iced iced baby

How Cold Is Too Cold for Iced Coffee?

Iced coffee with icicles.
Never bothered me anyway. Photo: Getty Images

Yesterday morning, weather apps on phones all over New York City warned people that it was 3 (three!) degrees Fahrenheit outside, with a windchill that dipped things into Absolutely Not degrees. (Things are even worse in parts of the Midwest, which saw lows of -60 degrees.) And still, New Yorkers soldiered on, facing commutes with fellow squashy human sleeping bags, piling on the Uniqlo Heattech, and working from home where possible. The only thing one person did not seem willing to compromise on, it seems, was his iced latte.

There he was, an intrepid soldier, a brave hero, a shining light. Here was a man who knew what he wanted, and also that if he ordered hot coffee during Wednesday’s snowstorm, it would wind up being the temperature of iced coffee in a matter of minutes anyway. Lean into Mother Nature! Meet her where she is instead of halfway!

All of this to say that this is a correct purchase decision. I, too, would order iced coffee in the cold, mostly because my hands have become frozen brittle claws already, so why not? Neither I nor this anonymous hero is alone, either; people immediately replied to the tweet with photos of their own iced coffee in solidarity, and referred to the photo as an emblem of gay culture. (NewNowNext offered a simple explanation: “People are gay, @nycgov.”) They also began tagging friends who would do this, including Josh Gondelman, a comedian and writer for Desus & Mero whose devotion to iced coffee is well known, and Sam Stryker, a former writer and editor for BuzzFeed.

Gondelman told the Cut he prefers to drink iced coffee — yes, even when it’s this cold — because it tastes better, and “there’s a spectrum of like, five degrees that hot coffee is drinkable at. Before then it’s way too hot; afterward, it’s room temperature. He also posits that his Boston upbringing, where iced coffee is “more common,” likely had something to do with the habit: “You’re not out in the elements for as long. You don’t walk as far normally. I drove to work which meant I was always in a climate controlled situation once I got my morning coffee.”

While Gondelman ordered an iced coffee yesterday, he admits that he could be swayed to a hot drink if he’s going to be outside for a longer period of time (he’ll switch to tea, in that case). But he also understands why people find the iced order odd. “Hot coffee is right there, so it seems like a weirdly avoidable thing,” he concedes. “But to me having the beverage I want supersedes the temperature outside, and I work around that.”

One iced-coffee lover who caved to the perils of 3-degree weather was Amanda Mull, a writer at The Atlantic. (She told the Cut it was because she couldn’t find any gloves yesterday morning.) But in general, she supports cold drinks in the cold. “People drink lots of cold things all year, and cold brew tastes way better than hot coffee. I’m not sure why it has a seasonal restriction. I drink seltzer or ice water during the winter, why would the temperature of my coffee need to change?” she posits.

She also grew up in the South, where iced tea is more prevalent than hot. “I think that’s why I find cold coffee — and specifically cold brew, which tastes less like coffee to me — more palatable. It’s closer to my cultural conception of what a good drink is,” she says.

Stryker, who lives in Los Angeles, thinks maybe 50 people sent him the city government’s tweet after it posted. Iced coffee when it’s cold is nothing new to him. “Probably the coldest was when I was in Korea last year for the Olympics,” he said via email. “I think it was probably below 20 degrees, but I was still chugging two a day. It’s not as refreshing as during the summer, but it sort of is like a big fuck you to Mother Nature when you do order.”

As for why he thinks “iced coffee is gay culture” has caught on, he says “It feels like a shared inside joke with all my fellow gays.” Though he says the conceit is “nonsensical” on face value, the @s don’t lie; members of the LGBTQ+ community tag him in their iced coffee selfies daily. “Maybe this is a stretch, but I feel like hot coffee feels so heteronormative and riffing on a love of something different is inherently queer,” he says. “Or maybe it’s not even that deep! All I know is I love iced coffee, and I’m gay.”

All three admitted that yes, optically, drinking something cold when you’re actively trying to stay warm with layers and layers of clothing seems counter-intuitive. But hot coffee actually does a better job of cooling your body down than iced does, because it triggers sweat receptors in your body. Besides, your body itself is so warm that any iced beverage will warm up rather quickly once it hits your insides; it’s just your frozen hand that suffers — and that’s what gloves are for.

And as food scientist Barry Swanson explained to Time, “Foods that contain more fat, protein, and carbohydrates often heat the body up a little bit while digesting food.” While anyone can walk into a coffee shop and customize hot and cold drinks alike with tons of syrup, the ubiquity of the Frappuccino and other cold-weather beverages may have helped normalize turning iced drinks specifically into something more like a milkshake than coffee. “I dump in a bunch of cream and Splenda, no matter what it is,” Mull explains. “The less my coffee can taste like coffee, the better.”

She maintains, overall, that policing people for their food and beverage decisions, no matter the weather, is pretty bad form. Stryker agrees. “I don’t really see iced coffee fans making fun of hot coffee people when it’s the summer,” he points out. “Maybe hot coffee people should make sure their house is in order before coming for us.”

How Cold Is Too Cold for Iced Coffee?