Personal Thursday: Why I Can’t Write About Me

Sep 25

I’ve kept an online blog since 2002. When I was younger I’d occasionally try keeping a diary, but I’d always forget about it after a page or two. Something was missing. Then, as an overcaffeinated undergrad in my early 20s, I discovered that LiveJournal had the missing element: an audience.

LJ has the setup that most social networks have now. You have a place to post your own updates and a feed of updates from people you’re following. So even my most boring, inane blog posts — and there were many — were still read by my friends. I had an audience, and it was easy for them to comment on my posts to give me feedback. I had someone to aim my words at.

Today LJ is a quiet place. I haven’t posted there since November 2013. Instead of my LiveJournal I now have this blog, hosted on my own domain and prettied up with WordPress. When I first set it up I made a few posts about mundane personal things like my Thanksgiving preparations. But since then it’s been strictly “business” — and by business* I mean coffee.

Why is that? Several times I’ve decided to go back to posting personal stuff, but each time I’ve run into a wall made up of two questions:

  • What should I write about?
  • Why should anyone care?

The answer, of course, is that it’s my blog. I can write about whatever I want, and it doesn’t matter if anyone cares.

But even after telling myself that, I hesitate. And I think it’s because I’m back to that missing element: audience. Without the social networking of a service like LiveJournal, and with RSS feeds apparently going the way of the dodo, I can’t shake the feeling that anything I write is just vanishing into the void.

It’s not so much a need for validation (though of course I crave that like anyone else), it’s that without an audience I have trouble finding a voice. I don’t need to write for myself, I know all my mundane personal crap.

That’s why I’ve been able to keep doing coffee posts. There’s a clear goal, obvious content, and I can just look at my Google hits to see what works and what doesn’t. The trick is getting the same sort of feel for my non-coffee stuff.

Well, I won’t learn that trick if I don’t write. I’ve been doing okay for the most part managing a coffee post at least once a week, usually on Fridays. So my goal is to do the same for non-coffee, on what I’m gonna call Personal Thursdays because I like the internal rhyme. Keep an eye on my Twitter for links to new posts, and hopefully I’ll find my voice.

 

*I use the term business loosely, since I make zero money off it.

Read More

Review: McCafe Roundup (McDonald’s)

Sep 19

This blog has been really Starbucks heavy of late. That’s the stuff that gets me the most hits, but I feel like I should break it up every now and then with something different. After all, there’s tons of places to get coffee and/or tea drinks, and at least some of the ones without green aprons should get some attention.

So today I’m gonna bring you something a little different: Here’s some short reviews of coffee drinks from McDonald’s.

McC4drinksThe McCafe line is, as far as I can tell, an attempt to jump in on the growing popularity of coffee drinks that aren’t just brewed coffee. While many swear by McDonald’s coffee (when they’re not heating it to the third-degree-burn zone), not a lot of people think of going there for a latte. I assumed the drinks were being made from some kind of premade mix, but when I ordered I spotted some actual bean grinder hoppers behind the counter. Judging from their website, McCafe drinks are made more or less like drinks at a coffee shop — with espresso and steamed milk.

So how do they compare? To find out I went in early one morning and ordered four drinks: a Mocha Frappe, a Caramel Mocha, a Mocha and a French Vanilla Latte.

McCMochaFrappeWhile other customers were casting dubious glances at the chick who’d just ordered four coffee drinks and then sat down to drink them by herself, I started with the Mocha Frappe. This is an iced blended mocha, the equivalent of a Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino. I generally don’t drink Frappuccinos, but I’ve resorted to them often enough to be able to make a comparison.

The Frappe is sweeter than a fresh-made Frappuccino — it’s more like the bottled version you can buy at convenience stores. It’s more shake-like than the Frappuccino too, with a heavily chocolatey taste all but obliterating the taste of the coffee. Which is understandable for a restaurant that’s known for selling shakes. Overall, not bad.

