Taste Test: The Iced Coffee That’s Better Than Cold Brew?

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
April 29, 2014

Should “real” coffee fanatics be drinking a different type of iced coffee? 

With iced coffee season upon us in full, jittery effect, we’ll admit to having drunk the cold-brewed Kool-Aid: A couple of years ago Oliver Strand, reporter and coffee obsessive, wrote in The New York Times that cold-brewed coffee (in which grounds steep overnight in room temperature or cold water) is “velvety, sweet and has almost no acidity.”

"Right on! Good for the stomach!" we remember thinking, completely and blissfully ignoring Strand’s next sentence: "Actually, that lack of acidity is the problem.”

Oh. “Coffee has good acids (e.g., malic, phosphoric) and less-good acids (e.g., acetic, quinic), wrote Strand. “A crisp snap of acid is not only one of the most desirable characteristics of many great coffees, but of many great flavors: strawberries, rieslings, gimlets.” 

Well, jeez, now we feel like we’re amateur hour coffee lovers over here.

The newest darling on the iced coffee scene is ”ice brew” (also often called “flash brewed” or “Japanese iced coffee”), in which hot coffee is brewed directly on to ice cubes using a cone filter (what baristas call a pour-over). The melting ice factor is accounted for by brewing a cup with half as much water as you normally would. Fans of this method, including the folks at Counter Culture Coffee, call it bright, lively, crisp, and—perhaps its most important distinction from cold brew—nuanced.

Although many caffeine junkies, ourselves included, have sought out cold-brewed coffee in warm months, the opinion of some pros is that our beloved summer drink is “flat, pale and completely uninspiring.” That’s the opinion of expert Peter Giuliano, whose video above smacks down cold brew and heaps praise on ice brewing.

A trip to Japan in the mid-90s convinced Giuliano that iced brew was “clean, fresh, sweet, and aromatic.” Cooling hot coffee instantly preserves its subtleties and “locks the aromatics and flavors into the coffee.” He suggests that those who love the bouquet of hot coffee, and all those delicately flavored acids (particularly, according to Strand, those who take their coffee black) will prefer ice brew. To make it, you can use the pour-over method, a Chemex, or even an industrial-sized brewing operation, if you want to try to win over co-workers. (This is all distinct, by the by, from Kyoto-style coffee, which is its own thing more in the cold brew style, and involves a pricey contraption.)

We’re partial to milk in our coffee (because we’re wusses), but we also appreciate the difference between Ethiopian and Guatemalan beans (because we’re snobs when it comes to caffeine).

So this, to us, represented a challenge. If ice brew is the new cold brew, we wanted to give it a shot. The edit team at Yahoo Food Does Not Function Before Coffee O’Clock, so a couple of us got our paws on some good beans from a favorite local shop, Culture Espresso, and did a side by side taste test using this method for cold brew and Giuliano’s for ice brew

Here’s what we found:

Bouquet: If you drink coffee because you love the scent of coffee, give ice brew a whirl. Whereas cold brew had very little in the aroma department, ice brew was just as pronounced as its hot counterpart.

Mouthfeel: If you love the creamy texture of iced coffee, and how easy it is to drink it fast, you’re going to prefer cold brew. “Dark and chocolately, sweet smell, dense mouthfeel, really coats the tongue,” is how one taster (who preferred the cold brew) described it. Ice brew, by comparison, seemed “almost thin in the mouth.”

Nuance: If you’re the type to sip dreamily at piping hot black coffee, discerning every note on its wheel o’ flavor, ice brew has your back: The Ethiopian beans we tried were robust and stringent at once, and as Strand promised, those acids came shining through.

Overall: If you’re a black coffee drinker, give ice brew a shot. It’s more subtle, more aromatic, and technically more flavorful.  But if you love a creamy mouthfeel and lack of acidity in your coffee, you’ll probably be a cold-brew person (especially those of you who like your iced coffee with milk and sugar, for that quasi-coffee milkshake feeling). 

So expand your horizons! Ice brew your next cuppa joe, and let us know how it turns out.