The debate over hot vs. iced coffee is one you've likely engaged in — with friends, coworkers, on social media or even in your own head as you've approached the line of your favorite java counter. And while there might not be a correct choice, there certainly seems to be a general preference (at least at the moment), trending toward iced.
The latest numbers from the National Coffee Association (NCA) fall 2023 trend report released on Tuesday confirmed it, sharing that iced coffee consumption has increased by 64% from Jan. 2023.
That's been illustrated by one of America's biggest coffee brands, Starbucks, whose latest earnings report even revealed that cold beverages made up for 74% of beverage sales within the last quarter. (And the trend has been building for some time, as a Dunkin' Donuts survey from back in 2012 found that 84% of their consumers were drinking their coffee cold throughout the winter.)
So, while a warm beverage might seem more enticing to some as the days get cooler, the outside temperature clearly isn't the only factor here. Experts reveal what else might come into play.
Why is coffee temperature such a hot topic?
Coffee culture is a big deal in America — so much so that the latest NCA report claims that it's the nation's most popular beverage, above water, tea, soft drinks and juice. The mass consumption of it has turned coffee into a part of daily habits, as confirmed by a 2022 study from the University of Southern California.
"You may automatically follow a coffee drinking routine when you wake up or go on your morning commute, regardless of how tired you are,” found study author Asaf Mazar, a doctoral candidate in psychology at USC.
This may explain why some people are inclined to stick to a temperature preference, regardless of the time of year. Others, like coffee expert and Director of Coffee at Bean Box, Maryna Gray, might have a routine of enjoying both hot and iced coffee throughout the day.
"The feeling we get from our coffee can be as impactful as the flavor. Just like any morning ritual, how you choose to enjoy your coffee can set the tone for the day," Gray tells Yahoo Life. "Personally, I like to begin my day with a hot coffee, and enjoy iced coffee later in the afternoon. Iced coffee feels like more of an afternoon drink to me."
These preferences might seem inconsequential, but a 2008 study by Yale University psychologists showed that people might be perceived differently based on their choice. In fact, subjects holding hot coffee were seen as "warmer people," meaning more generous and trusting, than those holding an iced cup of coffee.
But it doesn't always have to be that deep.
How do people choose hot vs. iced?
"Personal preference plays a significant role," Lisa Young, PhD and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University, tells Yahoo Life. "Some individuals prefer the refreshing and milder taste of iced coffee, while others favor the warmth and robustness of a hot coffee."
Season and weather can influence these choices, of course, "with iced coffee being more appealing during hot summer months and hot coffee providing comfort in colder weather," she says.
That appeal also might not be based in logic, as NPR reported that cold drinks in warm weather don't provide the cooling effect that you might be looking for. However, Gray reiterates that there can be feelings associated with the temperature of a drink. For example, "hot coffee on a cold day feels romantic and cozy," she says, additionally noting that the beverage can provide "richer, spicier, more chocolate-forward flavors" that people crave at certain times.
A hot or iced coffee can also be linked to different moods or lifestyles.
"When I have hot coffee, I tend to want to relax and enjoy it. You can't drink hot coffee too quickly, so it's a nice reminder to slow down," says Gray. On the other hand, "there's a convenience factor to iced coffee or canned cold brew."
Scott Maw, former executive vice president and chief financial officer for Starbucks, noted this correlation in a 2018 earnings call while pointing out that customers were more likely to use the drive-thru or mobile ordering to purchase an iced drink. The current CFO Rachel Ruggeri even credited young millennial and Gen Z consumers for the trend as the brand's cold beverage business continues to grow.
"Cold coffee is definitely on-trend for Gen-Z coffee drinkers, who also tend to buy more of their coffee ready-to-drink rather than brewing it themselves," says Gray.
This also aligns with a current trend of Americans searching for quick ways to energize themselves in order to return to the cadence of their lives prior to Covid-19 quarantine.
"Iced coffee fits in with the on-the-go lifestyle, catering to busy schedules and preferences for convenience," Young echoes.
At the end of the day, marketing campaigns and social media trends can often make the decision for you when it comes to the temperature or flavor of coffee that you drink, especially as they play with customizability of cold beverages.
"Coffee chains like Starbucks have successfully promoted their iced coffee offerings through various campaigns and limited-time flavors, creating a sense of excitement and novelty," says Young. "This may have led to the popularization of iced coffee."