McCCaramelMochaNext I tried the Caramel Mocha. This drink smelled caramelly, but it was kind of a fake caramel. It’s a very, very sweet drink, much more caramel than chocolate flavor-wise. There’s pretty much no coffee taste at all, so this might be a worthwhile choice for the “need caffeine but can’t stand coffee” crowd.

After a few sips, the taste of the drink kind of blurred into a bland sweetness with caramel on top. It wasn’t bad, per se, but not super appealing either. On a side note, unlike at Starbucks neither this drink nor the regular Mocha were served with whipped cream (even though the McDonald’s website says they should be).

Then came the Mocha, which doesn’t get its own picture because it looked exactly the same as the Caramel Mocha. And like its caramel sibling, this drink doesn’t have much coffee taste to it. Instead it’s quite chocolatey-sweet — it reminded me a little of vending machine mochas, and I mean that in a good way because those helped sustain me through four years of grad school.

Without the extra sweetness layered on with caramel, the Mocha has a much better balance of flavor and is not overwhelmingly sweet. My notes say “would order if needed”, which for McDonald’s coffee is practically a ringing endorsement from me.

McCFrenchVanillaLatteAnd finally the French Vanilla Latte. I’ve mentioned before that the vanilla latte is the drink I generally judge coffeeshops by. If you can’t make a good vanilla latte then pretty much nothing else on the menu is gonna be drinkable.

My expectations were a little low after the two mochas, but when I took off the lid I found the drink had been topped with a layer of foam like a proper latte. I was even more surprised when I took a sip — while the flavor is more vanilla than French vanilla, the balance of sweetness vs coffee flavor is not bad at all. It reminded me a little of the vanilla latte at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf … except that in my opinion, the McDonald’s latte is better. You hear that, CBTL? Better step up your latte game, because you just got beat by the clown.

It’s not the best vanilla latte I’ve ever had, but it’s far from the worst (I’ve had a lot of CBTL lattes) and if I found myself needing a drink with no Starbucks nearby, I’d definitely consider hitting up McDonald’s for this.

On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the McCafe drinks. I had very low expectations, partly because I tried their latte way back when McCafe first came out and couldn’t stand it, but found the drink lineup decently tasty. Given that McDonald’s is even more omnipresent in some areas than Starbucks, and also given that McCafe drinks are cheaper than your average coffeeshop, they are definitely worth a try. Keep your sweetness preferences in mind so you don’t get over-sugared, and you might just find yourself with a newfound respect for fast-food coffee.

Bullet-pointed summary:

  • What: McCafe coffee drinks
  • Where: McDonald’s
  • Options: May be available iced or blended
  • Verdict:
    • Mocha Frappe — Chocolatey and shake-like
    • Caramel Mocha — Super sweet (probably too super) and heavy on the caramel
    • Mocha — Sweet and flavorful
    • French Vanilla Latte — Well-balanced, not too sweet, and tasty even if it lacks the “French”ness
    • Overall — Worth a try, especially if price is a concern.

 

Read More

Learn to drink tea!

Sep 12

A little while ago I wrote about how to “learn” to drink coffee, and admitted that I didn’t originally like coffee. Some of you may have noticed that I mentioned I didn’t originally like tea, either. But I clearly drink it now! So what happened?

For years I was frustrated at how I couldn’t stand tea at all. It’s a cheap, healthy drink. You can stick a few tea bags in your purse and then all you need is hot water for a good beverage! All kinds of tea are recommended to help with colds, sore throats, etc. But every time I tried tea, I just couldn’t drink it. What was I doing wrong?

First of all, just like coffee, cheap tea will not help you like it. So ignore those boxes of tea bags your office has in the break room for free. Don’t bother with the nameless tea that comes out of the spout at your local fast food restaurant. You don’t need to spend top dollar on fancy tea but you should stay away from the super cheap stuff.

