Why Does Iced Coffee Have a Hold on Us Year-Round?

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Photo:  Lyubov Levitskaya (Shutterstock)
Photo: Lyubov Levitskaya (Shutterstock)

Price increases and variable weather conditions can’t seem to break the bond between consumers—more specifically Gen Z—and their iced coffee, reports The New York Times. Starbucks founder and interim chief executive Howard Schultz told the Times that cold beverages accounted for a whopping 75% of the company’s overall beverage sales in its most recent quarter. Beyond the seasonality of such offerings, Schultz attributes this popularity to the fact that cold beverages are more customizable and Gen Z likes to take photos of their personalized drinks to post on social media.

Though it does seem like a huge portion of what we eat, drink, and buy is purely for the ’Gram (or TikTok), that’s not the whole story of why iced coffee dominates people’s preferences. (I like to think I’m still young and hip enough to fall into the aforementioned “we” category, but the fact that I’m at the age where I’d be booted off my mom’s health insurance says otherwise. I digress.)

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Hot coffee is just as customizable as iced

The argument that iced coffee is more customizable than hot might only be true at Starbucks. Thinking in more general terms, you can add sugars, creamers, flavor shots, espresso shots, and toppings like whipped cream, foam, or sprinkles to both iced and hot beverages. Perhaps the customization of an iced drink is more Instagram-worthy than a hot cup of coffee because the cup is clear, showing off a range of candy-colored hues, but other than that, there’s not much you can do to an iced coffee that you couldn’t to a hot one.

Some of us at The Takeout would even argue that hot coffee is overall superior to iced coffee because of its lack of dilution from ice, freedom from slippery condensation, and well-paced caffeine delivery (since you have to sip a hot beverage more slowly). Each of these are valid points that might make even the most devout iced coffee drinker consider the hot stuff, but it still doesn’t explain why there are so many iced coffee drinkers to convince in the first place. To explain that, we have to start from the beginning.

How iced coffee became popular

Many sources trace the origins of iced coffee to mazagran, an Algerian drink that blends black coffee, cold water, and sometimes lemon. As for its rise in popularity in North America, a 1921 publication notes iced coffee’s initial boom as part of a marketing campaign from the Joint Coffee Trade Publicity Committee of the United States. The campaign was an attempt to make coffee a year-round drink rather than just in the colder months. Looking at today’s market, it would seem that the campaign was a raging success.

A popular theory as to iced coffee’s success in the modern era comes from a Jonny Forsyth, a global drinks analyst who suggested that younger generations who were raised on cold drinks and sugary sodas have carried that desire into adulthood and look for it in their coffee habit as well. I guess both Schultz and Forsyth could be right. My generation (and those before me) did grow up with some deliciously sugary drinks, and that’s probably why iced coffee draws us in. At the same time, younger generations likely do enjoy the aesthetic of a good iced coffee post on social media.

A 2019 study from Allegra World Coffee Portal found that 36% of consumers will still order iced beverages in the winter months. As a lifelong resident of the Midwest it absolutely baffles me how anyone clutches an iced drink in the dead of winter. I’m not saying I haven’t done it. What I’m saying is that it’s unadvisable, and I hated it. But I also can’t deny that when I want a cold drink that delivers my daily dose of caffeine, my go-to is the Iced Brown Sugar Oatmilk Shaken Espresso at Starbucks. Maybe I am a cool kid after all?