Apparent simplicity is a precarious thing. Iced coffee seems like it should be a cinch—just throw some strong brew on the rocks and you’re good to go. But coffee is a fragile potion, sensitive to brewing techniques and extreme temperatures. As a result, iced coffee is often acrid, sour, flat or disappointingly weak. Happily, these pitfalls can be avoided with a little practice and attention to detail. Here’s how.
Hot or Not?
Iced coffee aficionados are divided into two camps, each rallying around a different brewing method: hot or cold. Fans of hot-brewed iced coffee swear by the tea-like aromas and flavors displayed in brew that’s made with boiling water and immediately filtered through ice. Meanwhile, disciples of cold brew—in which coffee grounds are steeped in room-temperature water for 12 hours or more—favor its minimal acidity and natural sweetness.
“It’s all about capturing the fruit [notes] and aromas and keeping it sunny-tasting and light,” says Peter Giuliano, co-owner and director of coffee at North Carolina-based roaster Counter Culture Coffee, who has popularized hot-brewed, or “Japanese method,” iced coffee among some foodies and coffee pros. In this method, coffee grounds are placed in a pour-over filter basket on top of an ice-filled glass or carafe. Hot water is poured over the grounds and the brewed coffee travels through the filter and directly onto the ice, so that it cools instantly. The amount of ice is figured into the overall water content of the brew, to ensure a result that’s not watered down. That nearly instantaneous cooling is key to preserving the coffee’s integrity, picking up its natural acidity, which is the source of its most delicate, floral flavors. That’s in contrast to most iced coffee preparations, where regular-strength hot coffee is left to sit for several minutes or even hours and then poured unceremoniously over ice, creating a brew that at its worst is sour and, at best, flimsy and unremarkable.
“Coffee prepared [in the Japanese tradition] changes the way people think about iced coffee,” Giuliano says. He recalls how he first observed Japanese aisu kohii during a visit to Japan and eventually learned the method from Hidetaka Hayashi of the Hayashi Coffee Institute in Tokyo. He found that Japanese iced coffee, with its pronounced citrus flavors and aromas, is a more refreshing beverage, like Assam or Earl Grey tea with a squeeze of lemon. In the afternoons, one of his Japanese hosts would pair a tall glass of iced coffee with strawberry shortcake. “It changed my perspective. I love a glass of [iced] coffee with a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich—homegrown tomatoes and North Carolina hickory-smoked bacon.”
The hot-brewed Japanese method is all about good acids. Proponents like Giuliano and Tony Dreyfuss, co-owner of Metropolis Coffee in Chicago, pass up cold-brewed or “cold-steeped” iced coffee precisely because of its low-acid rep. “I like hot brew because I really like acidity,” Dreyfuss says. “Cold brew seems to be pretty monochromatic in flavor—all bass and no soprano.”
But some see cold brew’s minimal acidity as a prime selling point. “It’s gentler on the stomach and it tastes mellow, chocolaty and nutty,” says Scott Rao, author of The Professional Barista’s Handbook: An Expert’s Guide to Preparing Espresso, Coffee, and Tea and founder of Rao’s Coffee and Esselon Café in western Massachusetts. That smooth, sweet quality has won a lot of people over. Some coffeehouses proudly advertise that they sell cold-brewed iced coffee and, while it can be made at home with a mason jar and a fine sieve, or even a French press, companies like Toddy Products and Filtron manufacture home-brewing systems specifically designed for cold-steeping. The process creates a coffee concentrate that’s lengthened with more water or milk before serving, similar to New Orleans-style iced coffee.
The makers of the Toddy system, which was developed in the ’60s, claim that cold-brewed coffee has 67 percent less acid than hot-brewed coffee. Others like it because it avoids the risky business of pairing hot coffee with ice. “I use [cold brew] for iced coffee because the chlorogenic acid in hot coffee breaks down to form quinic and caffeic acids as the coffee cools, causing the coffee to taste sour,” Rao says.
But considering that hot-brewed iced coffee can be anything but sour if it’s made right, the battle of cold brew versus hot brew might be merely a clash of tastes. To find out which method you prefer, follow our instructions for preparing coffee both ways and let your palate be your guide.
The Right Roast
Because the Japanese method highlights a coffee’s top notes—the bouquet of fruity, citrusy, floral flavors and aromatics that decorate the best coffees—Giuliano likes to use the most fruited, flowery African coffees like jasmine-noted Yirgacheffe and berry-toned Kenyan beans, which tend to be lightly roasted, allowing their natural qualities to shine through. “The best coffees for this method are those with a pronounced acidity and aroma,” he says, because they produce the most showy flavors. Bright, light-roasted Latin American coffees can also shine.
For cold-brewed iced coffee, Rao recommends a slightly darker full city roast, which tends to be fuller-bodied and sweeter than dark, toasty French or Italian roasts. Look for beans that are naturally rich, chocolaty and nutty, from Central American origins like Panama and Honduras.
No matter the origin of the beans or the level of the roast, there’s one thing both camps agree on: iced coffee should be brewed strong enough to hold up to the added ice, and it should be filtered well to keep grounds out of the picture. Giuliano recommends the light test: “A great glass of iced coffee should be inky black, showing a crystal clear chestnut color if held up to the light.”
