An old adage says that drinking a hot beverage on a hot day can help cool you down. Research has even been advanced to back the claim. But the counterintuitive concept doesn’t hold true in reverse; an iced coffee in the depths of winter will only give you a caffeine hit on the fast track to frostbite.
And yet. In recent years the drink order has somehow Nightmare Before Christmas’d itself onto a chunk of the calendar it has no business being on.
Take the almost universal applause that met the, to be fair, Pulitzer-worthy snap posted to Twitter by New York City’s official account of one brave soul clutching a Starbucks iced coffee in a snowstorm earlier this winter.
For harder data, see a 2011 survey by the coffee chain Dunkin’-still-stylized-at-the-time-to-include-Donuts that calculated the rising trend of this polar bear plunge of drink orders. Eighty-four percent of the 500 people queried reported drinking more iced coffee that winter season than the year before; 86 percent, meanwhile, reported drinking more iced coffee that winter than three winters prior. (A tangible accommodation to this off-season request was the birth of the unofficial Dunkin’ double cup, meant to cushion against the New England winter by containing the iced-coffee plastic cup within a styrofoam overcup.)
A caveat before going forward, I’m from Southern California, where such a drink defies the 12-month order cycle. Iced coffee in the 75-degree summer? Sure. Iced coffee in the 75-degree winter? Why not. (Though, lest we forget, we did recently get hit by #LABlizzard2019.) Since weathering five winters on the East Coast, however, I’ve watched with increasing fascination as the people in front of me in line stubbornly persist in ordering their iced coffees deep into the season, as if in denial that we’re all still wrapped up in scarves and gloves and just trying to survive the ice tsunamis coming our way.
As the winter of 2019 makes its final barrage, the Jerry Seinfeld voice in my head wants to know, iced coffee in the wintertime, what’s the deal with that?
Like coffee itself, the origin story of chilling it is mercurial. The oft-cited global originator on the form, though, is mazagran, a drink of sweetened coffee syrup and cold water that began in Algeria and was brought to France by 19th-century colonial troops. Coffee-drinking countries around the world have all come up with their own twists on the beverage. In Greece, there’s the frappé, the foam-covered drink made from instant coffee, water and sugar, whose name Starbucks has made ubiquitous. Japan has its wildly popular pour-over method that produces a more acerbic taste a la the trend of the moment, cold brew. In Germany, you can order eiskaffe, cold coffee with milk or ice cream. Vietnam, meanwhile, serves a version with sweetened condensed milk.
Iced renditions of the drink really required the advancement of the frozen water trade (think, essentially, Frozen’s opening song) in the 19th century to really get, um, hot. The transition from the icebox to the freezer that followed in the 20th century, made chilled coffee over ice even more common.
Stateside, national advertisers started hard selling the beverage in the early 1900s. They did so, as American author William Harrison Ukers suggested in his 1922 book All About Coffee, for an obvious reason: to push more coffee beans. “An important factor in increasing consumption has been the promotion of new uses for coffee,” Ukers wrote. “In winter, this has taken the form or recipes and suggestions for coffee as a flavoring agent; and in warm weather, there has been a publicity drive for iced coffee.”
While these days, every day is attached to some made up consumer holiday, the coffee industry got in on the game early to cement iced coffee (American-style, Ukers noted, the drink was prepared by brewing slightly stronger coffee than normal, mixed with sugar, cream and ice in a shaker; though preparing it using coffee syrup, like the mazagran method, was also an option) within the lexicon of the summer season.
In 1938, the first campaign by the Pan American Coffee Bureau for Iced Coffee Week rolled out for the end of June, making it clear that iced coffee was intended to be “America’s favorite hot-weather drink.” Other ad copy included a cute polar bear who noted the beverage made summer “bear-able” (get it?). The following year, “Iced Coffee Week” 1939 culminated in the first “Iced Coffee Day” observed at New York World’s Fair.
Iced coffee continued to be seen as a sweet summer child for decades until a looming existential threat, partially prompted by soft drink manufacturers looking to make inroads in the coffee industry’s bottom line, changed its course in the 1990s.
Remember Pepsi A.M. or the “Coke in the morning” ad campaign? Probably not, but they struck fear into the heart of the coffee industry, which was all too aware its own product was declining in sales (by the mid-1990s, Americans’ daily coffee drinking habit had, alarming to industry watchers, fallen below 50 percent of the population).
So, in a campaign that felt something out of a cigarette advertiser’s playbook, the industry looked to reclaim their hold on the market by selling hard to college students. Iced coffee, they rightly observed, could be the gateway drug to hook young people on the coffee habit.
“Iced versions of coffee are the latest, and perhaps most important, effort by the long-ailing $5 billion coffee industry to recapture what it likes to call a greater share of the bladder," a 1989 New York Times article on the phenomenon reported. Contending the drink’s “chief enemy” was the “steady shift in tastes from hot, acrid drinks to cold, sweet drinks,” they sought to adapt the product they were selling.
“When the 1990s come, the thing is going to be to promote coffee as a cold drink,” predicted Ted Lingle, the director of marketing for Lingle Brothers, the food supplier for the University of California, Los Angeles’s campus at the time.
Lingle’s far-sighted prediction proved correct. By the mid-2000s, coffee was back in the black, again, with the major three players—Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s (which rolled out iced coffee in 2006)—all heavily promoting iced drinks, a business strategy aided by the subsequent rise of cold brew, which became a national drink of choice once it debuted on Starbucks’ menu in 2015.
By this time last year, Nation’s Restaurant News, an industry paper, reported the bevy of these cold coffee products “cold brew, nitro, iced coffee, frozen blended coffee and other chilled java spinoffs” were continuing to drive sales and traffic across the board.
In recent years, cultural critic Sam Manzella pointed out in a dive for Logo’s NewNowNext that paralleling the rise of iced coffee has been its ingrainment in the queer community, writing, somewhat tongue-in-cheekily that today the drink has become to “the queer community what pinot grigio is to suburban wine moms”.
While if you asked most people, iced coffee season is still summertime, Ben Yakas recently interviewed several iced-coffee year-round enthusiasts for Gothamist, many of whom, it should be noted, hailed from New England, who asserted they saw no problem in ordering the drink whether it was 8 degrees or 80 degrees.
In a statement to Smithsonian.com, Bill Murray, president and CEO of National Coffee Association, echoed that sentiment. “While iced-based coffee is naturally more associated with warmer weather, due to the variety and sophistication of drinks now available across various locations, coffee drinkers are considering iced-based coffee all year round.”
According to the research house Mintel, which looked into the global iced coffee sales, our growing fixation on iced coffee won’t be slowing down anytime soon. Looking at sales between 2013 and 2017, chilled coffee sales are growing at a rate of at least 10 percent annually, which I suppose will translate to more people risking their appendages to get their preferred coffee fix in the future.
When reached by email, a Dunkin’ PR rep declined giving current sales figures, but did affirm the drink’s winter legacy continues on, writing, “we certainly know how our guests love their iced coffee, even during the coldest days of the year.”