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Iced Coffee 101: All Aboard the Polar Express

A simple how-to on iced coffee: the best beans, two great recipes, and our recommendations for easy, delicious cold brewed coffee.

Iced coffee could really use some better internet PR. Google “iced coffee” and the first few hits are recipes that utilize pre-ground coffee from a can or contain massive amounts of half-and-half, condensed milk, or sugar. An image search does no better, providing dozens of photos that look like something out of an ice cream parlor, complete with whipped cream toppings.

Yes, coffee can make a fantastic dessert drink (hello, frappuccino) but the problem with these iced-coffee concoctions is that they are all the same. And, prepared correctly, they’re going to taste the same, because any nuance of coffee flavor is hidden behind a wall of milk and sugar. And they’re based more around a sweet tooth than a love of coffee. One of the joys of learning about coffee is recognizing roasts as true individuals, and this goes for iced coffee, too. In fact, the same roast, prepared as iced coffee in different ways, can taste very different. Iced coffee can be rich and creamy, but it can also be as crisp and juicy as iced tea. It can be fruity or nutty. It can be comforting, refreshing, and surprising, all at once. There’s a ton to read about different iced coffee brew methods but here’s the basic idea: you can brew long and slow for a creamier, more full-bodied, bolder iced coffee; or you can brew quickly, over ice, for a snappier, crisper iced coffee that’s full of bright, fruity notes. The trick is choosing the right coffee for your method... or the right method to suit your favorite coffee.

“Traditional” coffees, like Colombias or Brazils; blends that list "chocolate", “cocoa”, or “nutty” in their tasting notes; medium or medium-dark roasts. These are great options for a longer, overnight cold brew method that results in a thick, syrupy coffee concentrate. The longer brewing process draws out that heavier, creamy texture to the coffee, and the concentrated form lends well to bolstering its creaminess with milk, condensed milk (for thai or vietnamese iced coffee variations), or even nitro gas.

“New wave” coffees, light roasts, African roasts: Ethiopias and Kenyas, coffees with tasting notes like “citrus”, “berry” or “jasmine”. These coffees do best with “flash brew” or “Japanese cold brew”, in which you brew them as normal, with half the normal amount of water, over ice. This results in a crisp coffee with a light mouthfeel, less creaminess, and emphasizes bright fruit and herbal notes. In fact, you may swear it’s iced tea.

Neither of these methods requires anything beyond basic equipment and great coffee beans. Luckily, we're here to help you out with that last one.

How to Make Iced Coffee
If you'd like to try your hand at long, slow, full-bodied cold brew, here's what you need to know: 

  • Keep the water-to-coffee ratio roughly around 4:1, for whatever measurement you like  (36oz of water to 8oz of grounds, 1 cup of water to 1/4 cup grounds, etc.)
  • Mix grounds and water together in your container of choice (tupperware, mason jar, etc.) You can cover it, but it shouldn't be airtight.
  • Pro tip: you can do this in your french press as well!
  • Let sit 10-12 hours at room temperature, then strain out the coffee grounds and stick the resulting brew into the fridge to chill.
  • This produces a very strong coffee concentrate, which should be diluted with at least 2:1 with water or milk. Serve over ice, with love, and savor.
  • Pro tip: You can make this in massive batches and keep the concentrate in an airtight container in the refrigerator for over a week!

If you'd like to quickly make flash brew or Japanese cold brew

  • Use your regular water-to-coffee ratio, but divide the water component into half water, half ice. If you're unsure how much ice to use, just throw some cubes into a measuring cup!
  • If you're using a pour-over, just put the ice in the bottom. If you're using a Mr. Coffee, put the ice right into the coffee pot.
  • Brew as normal, only using the halved amount of hot water. The coffee will brew directly on to the ice.
  • Pro tip: It's fun to watch the ice melt as the coffee pours in.
  • This results in a crisp, cool beverage you can serve over ice as soon as it's brewed. No need to dilute!
  • Pro tip: The clean, snappy flavor from this method lends itself to fun add-ons: a slice of lemon or lime as a garnish, a sprig of herbs, even a splash of sparkling water and simple syrup for a kick (one local roaster we know serves up his iced coffee with Perrier, a lemon wedge, and lavender syrup. Yum!).

If you're ready to take the next step, have a look at some of our iced coffee recommendations:

Want to Learn More? Read the Iced Coffee, Master-Class: Frothy "nitro" cold brew
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