Second of all, don’t assume that you take your tea the same way you take your coffee. I always drink coffee with sweetener and cream, so I figured I needed that in tea too. I’d make a cup of tea, pour in sugar and milk, stir it up, take a sip, and just pour the rest out. It turns out, I like tea a lot better when I don’t add anything after brewing! At most, I add about a quarter teaspoon of sugar. So experiment with what you add to the tea and don’t be afraid to just drink it straight, even if you don’t drink coffee that way.

Third of all, brew it properly. You probably don’t need to be picky about the brewing temperature, but pay attention to the directions on the tea bag or box for how long it should be brewed. If there’s no directions, figure out what kind of tea it is (black, green, white, etc) and ask the internets how long it should be brewed. There’s usually a pretty good consensus.

So given that I was brewing cheap tea poorly and adding too much crap to it, how did I manage to learn to drink it properly? I used the same method I use on other people to teach them to drink coffee: start with sugary froufrou drinks and work your way down to the “real” stuff!

To be honest, my preferred chain retailer for this process isn’t Starbucks, it’s Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. And not just because I went through it while I was working in the same building as CBTL — in my experience, one should go to Starbucks for better coffee drinks and CBTL for better tea drinks. This may change now that Starbucks has bought Teavana, who knows.

In any case, start with tea lattes. At CBTL, these are teas that are mixed with steamed milk and vanilla. Starbucks has them too, but I haven’t tried them since they were added to the menu (shame on me!). Pick something flavored, like the Pomegranate Blueberry tea latte. This is sweet and fruity, and doesn’t taste too strongly of tea. Once you get used to that, you can work your way through the tea lattes toward ones that are less flavory and more tea-y. A good middle-ground is the Earl Grey tea latte. Earl Grey is flavored with bergamot oil, but it’s a “real” tea (you can find it pretty much anywhere). Eventually you can get tea lattes with plain black or green tea.

The next step, of course, is to drink plain tea. Possibly with some milk and sugar. For this I recommend getting something of decent quality. If there’s something you particularly liked at Coffee Bean, order that as a cup of tea rather than a tea latte. If you like that, buy a tin so you can make it on your own. Experiment with different teas, different additives, etc.

As with coffee, the key is to not be afraid to try things. If you have a tea-loving friend, ask them for recommendations. Friends from different tea-drinking cultures may give you interesting insights — I learned a lot of my tea-drinking habits from a Chinese friend of mine who always had a desk covered in different types of tea. If you have a local tea room, go there and ask for recommendations, or even a tasting. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, Chado Tea Room is great for this.

And again, as with coffee — don’t let anyone tell you what you “should” like. What matters is trying new things, and finding what you do like.

Read More

Learn to drink coffee! Part 2

Sep 05

Last week I talked about how to get started drinking coffee when you can’t stand the taste. Here’s part two!

Okay, so you’ve found a drink you like or at least can stand. Now what?

Well, now you dial down the sugar and dial up the coffee. There’s a few ways to do this; one way is to order your drink with an extra shot of espresso, or with a pump or two less flavoring. Another way is to switch drinks — as a rule of thumb, coffee drinks that are lighter on calories are usually more coffee-flavored. Remember, you can always ask your barista for recommendations.

The last step of the process is usually to step away from lattes, mochas, and blended drinks and actually drinking regular coffee. This is the hardest step and if you never get to this point, that’s fine. I personally prefer lattes to regular coffee a lot of the time, and I never drink my coffee black. But if you’re having trouble being able to finish a cup of “regular joe”, here’s a few pointers:

Crappy coffee is not gonna help. Neither will coffee that’s too dark (I’m looking at you, French Roast). The Pike Place Roast they usually brew at Starbucks is decent, but if you really want to taste some good coffee, find a Starbucks with a Clover machine and ask the barista for a recommendation off their Reserve menu. This will be more expensive than a plain coffee but often cheaper than a froufrou latte. Or find a local coffeeshop that does pourovers, cold brews, French presses or the like, and try that.

