What Is Cold Brew Coffee? Learn All About This Popular Drink

While most coffee lovers have certainly heard of cold brew, many are unfamiliar with the exact definition and brewing parameters. So, what is cold brew coffee? In short, you brew coffee grounds with cold water, creating a remarkable difference in flavor, acidity levels, and caffeine content.

People tend to love the unique approach of cold brew for its flexibility, smooth flavor, and refreshing essence in the hot summer months.

cold brew coffee being poured into a glass, introducing an article describing what is cold brewed coffee.

So, with the summer heat in full swing, I thought I would do a deep dive into the world of cold-brewed coffee, especially why I love it and how I order it at coffee shops. I’ll cover ratios/concentrates, caffeine levels, drink recommendations, and how to make cold brew at home!

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Cold Brew 101: Learn The Basics

To learn how cold brewing works, let’s begin by getting a basic definition on the table for what cold brew coffee is.

what is cold brew coffee

Cold brew is the broad umbrella term for any coffee brewed using cold water. Unlike brewing within a few minutes with hot water, cold water requires 12-24 hours for proper extraction.

Because of this slow extraction over a long period, the resulting flavor is usually smooth and subtly sweet.

Cold Coffee vs Hot Brewed Coffee

A hot brew coffee is the standard brewing method, usually drip coffee. Hot brewing methods can occur in less than five minutes because the water molecules move faster at higher temperatures, leading to a faster extraction.

However, when you use cold water, the only way to get a proper extraction is to give the water more time to interact with the coffee. And because the chemistry of the extraction is different, coffee extraction in cold water produces a much more mellow and smooth flavor.

Cold Brew Coffee vs Iced Coffee

Although you might hear cold brew and iced coffee used interchangeably, they are not the same beverage. While you make iced coffee by cooling regular hot coffee with ice, cold brewed coffee never uses hot water.

The distinction may seem unimportant, but these methods produce unique flavors. In general, expect cold brew to be much smoother and less acidic than iced coffee.

The Details: How Is Cold Brew Coffee Made?

I’ll give a specific homemade recipe below, but in short, the primary ingredients for making cold brew are simply coffee grounds and water. You will find recipes with a range of brewing ratios, but I generally recommend starting with 1 part coffee to 5 parts water, which makes a concentrate.

Besides measuring your coffee and water, you only need a jar or container that seals. Alternatively, you can use a brewing device specifically designed for cold brewing, such as the Toddy® Cold Brew System. Once you combine the coffee and water, let it steep for 12-24 hours and pour through a filter to remove the grounds.

Toddy® Cold Brew System

Product picture of the Toddy® Cold Brew System, a popular method for how cold brew coffee is made

Cold Brew Concentrate

A coffee concentrate, similar to espresso coffee, has a strong coffee-to-water ratio. Likewise, a cold brew concentrate is a liquid you brew when you use a tighter ratio, something 1:8 or less. Because this concentrate is so intense, the standard preparation involves diluting it with water or milk. Most people will find cold brew concentrate tastes bad without dilution.

Cold Brew Coffee Calories

You can expect cold brew to have a similar calorie content to hot coffee, usually no more than five calories per serving. Sweeteners and milk are always the primary sources of calories in coffee. But since cold brew has a much sweeter taste naturally, you might find that you do not need to add anything to get an enjoyable flavor.

Nitro Cold Brew

If you’ve ordered cold coffee at a coffee shop, you may have seen nitro cold brew on the menu. This serving style infuses the brew with nitrogen gas, a feature you may have noticed in Guinness beer. Nitro infusion gives cold brew a creamy and velvety texture similar to. This smooth mouthfeel blends perfectly with the subtle sweetness of cold brew. It also tastes much sweeter without any high-calorie additions.

Is Cold Brewed Coffee Stronger?

The general answer is yes, cold brewed coffee is strong. It is safe to assume this strength to avoid over-caffeinating yourself. However, this section will cover more detail about calculating cold extraction.

Cold Brew Caffeine Levels

Because cold brew coffee has such a range of brewing parameters, giving a standard caffeine content is difficult. Generally, because of the long brewing time, expect to intake more caffeine than you would usually get from standard hot brewed coffee. Especially when you make it at home, subtle differences in the grind size, ratio, and brewing time can create unexpected caffeine doses.

For example, a 12-ounce cold brew from Starbucks has 155 milligrams of caffeine. But some 12-ounce servings can contain well over 200 milligrams.

Starbucks Cold Brew Caffeine Content Based on Size

Since Starbucks is such a ubiquitous coffee house worldwide, this chart will show the caffeine levels of their standard sizes. While it is a good reference, remember that individual recipes can vary widely.

12 fl oz16 fl oz24 fl oz30 fl oz
155 mg205 mg310 mg360 mg
Starbucks Cold Brew Caffeine Content

Especially if you are sensitive to caffeine, it is best to drink cold brew slowly until you learn how much caffeine it has.

Concentrated Cold Brew Coffee Strength

a description of cold brew coffee concentrate and how you can use it.

You can make a cold brew with a ratio more typical of regular hot coffee. Using 1:12 or weaker means you can probably drink the brew as is without dilution. But as mentioned earlier, most recipes aim to make a cold brew coffee concentrate, something not meant to be consumed straight.

Coffee concentrate can be a base for cold coffee drinks like an iced latte or cocktails. Otherwise, dilute the concentrate with cold water until you find a taste you enjoy. Everyone has a different preference. But most people will enjoy diluting until you find a ratio more typical of standard brewed coffee.

