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Cold Brew vs. Iced Coffee: How Are They Different?

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We’ve all seen cold brew on coffeehouse menus, but what does it mean?

Ordering a coffee isn’t a walk in the park anymore. Experienced drinkers are likely familiar with the classics — Americano, cappuccino, cortado, flat white, latte, macchiato — but there’s a new sheriff in town by the name of cold brew, and most people aren’t even sure what that means.

What’s the difference between iced coffee and cold brew? For starters, the former is made by brewing hot coffee, letting it cool, and then pouring it over ice. The whole process is relatively quick. On the contrary, cold brew is made by steeping ground coffee in cool, filtered water for hours at a time. Because it’s made without heat, it nixes much of the acidity you get with drip coffee. The end result is naturally sweeter and smoother.

“It’s all about the water temperature. With drip coffee, we use water that’s between 195 and 205 degrees to really extract flavor. That’s why it happens so fast. You know, you get it within four to five minutes,” Chad Moore, manager of global coffee and tea education at Starbucks, told The Daily Meal. “With cold brew, we’re using cold water. So the water that’s cold takes a lot longer to extract flavor. It’s usually around anywhere between 20 to 24 hours steep time. You have to really prepare ahead for cold brew.”

When it comes to calories, there isn’t a difference between the two whatsoever prior to adding any flavoring. Cold brew’s naturally sweeter, creamier profile might make it easier for some drinkers to cut back on cream and sugar though, which can increase your coffee’s calorie count by hundreds.

According to the nutritional facts on Starbucks’ website, a 16-ounce iced coffee, dubbed grande, has the same amount of calories as a cold brew, which is 5 calories per cup. At the chain’s competitor, Dunkin’ Donuts, one 16-ounce iced coffee, which is considered a small, is 10 calories, as is a cold brew.

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There is a slight contrast in caffeine content, though. Moore says because cold brew stays cold through and through, “the water and the coffee stay together longer,” creating a perfect storm for a bigger buzz. One 16-ounce iced coffee at Starbucks contains 195 milligrams of caffeine. A cold brew has 205 milligrams. In a weird twist of events, Dunkin’ Donuts’ iced coffee rings in at 198 milligrams. This is significantly stronger than its cold brew, which tops out at 174 milligrams. 

A spokesperson for Dunkin' Donuts told The Daily Meal that the chain's cold brew formula was designed for flavor without regard for caffeine content, adding that "there is no hard and fast rule that one way of brewing coffee has more caffeine than another, as many other factors come into play, such as the coffee to water ratio, serving size and the type of coffee or coffees used to make the brew."

The general consensus is still that cold brew typically has more caffeine and a smoother flavor than iced coffee, and if you’re like us, that matters. The up-and-coming drink is having its shining moment now, and that’s why we tasted 9 chain cold brew coffees to find out which one is best.

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