It seems like every coffee shop, from Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts to your local spot, is starting to serve cold brew instead of iced coffee. Coffee snobs are hyped about the switch, but the rest of us are left wondering—what, exactly, is the difference between iced coffee and cold brew? It’s hard not to feel like cold brew is some kind of elaborate marketing ploy, since cold brewed coffee can be even more expensive than iced coffee, which is already more expensive than hot coffee. But saying that a coffee is cold brewed doesn't just mean it's trendy, because there is a very real difference between iced coffee and cold brew brewing methods. It’s hard to say whether cold brewed coffee or iced coffee is better, since that’s all up to personal preference, but the taste of each is distinct, especially once you understand what differentiates each brewing method.
Iced coffee is, in the most basic terms, coffee that once was hot but is now cold and served with ice. If you brewed a hot pot of coffee at home using a conventional coffeemaker, and then popped the carafe of hot coffee into the fridge until it got cold, that would be called iced coffee. It tends to have a brighter, more acidic taste, and it is, in many ways, the easiest kind of cold coffee to make because all you need is a coffee maker and a refrigerator. But it’s not without its flaws—iced coffee can get watered down quickly if you’re just relying on ice to chill it, as is what happens at many delis in the summertime.
Cold brew, however, as the name suggests, is brewed cold, so it never really has to go through that chilling process that can water down regular iced coffee. To make cold brew, put ground coffee into a bag and leave that bag in a pitcher of cold or room temperature water to steep, sometimes overnight. You'll wake up to cold coffee with a richer taste than that of iced coffee. But you have to plan ahead if you want to make it since the coffee grounds need to steep for a while. That added step and the extra tools make it slightly more complicated to make than traditional iced coffee, hence the higher price.
If you really want to get into the weeds of all this coffee stuff, know that there’s also nitro coffee, which is a derivative of cold brew that's made by adding nitrogen to a keg of cold brew coffee. As a result, nitro cold brew fizzes when you pull it from the tap, with a head of foam on it that make it look more like a pint of Guinness than a cup of coffee, and even though it’s dairy-free, it has a creamier taste than cold brew, or even iced coffee, alone. It's not something you can make at home, though. You have to go to a coffee shop with a tap or find a store that'll sell it in a can. It is becoming a more popular option, though, with Starbucks even starting its own nitro taps.
If you’re looking for a creamier, richer cold coffee, then cold brew is probably your best bet, but if you’re in a rush, and just want something that’s caffeinated and will keep you cool, iced coffee will do just fine.