Don’t assume that loading it up with sugar and cream is the answer. I find that going nuts on the sugar just results in a drink that’s too sweet to drink. Sweeten in moderation — and always start with less sugar than you think you need. You can add more if you want to. Another option is “classic syrup”, which adds the sweetness without adding any particular flavor. I get my Clover brewed coffees with two pumps of classic syrup and I find that’s just right for me

Experiment, experiment, experiment. The closer you get to plain black coffee the cheaper the drinks tend to be, so don’t be afraid to order something new. Ask baristas for opinions. Try new brewing methods. Try making it at home.

Don’t let anyone tell you what you “should” like. Everything I say here is just a recommendation. Only you can know what you like. Many people swear by McDonalds coffee, or Dunkin Donuts. If you like it, drink it, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong. Just because I encourage you to try new things doesn’t mean the things you already like aren’t good enough!

And there you have it: my method for learning to drink coffee. Got questions? Leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter!
Read More

What I’m Drinking: Cold Brew

Sep 05

One of the downsides to brewing your own hot coffee in the morning is that it requires measuring, filling, and operating equipment before you’ve had your coffee. This leads to all kinds of bleary-eyed brewing mishaps, like forgetting to put the espresso in the machine before brewing a shot (guilty), forgetting to put water in the machine (guilty), forgetting to put something under the spout to catch the coffee (oh so guilty) … it’s a recipe for disaster.

Well, have no fear because there is a delicious solution to this problem, and it’s called cold brew.

The deliciousness just radiates through your screen. Stainless steel press optional.

The deliciousness just radiates through your screen. Cat bed on the table is optional. (photo courtesy of my wife)

Now, this is not the same thing as iced coffee, which is generally brewed hot like regular coffee and then cooled down. Cold-brewed coffee doesn’t involve heat at all! And in fact, in some ways it’s easier to make than traditional coffee.

Here’s the basics: you mix ground coffee and room-temperature or cold water, you let it sit overnight in your fridge (or on your counter, depending on the temperature), and in the morning you just need to filter out the coffee grounds and your coffee is ready to drink! It’s the sun tea of the coffee world. It comes out just as strong, and even a little less bitter because the interaction between the coffee and the ground beans is different when no heat is involved.

If you Google up some instructions on cold brewing, you’ll find there’s a bunch of different ways to get the ground coffee out of your cold brew. But to me, this is a no-brainer. There’s already a piece of equipment perfectly suited for brewing and filtering coffee: a French press!

Here’s how I brew my coffee every day now. It’s adapted from this recipe on The Cooking of Joy — Joy deserves the credit for all the inspirational deliciousness.

 

You need:

  • a 32-ish ounce French press
  • 3/4 cup coarse-ground coffee beans (get decent stuff, and if someone else is grinding it for you tell them it’s for a French press)
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar (optional)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon (optional)
  • 3 cups water

Instructions:

  1. Put the coffee beans, brown sugar and cinnamon (if you’re adding them) in your French press and stir to combine.
  2. Add 3 cups water and stir well.
  3. Give it a minute or two — a lot of the coffee will float to the surface — then stir well again.
  4. If the shelves on your fridge are tall enough, place the lid on the French press with the plunger juuuust resting against the top of the coffee. Otherwise, cover the press with plastic wrap or something.
  5. Put it in the fridge and leave it overnight. 8 hours minimum, 12 may be better, try not to let it go 24.
  6. In the morning take the press out, put the lid on if you haven’t already, and slowly push the plunger down as far as it will go.
  7. Pour your coffee, add ice and/or some kind of cream if you want, and drink! Makes enough for 2 or 3 glasses.

Not only is this straight-up delicious, but the bulk of the work is done the night before, when you’re not groggy and caffeine-deprived. All you have to do to get your fix in the morning is push the plunger and pour!

If it’s too much for you to drink in one morning, no worries — you can keep the brewed coffee in your fridge for a couple of days. Just make sure to pour it out of the French press so the brewing process stops. And for heaven’s sake empty the grounds out of your press and rinse it right away. Coffee grounds grow mold like whoa if you let them.

So go ahead and give this a try. If you’re anything like me, it’ll soon become a daily part of your morning routine.

 

Read More