What Is Cold Brew Coffee, Exactly?

Java fans around the country are abuzz about cold brew coffee. Here's what makes it so magical—and how you can make it at home.

As far as food facts go, there may be no more hotly debated topic than coffee, and how to best enjoy it: With milk and sugar or black? Macchiato or cappuccino? Dark roast or regular? Drip or cold brew? While many of those answers come down to personal preference and taste, we’re here to help make sense of one question that continues to confound people everywhere: What is cold brew? And what’s the difference between cold brew coffee and iced coffee?

What’s the difference between cold brew coffee and drip?

A classic cuppa is made from ground coffee brewed with hot water, while cold brew calls for steeping coarsely ground java in cold water in the fridge for 12 to 24 hours. This process yields a strong, richer, and smoother concentrated coffee with character.

What’s the difference between cold brew coffee and iced coffee?

While cold brew is steeped in cold water, regular iced coffee is hot coffee that is cooled, then poured over ice; it often tastes weak or diluted. You won’t sip the rich flavor notes of a day-long steeped cold brew in a regular iced coffee.

How do you make cold brew coffee?

One of the simplest ways to make cold brew coffee is by using a French press, shares Scott Nakamoto, coffee curator at Bean Box. The trick is to use coarsely ground coffee so it doesn’t leak through the sieve and to let it steep for at least 12 hours. The longer you leave it, the stronger it will be in both flavor and caffeine content. Aim for a roughly 1:8 ratio of coffee to cold water.

Or, if you don’t have a French press, you could invest in a cold brew coffee maker—the Hario “Mizudashi” Cold Brew Coffee Maker is a top recommended pick, coffee experts like it for its simple, elegant design and ease of use and clean up.

Homemade cold brew should keep nicely in the refrigerator for three to four days.

To drink, add cold water to the concentrated coffee, and the milk/creamer/milk alternative of your choice. For a sweetener, a simple sugar syrup is recommended, as sugar doesn’t dissolve as well in cold water.

What type of beans make the best cold brew coffee?

“Oftentimes, the same roast, prepared hot or as cold brew will express differently in the cup,” shares Nakamoto. “For a rich and creamy cup, I often opt for medium to medium-dark roasted coffees from Central/South America that list “chocolate,” “cocoa,” or “nutty” in their tasting notes,” he says. “Espresso blends are great options as they’re formulated to have a robust profile to cut through milk.” Some of his favorites in this category include: Stamp Act’s Milk Money, Caffe Lusso’s Gran Miscela Carmo, and Coffee Manufactory’s 22 Organic Dark.

“For a bright and fruity cup, like an iced tea, it’s fun to use light and light-medium coffees from East Africa that list ‘berries,’ ‘black tea,’ ‘stone fruit,’ and ‘floral’ in their tasting notes,” Nakamoto says. “Whether they’re blends or single origins, these lighter roast coffees can bring sparkling fruit and tea-like flavors that are delicious over ice.” He recommends Boon Boona’s Ethiopia Dur Feres, Coava’s S.O. Blend, and Olympia’s Sweetheart Blend.

What’s the caffeine count of cold brew coffee?

Though the exact amount of caffeine in your cold brew coffee depends on the type and amount of beans you use, cold brew tends to have higher amounts of caffeine than drip coffee. That’s because it steeps for a longer period of time than drip coffee and produces a more concentrated product.

Is cold brew coffee healthier than hot coffee?

The short answer is yes, especially if you can’t tolerate acidic beverages and foods. “Cold brewing tends to decrease acidic compounds and bitterness,” says Leah Theoharidis, quality control manager for Snowy Owl Coffee Roasters on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This can be beneficial for coffee drinkers prone to reflux, heartburn, and other digestive problems. Of course, if you load your cold brew coffee up with flavored syrups and sweeteners, you risk piling on the calories.

Tips for making cold brew coffee

  • Freeze coffee in ice cube trays that you can use to cool off your cold brew. Coffee ice cubes won’t dilute your drink like regular ice cubes do.
  • Sprinkle cinnamon onto the grounds before you steep for a spicier blend.
  • Add a small pinch of salt to your brew to help bring out the sweet flavors.


Alice Garbarini Hurley
Alice is a style and consumer writer and essayist who thrives in a world of beauty, fashion, dining, travel, home design, and nature, especially by the sea. She has blogged almost daily since 2010. Alice graduated from Douglass College at Rutgers University with a B.A. in journalism and women’s studies and writes for top national magazines.