Other Cold Brew Ratios Explained

Ultimately, the perfect ratio for cold brew comes down to your preference. The good part of making this drink at home is that you can experiment with various coffee-to-water ratios until you find the best flavor for you. If you start with a strong ratio—something 1:5 or stronger—expect to dilute it with twice as much water. But if you brew with more water—a ratio like 1:12—adding ice might be enough dilution.

If you want your cold coffee to taste more like a typical iced coffee, then you should add enough water/ice to bring the strong brewed ratio up to a normal range. For example, making a concentrate at a 1:4 ratio—1 gram of ground coffee per 4 grams of water—means you would add three times as much water as concentrate. If you pour 2 ounces of concentrate, add 6 ounces of cold water (along with some ice.)

Cold Brew vs Regular Iced Coffee: Taste Differences Explained

While both drinks can broadly fall under the same umbrella as iced coffee, cold brew has a distinct brew recipe. And there are other flavor differences worth noting too. Let’s check them out!


Because you make iced coffee with a more traditional hot recipe, you can expect similar flavors to standard drip coffee (except cold.) But cold brew’s extended steeping time extracts different flavors.

Most people describe cold brew as being particularly sweet, smooth, and less bitter. You will likely notice a richer flavor, often with chocolate and nutty notes, that are often hidden in a typical iced coffee flavor profile.

This generality does not mean iced coffee cannot be sweet and smooth—the Japanese iced coffee method is a fantastic exception. But if you’ve never tried good cold brew, we bet you’ll find it a unique coffee experience.

Is Cold Brew Coffee Less Acidic?

For folks who dislike regular coffee’s acidity, cold brew’s slow steeping process extracts fewer acidic compounds. Anyone with a sensitive stomach or acid reflux might have a much easier experience drinking this low-acidity version of cold coffee. You can still enjoy a strong coffee flavor without the problematic acidity of hot coffee.

How To Make Cold Brew Coffee at Home

Making cold brew at home is a fun way to experiment with recipes. As a full immersion brewing method, the process takes little babysitting, and you can change grind size, ratio, and brew time to see how it affects the flavor.

Another huge plus is that it is a fast way to get your caffeine fix on a busy morning. Instead of setting aside 5 minutes for brewing coffee, you can just pour a quick glass on your way out. I’ll put the basic recipe below, but for the full details, check out this homemade cold brew recipe.

Basic Recipe

Here’s a basic recipe to get you started:

  1. Use a coarse grind similar to a French press.
  2. In a container with a lid, combine 1 part coffee grounds with 5 parts cold or room temperature water. Use filtered water for the best results.
  3. Stir gently to ensure all the grounds are saturated.
  4. Seal the container and let it steep in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.
  5. After steeping, strain the cold brew through a fine-mesh sieve or coffee filter to remove the grounds.
  6. Dilute the cold brew with water to taste and serve over ice cubes to enjoy the smooth and refreshing flavors.

With the above recipe, you might consider making cold coffee ice cubes to preserve the maximum flavor. Alternatively, you can brew with a stronger ratio to make a concentrate as described above. The graphic below is an example of such a concentrated cold brew recipe:

How To Make Cold Brew Coffee at Home: a concentrated cold brew recipe

What Is a Cold Brew Coffee Maker?

While you don’t need specialized equipment to make cold brew, dedicated cold brew coffee makers can simplify the process.

These devices often come with built-in filters, which makes removing the coffee grounds simple. Or, like the Takeya Cold Brewer, some have a steeper separated by a mesh filter. If you’re a cold brew enthusiast, investing in a cold brew coffee maker can enhance your brewing experience.

Takeya Cold Brew Maker

A Product Picture of the Takeya Patented Deluxe Cold Brew Coffee Maker with Black Lid Airtight Pitcher, 1 Quart, Black

Another popular option is the Toddy Cold Brew System developed by Todd Simpson. This device is particularly fantastic for making a smooth and low-acid concentrate.

Are There Special Cold Brew Beans?

There are no special cold brew beans so use any beans you want with this cold method. I tend to prefer lighter roasts since cold extraction smoothly highlights sweet flavors. But dark roasts can also work well, especially if you plan on adding milk. But you may find certain roasters have blends roasted with cold brewing in mind. Like an espresso roast, the roaster tries to create sugars that will best extract with particular methods.

But any bean will work. Much more important is using freshly ground coffee. You can read more about why owning a coffee grinder is crucial for more details. Either way, have your coffee ground fresh and coarse for cold brew.

What Is Cold Brew: Final Thoughts

Even if you’re not a huge hot coffee drinker, I would bet that you might enjoy cold brew. Whether it’s the convenient and fast morning caffeine fix or the smooth flavor and low acidity, this coffee drink is worth trying.

You can buy it from a cafe or brew it at home, even without specialized equipment. So hopefully, I’ve intrigued you enough to add cold brew to your coffee routine!

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What is special about cold brew coffee?

Cold brew coffee stands out for its smooth, sweet, and less acidic taste. The extended steeping process brings out a range of delightful flavors from the coffee beans, making it an enjoyable alternative to traditional hot brewed coffee.

Does cold brew have more caffeine than regular coffee?

Yes, cold brew generally contains more caffeine than regular hot brewed coffee due to the prolonged extraction time. However, there are no firm rules, and it is best to drink slowly your first time to see how it hits you.

Does cold brew taste strong?

Cold brew can taste strong, especially when brewed with a high coffee-to-water ratio to create a concentrate. But you can always dilute the concentrate with water/ice until you find a balance that you like.

Is cold brew better than iced coffee?

Choosing between cold brew and iced coffee is mostly a matter of preference. Drink iced coffee for a more typical hot coffee experience and cold brew for a smoother and less acidic flavor.

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