, Guinness uses a combination of CO2 and nitrogen, giving it a richer consistency, a more natural flavor, and a subtler carbonation.

So, while there are some taps that dispense standard cold brew, Nitro Cold Brew is the result of dispensing cold brew through a tap and infusing the cold brew with nitrogen gas (again, less exciting than the marketing speak may suggest, but still delicious!). Hint: With the exception of canned nitro cold brew, if nitro cold brew isn’t on tap, odds are it’s not real nitro cold brew!

Better Cold than Hot

Along with the health benefits that come with drinking cold coffee, namely lower acidity in cold brew than hot coffee, humans can also taste more flavor in cold coffee than we’re able to in hot coffee.

According to an interview with Christopher Hendon, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon and author of “Water for Coffee,” in Timeout:

You tend to perceive more flavours in beverages when they’re closer to the temperature of your mouth,’ ... ‘It’s this idea of temperature differentials. For example, water freezes at [32F], liquid coffee is going to be above zero: let’s say an iced coffee is [served at 34F]. A hot coffee could be served at [176F]. So, in the worst-case scenario, an iced coffee will only ever be [64F] away from your body temperature [which is on average {98F}]. You’ll tend to taste some of the flavours that you can’t taste in hot brewed coffee, simply because they’re not available to you.

In other words, not only does cold brew extract more flavor from coffee grounds than a standard drip coffee maker, but humans are physically more able to taste the subtleties of a cold-brewed coffee bean than a hot-brewed coffee bean.

Enjoy the Season!

Now that you know the difference, taste the difference for yourself! Every coffee shop from coast to coast will be offering iced coffee, cold brew, and other types of coffee this Spring and Summer, so there’s no better time to join the cold coffee movement!

That said, when it comes to cold coffee, few do it better than Commonwealth Joe Coffee Roasters!

Get cold brew for your office

Whether you brew iced coffee at home or buy your cold brew from a local cafe everyday, you can save time and money by bringing Commonwealth Joe’s award-winning Nitro Cold Brew, on Tap, into your office! Commonwealth Joe offers all-inclusive cold brew delivery to offices, co-working spaces, living communities, and more! We handle your tap install, keg delivery, and everything in between, at an affordable monthly price. Fill out a webform or give us a call to learn how to get Commonwealth Joe where you work, live, or play!


By: Christian Hall

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