Iced coffee: It's a refreshing jolt of caffeine that keeps us going on long, hot summer days. We all have a go-to iced coffee, whether it's from a chain or independent coffee shop. So naturally, while we fight off a heat wave, we had to find out -- who makes the best iced coffee? (Credit: Jane Bruce)
Of course, the art of iced coffee boils down to a science; some chains use the cold-brewing method, while some independent shops use pour-over or double-strength brewing methods. To learn more about the processes, we talked to Major Cohen, Starbucks coffee educator and product manager with 18 years of Starbucks experience. The chain used the common cold-brewing method for its iced coffee beginning in 1971, in which baristas put coffee grounds with water, let the concoction sit for a significant amount of time (often overnight), and allowed the flavors to slowly seep into the liquid. The chain later switched to the double strengh brewing method it uses today. This means doubling up on the amount of coffee grounds but leaving the amount of water the same. This way, the ice melts into the drink and makes up for its absence at brewing. The result is a coffee that is often crisper and less acidic (that lemony or grapefruit tang) than hot coffee. Cohen says that pouring hot coffee over ice isn't necessarily less refreshing, it just has a different taste profile.
We also talked to Eva, a barista at Joe the Art of Coffee in New York City, where they cold-brew their coffee and saturate the grounds for 24 hours. Iced coffee connoisseurs (including ones at The Daily Meal) say they buy coffee from independent shops because of their cold-brew methods. But Alisa Martinez, Starbucks' communications manager, says that there is a certain stigma associated with supporting the large coffee chain (one whose humble practices haven't changed much since its beginnings in the 1970s). "We've been sourcing and roasting the finest coffee in the world for more than 40 years," Martinez says. So who makes the better iced coffee: the cold-brew guys or the big coffee chains?
RELATED: America's Best Coffee Shops
On a warm, humid New York day, we braved the heat to get iced coffees from six chains -- Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's, Burger King, 7-Eleven, and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf -- and two independent shops -- Joe the Art of Coffee and Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Eleven participants performed a blind taste test of the unsweetened, black iced coffees (no sugar, milk, creamer, or flavoring added). (After all, we're avoiding plenty of the sugar bomb iced coffees this summer.) We then tested for bitterness, aftertaste, and flavor notes. Once you taste them all in one sitting, you realize how different the coffees are.
After our taste test, some of our tasters are sticking to their morning favorites, while others may be changing where they head for their iced coffee runs. But do we reach for a cup just because of its logo? Do you think you know which coffee reigned supreme? The results may surprise you.
- Madeline Monaco, The Daily Meal
Burger King doesn’t technically serve black iced coffee. It can be done, but you have to ask for a hot coffee of the Seattle’s Best roast to be poured over ice. Otherwise, you get a cup of iced coffee that comes out of the machine, milk included. Because of our attempts to recreate a black iced coffee, this one got a bit watered down. It was weak, forgettable, and had a weird texture, said our tasters. If you want a customizable iced coffee, steer clear of Burger King; you won’t be able to salvage the milky, standard iced coffee. Click here to see America's Best Coffee Shops Credit: Jane Bruce
When we arrived at 7-Eleven, employees were brewing a fresh pot of iced Colombian coffee. Even thought it was the freshest cup of coffee we purchased, 7-Eleven wasn’t well received by the tasters. What surprised most of the participants was how weak the coffee tasted, even though it was one of the darkest in color. Most tasters couldn’t move past the weak taste and dark color contradiction, saying it tasted muddy and watered down. Even our local 7-Eleven’s $1 medium iced coffee deal on Wednesdays won’t be able to stand up to the lackluster taste. Credit: Jane Bruce
Granted, most people venturing to an independent coffee shop like Joe’s would probably be looking for a drink a bit more exciting than a plain black iced coffee. But this coffee didn’t stand up to other samples. We talked to Joe's barista Eva at New York City's Union Square location about the traditional cold-brewed Ethiopian blend over ice, who said it's perfect for iced coffee because of its floral flavor profile. Unfortunately, it proved to be a bit too fruity — almost like Lipton tea, said one taster — for our drinkers. It may not be a morning go-to, but if you can get past the fruity and acidic tastes, it would work for an afternoon pick-me up. Credit: Jane Bruce
According to the Dunkin’ Donuts website, the iced coffee from 100 percent Arabica coffee beans from Central and South America is freshly brewed and full of flavor, perfect for day or night. It mentions that customers can add nine delicious flavors to customize the drink, though the small print clarifies that the beverage is pre-sweetened and naturally and artificially flavored. Our tasters found that the aroma was great with a somewhat weak but sweet taste. Others found it a bit "lame," with more of an iced water taste than iced coffee. Credit: Jane Bruce
Though it was very close, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf ranked as the fourth favorite in our taste test. The Southern California-based chain has strong relationships with coffee farms around the world and uses only the top 1 percent of Arabica beans. Its full-bodied flavor put it toward the top of the list, but tasters found it to be weak and mild, and almost burnt tasting. Participants confused this one with Burger King when it came to trying to identify the brand with the brew. Credit: Jane Bruce
Surprised? McDonald’s ranked as the third favorite of the eight coffee drinks with an average score of 5.1 points out of a possible 10 for overall taste. One taster mentioned it was her favorite, and upon learning of its source, she seemed a bit disgusted, followed by a state of disbelief. According to its website, McDonald's serves its Premium Roast Iced Coffee from 100 percent Arabica beans supplied by Gaviña Gourmet Coffee (a McDonald’s partner for more than 25 years) and can be combined with cream and a choice of flavored syrups. Some found it weak, forgettable, and "not strong enough for an early morning commute." Others found it had a nice aroma with a surprisingly sweet aftertaste. Though one taster found it was the best overall, she said it had the worst aftertaste. Nonetheless, you may be getting bang for your buck here. Credit: Jane Bruce
Nestled away in the lobby of New York City's Ace Hotel, Stumptown Coffee Roasters ranked as the second best iced coffee on our list with an average score of 6.1 points out of a possible 10 for overall taste. The iced coffee is made from the house blend of beans, and according to tasters, has a woody, smooth, sophisticated taste. It had a strong aftertaste with floral and citrus notes, and our tasters couldn’t get enough of the blend. Credit: Jane Bruce
One of the editors who performed the taste test says she usually goes to small, independent bodegas in New York to avoid pouring money into big coffee chains. But even though the number two spot went to an independent coffee shop in New York, her favorite in the blind taste test was surprisingly the Starbucks freshly brewed iced coffee, which had an average score of 6.4 points out of a possible 10 for overall taste. Notes include that it had a strong aftertaste, but the coffee was filled with smoky, bitter, acidic flavors. As tasters tried to guess which coffee belonged to which brand name, more often than not they could guess which notable flavor was Starbucks. Stick to the green siren for your iced coffee needs; she knows what she’s doing. RELATED: Click here to see Summer's Healthiest and Unhealthiest Coffee Drinks Credit: Jane Bruce
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