Who makes the best cold bean water out there?
EC: I Tried 12 Iced Coffees and Here’s the Best One
Credit: illustration by lauren kolm

Spring is here. Birds are chirping, jackets are thinning, and my allergies are killing me. All of which means, iced coffee season is nearly upon us. Whether it’s a corporate acknowledgement of our planet’s warming or an attempt to cash in on millennial’s perceived love of ‘gramming cool drinks, I’m not sure, but iced coffee is increasingly prominent in coffee chain advertisements. Stores that were long content to sell yesterday’s hot coffee chilled are now serving cold brew, and Starbucks has started offering whatever Nitro is. With so many options, it can be hard to decide just how to spend your iced coffee money. What’s a person who wants a cool and refreshing cup of bean water to choose?

To help, I headed out into the not-quite-warm-yet streets of New York City to taste the best and worst iced coffees that 12 prominent chains have to offer. To keep things even, I ordered all of the drinks black. Here they are, ranked from worst to best.

12. Au Bon Pain

Visitors to Au Bon Pain are offered three different iced coffee blends: French roast, French vanilla, or hazelnut. I chose the French roast and poured myself a cup from a big metal jug. I’m not sure why self-serve iced coffee is never a good sign (I’d be happy to save the barista the trouble of filling a cup with ice and pressing a lever), but it just isn’t. This one tasted like rubber but, in its defense, was also too strong. In a nice bit of synergy, the worst coffee I tried was also the cheapest. I’m sure if you added milk and sugar it’d be fine.

11. McDonald’s

McDonald’s sells frappés and several flavored iced coffees, but when I asked for one black I ended up with something sweetened and with no milk, which is really not a good way to drink iced coffee. The coffee was a translucent amber color, closer in texture and flavor to sweet tea. It’s not bad, but it’s not much cheaper than any of the far superior coffee chains, so I can’t imagine anyone goes to McDonald’s specifically for this.

10. Burger King

The Burger King employee I spoke with was very confused when I tried to order a plain iced coffee. I think what happened was the “milk or” part of my “no milk or sugar” sounded to him like “mocha,” and it turned into our own little “Who’s on first?” bit. Eventually he told me that they don’t do that, and I was like, but the menu says you do, and he asked other employees who confirmed that they do in fact sell black iced coffee, and that it is next to the other iced coffees in that fridge in the back. Long story short, this was fine but not particularly good. It tasted like old refrigerated coffee. They only had one size and it cost 19 cents more than what I paid at Stumptown, which is nuts.

9. Tim Horton’s

Tim Horton’s is Canada’s answer to Dunkin’ Donuts. Most of the locations in New York have closed, so I traveled to a kiosk in Penn Station, from which I emerged, cup in hand, to the sight of two simultaneous-but-unrelated scenes of men spitting. Like them, I had a bad taste in my mouth. Tim Horton’s iced coffee is sourer and more full-bodied than the brews offered by the other coffee chains I sampled. It’s not awful, but I can’t figure out why all the Canadians I know swear by the place.

8. Taco Bell

I was skeptical that Taco Bell actually offered iced coffee because I didn’t see it on the menu, but the guy assured me that they do. He filled a soda cup full of ice with hot coffee from a Keurig-like machine. The coffee was watery, which is what happens when you fill a cup of ice with hot coffee, but not bad. Bonus points for innovation. I impulse bought two crunchy tacos to go along with it, and I’ve just got to say, fuck, Taco Bell’s food is good.

7. Peet’s

Peet’s iced coffee was totally fine. It wasn’t particularly bitter or sour, nor was there anything super appealing about it. It tasted like a more watered-down version of Starbucks’s. My main complaint here was that there wasn’t enough ice in the cup, which would have been very upsetting on a hot day. Also I don’t understand why this coffee shop was inside a bank?

6. Starbucks

Starbucks’s cold brew is stronger and thicker than Dunkin’s. It has a heavy dark chocolate taste that coats your mouth and leaves a bitter aftertaste. It’s rich and syrupy and less refreshing than I’d like from an iced coffee, but it’s a worthwhile attempt at competing with high-end cafes. If you want a huge iced coffee with tons of caffeine that might make your stomach hurt later, this is the best option.

5. Dunkin’ Donuts

When Dunkin’ started promoting their new cold brew, it was a sign that cold brew is now mainstream. Their version reminded me of the times I’ve made cold brew at home and not used enough beans or soaked them long enough, which is too say it’s not particularly strong. It somehow felt less viscous than most of the other cold brews on the list. Like Bud Light, theirs has “drinkability.”

4. Blue Bottle

Blue bottle has two types of iced coffee: one is New Orleans–inspired and you have to get it with milk; the other, which is what I bought, is “single-origin” and tastes like flowers (chamomile, or maybe lavender?). This was far and away the fanciest tasting coffee I tried. It’s smooth and almost sweet and leaves a perfumed scent in your mouth. If you’re looking for something that spawned out of a garage in a trendy San Francisco neighborhood, Blue Bottle is it. If you want something with a bit more muddiness, keep looking.

3. Stumptown

Of the offerings from fancy boutique coffee shops, Stumptown’s is my favorite. Theirs is slightly bitter in a dark chocolate way, but without the sourness that iced coffee sometimes has. I got the feeling that someone with a better palate than me would notice “slight floral notes,” but they weren’t overpowering. Mostly it just tasted like a very good iced coffee. An added bonus: The cheapest drink on this list cost me around $2.50, and Stumptown's is only a dollar more for a far superior product.

2. Gregory’s

The first time I had Gregory’s I was killing time near a doctor’s office by the UN, and I was surprised to find a small hipster coffee shop in the area. I really had no idea it was a chain. Their cold brew is pretty close to ideal. It’s slightly bitter and doesn’t not taste like dirt, but it’s supposed to be like that. While the coffee’s strong, it doesn’t leave an overpowering aftertaste. It’s not too watery, but it’s refreshing enough for a summer day.

1. Pret A Manger

Pret is beloved by travelers for being the best option in airports and train stations around the US and UK. Their iced coffee is no exception. This is What We Talk About When We Talk About Iced Coffee. It has that slight rubber aftertaste of hot coffee-turned-cold, but it’s smooth and refreshing. Importantly, the water tastes good. It seems like an insult to describe something by saying what it’s not—it’s not too bitter, nor too strong, nor too thick—but sometimes that’s all one wants from a drink. There aren’t hints of chocolate or flowers, and that’s OK; not every drink needs to be interesting. Pret A Manger’s iced coffee is exactly what I’m looking for and nothing more.