This pour-over method produces a sunny, flavorful glass of iced coffee. The magic of this method, adapted from the Japanese by Counter Culture’s Giuliano, is that the coffee brews directly onto the ice, cooling instantly and preserving the best flavors the beans have to offer. You can make your own setup using a $5 pour-over filter basket and a carafe or jar, or use a pour-over brewing system like Chemex or the Bodum Kona. This recipe can be adapted to make just a serving or two at a time, dripping directly into ice-filled glasses.
4.25 oz. (1 1/2 cups) medium-fine coffee grounds; enough ice cubes to fill about three fourths of a 64-oz. carafe (1 standard ice cube tray); at least 32 oz.
(4 cups) of boiling water
64-oz. (8-cup) carafe; pour-over filter basket and filter; kettle or another source of boiling water with a capacity of at least 32 oz,; ice-filled tall glasses
1. Transfer ice cubes from a standard-size freezer tray into the carafe, loosely filling about three fourths of the carafe.
2. Place filter basket on top of the carafe. Place a filter inside the basket. Fill with 4 1/4 oz. (1 1/2 cups) of medium-fine ground coffee.
3. Pour boiling water slowly over grounds in a circular motion, just enough to wet the grounds, then stop. Wait about 20 seconds, then continue to pour boiling water slowly over the grounds, watching the brewed coffee as it drips into the carafe and melts the ice. You may need to pause pouring occasionally when filtering slows. When the level of the brewed coffee and ice nears 64 oz., pause as needed, stopping brewing when the total output reaches 64 ounces, including ice. The brewing and filtering process should take about 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Pour the brewed coffee into ice-filled tall glasses. Drink it black or add milk, cream or simple syrup to taste. Cover the carafe and refrigerate any unused portion for up to 24 hours.
Note: If the iced coffee is too strong for your taste, you can dilute it by adding cold water to the carafe or to your glass. If the iced coffee is not as strong as you like it, use more grounds next time or play with the coarseness of the grind, using more finely ground beans. (Don’t use too fine a grind, or the coffee might taste bitter. It shouldn’t take longer than 3 minutes for the water to filter through the grounds.)
This method requires some planning—it needs to steep for 12 hours—but fans of the smooth, nutty brew it creates say it’s worth the wait. The Toddy or Filtron brand cold-brewing systems makes this style of iced coffee a cinch, and you can also make it easily in a French press pot, steeping the grounds for at least 12 hours before pressing down the filter. Toddy and Filtron provide their own nearly identical instructions for cold brewing. These instructions, adapted from Scott Rao’s recipe, don’t require a special brewer, just standard kitchen tools. Adjust the measurements to fit your own equipment, or follow the instructions provided by your brewer’s manufacturer.
Ingredients: 1 lb. coarse coffee grounds (about 5 1/2 cups); 64 oz. (8 cups) room-temperature water; long-handled spoon, 1 gallon of cold water, milk or cream
Tools: 1-gallon jar, bowl or bucket, for brewing; very fine sieve, permanent coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth, 48-oz. carafe; ice-filled tall glasses
1. Place grounds in a 1-gallon brewing container (jar, bowl, bucket or a French press, Toddy or Filtron brewer).
2. Slowly pour 64 oz. of room-temperature water over the grounds, then stir with a long-handled spoon.
3. Let steep at room temperature for 12 to 16 hours, stirring occasionally.
4. After 12 to 16 hours, filter the coffee concentrate into a 48-oz. carafe using a very fine sieve, permanent coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth. (If you’re using a French press, Toddy or Filtron, use the filter provided with your equipment.)
5. Pour the coffee concentrate into ice-filled tall glasses, diluting it with cold water, milk or cream to taste, taking into account the dilution that will come from the ice as it melts (Scott suggests starting with a coffee-to-water ratio of 1:2, then diluting further to taste). Cover the carafe and store unused coffee concentrate in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.
How-To: Vietnamese Iced Coffee
This sweet, creamy coffee tastes like coffee ice cream. A guilty pleasure, maybe, but a mighty fine summer tonic nonetheless. In balmy Vietnam, it’s called cà phê sữa đá. Look for the cute, stout brewers at Vietnamese markets.
Ingredients: 2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk; 4 teaspoons medium-fine coffee grounds; 6 oz. boiling water; several ice cubes
Tools: stainless steel Vietnamese coffee brewer ($4–$5 at Vietnamese markets); tall glass
1. Pour 2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk into a tall, ice-filled glass.
2. Place the brewer on top of the glass and put 4 teaspoons medium-fine coffee grounds in the brewer.
3. Set the filter plate in place, so that it sits loosely on top of the grounds. Tighten it slightly by turning it.
4. Pour boiling water over the filter plate to fill about one fourth of the brewer. Wait 20 to 30 seconds. If coffee streams out into the glass, the filter plate is too loose and needs to be tightened. Pour more hot water to fill the brewer. Cover with the brewer lid. Coffee should drip slowly onto the ice, with the entire brewing process lasting about 3 to 4 minutes.
5. After coffee has brewed, remove the brewer and stir the coffee drink.
RECIPE: Spiced Iced Coffee