I don't recommend trying this at home
It’s almost summer, even if it might not feel like it where you are. Summer means iced beverages, so I decided that I would taste iced coffees that you can easily find at your local grocery store. I am a huge fan of iced coffee. In fact, I disregard iced coffee season all together and indulge in the icy beverage whenever I please, rain, snow, or sweltering heat. The big issue with iced coffee for me is that it’s always watery, so you have to go through a painstaking process of finding a cafe that brews it right or just makes cold brew which tends to be much stronger. The other issue with getting iced coffee is it tends to be almost twice the price of your average cup of coffee.
So for my wallet’s sake, I wanted to test out some of those gigantic bottles of cold brew you can buy at the grocery story and drink over the course of a week. In some cases I had great luck finding the 32 ounce (and larger) bottles, for others I had to opt for the grab-and-go size and just try for taste in hopes you might have access to their bigger counterparts. Or maybe you want the single serving, store-bought iced coffee, who am I to make that decision for you? But as a former barista, I am going to give you my honest opinion on these ten grocery store iced coffees so you don’t have to.
Tasting note: A number of the iced coffees came packaged with milk, so I bought whole milk to add to the black coffees. I drank them all with two ice cubes in each.
1. Rise Brewing Co. Nitro Cold Brew Coffee
After tasting all other nine brands, I keep coming back to this little, extra caffeinated can of wonders. It has a very round, roasted flavor with a pleasantly creamy texture even without the milk that I added. It’s mildly sweet, easy to drink, and loaded with caffeine. The unfortunate part is because it is infused with nitrogen, this brew comes in two forms: 11 ounce cans and coffee kegs (5, 7, and 15 gallons). It’s local to New York City, and isn’t any cheaper than a cafe cold brew at $3.99. However, I would drink this over any cold brew a cafe offers.
2. Califia Unsweetened Black Label Cold Brew
It has a very mild aftertaste and kind of just tastes like your average iced coffee. It doesn’t have that bitter flavor that most cold brews seem to have and I wouldn’t mind drinking this more often going forward. Adding the milk didn’t change the flavor, I find here again I wouldn’t add sweetener either. This particular coffee comes in 48 ounce bottles.
3. Chameleon Cold Brew Organic Black Coffee
In my opinion, Chameleon is better black. It’s a little watery, but it has a pleasntly round, earthy flavor that again I don’t mind at all and would not suggest sweetening, especially if you go for the Vanilla flavored one that is also very common on shelves. It does have a little bit of that sour bitterness that I mentioned earlier. Chameleon claims that it has chocolate and toffee tasting notes, there are faint hints of chocolate roastiness that hit the back of the mouth. The boldness of the brew is comparable to Califia, and it’s just as drinkable. However the taste might put some people off at first, but the more you drink it the better it tastes. It’s sold in both 32 and 10 ounce sizes.
4. Stōk Not Too Sweet Black Cold Brew
This coffee is very, very mild and pretty sweet. It’s extremely drinkable because it is so light-roasted. It almost has a weird coldness that hits the back of your throat akin to eating a mint. It definitively tastes better without the milk because it just makes it too watery. It just tastes like coffee: no special tasting notes, but not offensive either. I think I personally would like the unsweetened version better, perhaps it would have more interesting flavors without the artificial sweetener taste. It doesn’t really leave an aftertaste, but then again the foretaste isn’t very remarkable either. It’s sold in 48 ounce bottles.
5. Grady’s New Orleans-Style Cold Brew
I would have ranked Grady’s above Stōk if it weren’t for it’s incredibly burnt, earthy taste that reminds me of black pepper. It is very flavorful (especially in direct comparison), but flavorful doesn’t always mean those those flavors taste great. It’s a boldly roasted coffee, which is favorable, and the taste improves the more you drink it. It does have that sour aftertaste that seems to accompany the darker brews. You can find it in 16 and 32 ounce bottles.
6. Dunkin’ Donuts Original Iced Coffee
Okay, full disclosure, if I have to pick a coffee chain I go Peet’s or Starbucks because Dunkin’ is watery and burnt as hell. I went to school in New England, so I’ve had my fair share. Unsurprisingly, this iced coffee tastes like sugary cream more than coffee, but I didn’t hate it. The light-roasted coffee flavor is a little fainter than you might find it in the iced coffee you would buy from one of the stores, but at least you wouldn’t have to wait in line. So if you like Dunkin’ iced coffee, it basically tastes the same. Not my cup of tea, sorry. This is only sold in 13.7 ounce bottles.
7. Caribou Sea Salt Caramel Iced Coffee
So Caribou doesn’t sell a plain iced coffee, so I wrongly assumed this would be the least offensive taste out of chocolate mocha and vanilla. It was cloyingly sweet and like Dunkin’, tasted like coffee beans may have walked through the flavored creamer. I don’t hate it, but I wouldn't want to drink a ton of it at once. Seems like a stomach ache and sugar crash waiting to happen. It comes in 32 ounce bottles.
8. Starbucks Medium Roast Iced Coffee
I went ahead and bought the medium roast because I figured a lot of people don’t like super dark coffee, and if nothing else when Starbucks says dark roast it usually is. There was so much wrong with this iced coffee. The boldness was on par with Starbucks blonde roasts and had a horrible, moldy taste. I described it to my roommate as, “you know the smell of recent dog pee on a carpet? That’s what this tastes like.” It’s all around unpleasant, but if I had to, I could probably drink it. The milk does not help. It’s sold in unfortunately large bottles (48 ounces) for pretty cheap. Good luck.
9. International Delight Vanilla Iced Coffee
What could be worse than old dog pee? Drinking straight creamer. I really can’t even judge this as a coffee. It just tastes like International Delight French Vanilla creamer with water and a hint of coffee flavoring in it. I would absolutely use it as a creamer in a different iced coffee, maybe Grady’s or Califia, but drink it on its own at your own risk. It’s sold in half gallon cartons.
10. Trader Joe’s Coffee Syrup
If you live in New York City like me, then you just waited in a line longer than the perimeter of the entire grocery store to buy this newly released coffee syrup. Now here comes the disappointing news: It’s way too sweet, so sweet that it totally masks the flavor of coffee. It’s supposedly made out of water, coffee, and cane sugar (a lot of it), but it doesn’t taste like actual coffee was used. It has a faint roasted taste if you can get by the overpowering sweetness. Now because it’s a syrup you only need a little bit diluted in basically a glass of milk. So it’s coffee-flavored milk with wayyyyy too much sugar. Which is fine if that's your thing, but don't go into it thinking it's iced coffee.