While I was visiting my mom recently, she asked this exact question over cups of cold brew coffee: "What is the difference between iced coffee and cold brew anyway?" This simple question has a little bit of a muddy answer, because cold brew is, most often, made to be served as iced coffee.
Let's clear up any confusion about iced coffee drinks and help you navigate the world of iced coffee.
Cold Brew Is an Iced Coffee Technique
Iced coffee can be any form of coffee — drip brew, pour over, even espresso — chilled and served over ice. Cold brew is a style of iced coffee, so while not all iced coffee is cold brew, it's accurate to say most cold brew is turned into iced coffee. Here's a quick reference of the styles of iced coffee.
Yes, all these other styles of brewing coffee for iced coffee are technically iced coffee too, but if you're ordering coffee out at a restaurant or coffee shop and order iced coffee you can expect this. It is often dripped coffee brewed specifically for iced drinkers. Sometimes iced coffee is brewed at double strength (this allows for dilution from the ice), but it can also be drip coffee that is poured directly onto ice or chilled in the fridge.
Flavor-wise, iced coffee prepared this way can vary wildly — some are smooth and robust, while others are bitter. My recommendation: Order a cold brew, pour-over, or iced americano for consistently better iced coffee.
Cold brew is made by combining grounds and cool water and making a coffee concentrate via cold extraction. It is beloved for its smooth, sweet flavor. You'll love cold brew for making big-batch iced coffee concentrate to last the week. If you prefer a less acidic cup of hot coffee, cold brew coffee can also be heated and served warm.
Pour Over Ice Coffee
You'll see this iced coffee style at a lot of small specialty coffee shops, because it allows you to quickly make a simple cup of iced coffee with delicate flavors. The coffee and warm water are combined in a pour over device (think: Chemex or a pour over cone) that drips directly onto ice. This style of iced coffee was popularized in Japan and is sometimes referred to as "Japanese-style" iced coffee.
This is a great trick to master at home for making iced coffee in a hurry or for making super-specialty beans into iced coffee. The rapid chill enhances sweet, nuanced flavors released by brewing with hot water.
An Americano is an espresso drink made by brewing a shot of espresso and combining it with hot water to make a super-powered cup of coffee. Iced Americanos are brewed with the shot of espresso going directly onto the ice and then topped with iced water (and sometimes more ice).
Expect an iced Americano to have a more robust coffee flavor than any other iced coffee, with a bit of bitterness. This is an awesome option to order at a coffee shop if they don't have cold brew or pour over available. In fact, this was my go-to iced coffee order at Starbucks before they added cold brew to their lineup a few years ago.
Another bonus? You can ask for a double shot (two espresso shots) for an extra-strength iced coffee when you need it.