Review: Starbucks Flat White

Jan 09

The holiday season is over, and that means the post-holiday winter season has begun at Starbucks. This is the time of year when the beloved holiday-themed drinks like the Gingerbread Latte fade away, so there’s always a new drink or two introduced to try to keep peoples’ interest.

Usually the new winter drinks are sugary, often some variation on the mocha or a new flavoring for lattes. But this year Starbucks is trying something different: the Flat White.

Not gonna lie, I had to refresh my memory on what exactly a flat white is. You can check Wikipedia or Starbucks, but the gist of it is that a flat white is a drink popularized in Australia that’s like a latte or cappuccino, but with ristretto (shorter) shots and carefully steamed milk that’s a finer, more “velvety” foam.

See what’s missing there? No flavoring, no syrups, no toppings, no fancy froufrou stuff. The key flavor in a flat white is the espresso itself. With a menu increasingly reliant on sugary sweet drinks, it’s nice to see Starbucks coming back to a drink where it’s the actual coffee in the spotlight.

I’ve mentioned before that I usually get my lattes and Clover coffees sweetened, but for the purposes of this review I ordered a flat white with nothing extra — just the drink as it’s normally made. And you know what? I don’t miss the sweetness. The flavor of the espresso is very nicely balanced against the milk, so the drink isn’t bitter or harsh to tastebuds accustomed to sweeter drinks. If lattes are your thing, definitely give the flat white a try.

There’s a couple of particularly notable elements to this drink, besides the lack of “candy”. First is the ristretto shots — these are shots of espresso that are brewed for a shorter length of time than usual, giving the shots a different character since the espresso coming out of the machine changes a bit over the course of the brewing process. For a while my “Starbucks Drinks Simplified” page stated that these shots couldn’t be made on the new superautomatic machines like they could on the older, more manual machines that were in use when I worked for Starbucks. Clearly this isn’t the case. Ristretto shots used to be something very rarely requested by customers, but if they’re promoting a whole drink centered on them then clearly the machines can handle it.

The second notable element is the milk. Setting aside all the talk about “microfoam” and “velvety”, the key thing for the barista is that the milk in a flat white is fiddly. Look, people who see pictures of lattes with those pretty hearts in the foam, or awesome pictures or whatever, come to me and say “can you do that?” and the answer is no, I can’t. Starbucks doesn’t train baristas in pretty foam techniques because the vast majority of customers just want their drink in a cup right now. They don’t want to wait for you to make a pretty heart on their drink and the twenty drinks ahead of them. Hell, they don’t even want to wait for you to heat up the milk. Handcrafting drinks with care is a constant struggle between the ideals of slow, individual attention and the impatience of a constant line of customers. But I kept an eye on the barista after I ordered and she did have to pay extra attention to the milk steaming. And when I popped the lid off, there was in fact the “white dot” in the foam that the Starbucks website crows about. The milk did seem to have a different texture than usual, too.

Put these together and you have a very unusual drink in the Starbucks lineup — a combination of a special, rarely-requested type of espresso shot and a more labor-intensive milk steaming and pouring process. To be honest, I’m glad all that work isn’t hidden under some kind of super-sugary flavoring syrup and whipped cream.

Options for customizing this drink would be similar to a latte: you can get it decaf, you can get it flavored, and you can order it with soy. You may not get the full experience with soy milk, however, since it has different steaming properties than milk and foams differently (which is to say, it’s hard as hell to get a good foam with soy). Likewise, if you ask for this drink with flavor syrup you’ll be hiding the best parts of it, so you might as well just order a latte. I suspect you can order a flat white on the rocks (iced), but that would just be an iced latte with ristretto shots — a drink which you can order more cheaply than the flat white.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable drink. Even if you normally lean toward the sweeter side of the menu, give the flat white a try. You might find yourself liking it a lot.

 

  • What: Starbucks Flat White
  • Where: Starbucks locations
  • Options: Decaf or regular, hot or iced, choice of milk, flavoring syrups can be added (but if you get it iced, soy, or flavored you’re missing the point)
  • Verdict: A delicious variation on the standard latte, showcasing the taste of espresso.

 

 

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Chestnut Praline Latte (Starbucks)

Nov 08

The winter holiday season is back, and that means Starbucks’s red cups and holiday drinks have returned. This year, along with the classic Gingerbread Latte and Eggnog Latte, plus new yearly staple Caramel Brulée Latte, comes a new holiday drink: the Chestnut Praline Latte.

Nom nom nom.

Nom nom nom.

I’m a sucker for nutty pralines, so I was pretty excited to try this drink. And I can say right away — I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a sweet drink, like all their holiday specials, and the taste is definitely nutty and praliney. It reminds me of the Toffee Nut Latte, another favorite of mine. Or as my wife said when she tried it, “it tastes like a cookie.” I’m gonna have a tough choice every time I go into Starbucks this season, choosing between the Chestnut Praline and the Gingerbread for my latte fix.

This drink is made with the usual latte fixings (espresso and steamed milk) plus chestnut flavoring syrup, whipped cream (if you want it), and “spiced praline crumbs”. Like all lattes, you can get it iced, decaf, and with your choice of milk. You can probably also get it in Frappuccino form, if you’re in the mood. Unfortunately it’s quite sugary, so diabetics, carb-avoiders, and calorie counters may be out of luck.

All in all, this new winter offering is a pretty dang tasty drink. If you like the Toffee Nut or Gingerbread lattes, you’ll probably dig the Chestnut Praline too.

Bullet-pointed summary:

  • What: Chestnut Praline Latte
  • Where: Starbucks
  • Options: hot or iced or Frappuccino, decaf or regular, your choice of milk
  • Verdict: A sweet and flavorful addition to the holiday drink lineup
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Review: Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Coffee

Oct 10

When I spotted Pumpkin Spice coffee at Trader Joe’s, I knew I had to give it a try. The ingredients included orange peel, and orange is a big favorite of mine, so I had high hopes.

Now, a warning about flavored coffee beans: adding flavor to ground beans is often a way to try to mask substandard coffee. And coffee that’s sold pre-ground, as this is, may not be at the peak of its freshness. I don’t grind my beans fresh at home like I should, but at least I have an idea how long ago they were ground. When you buy a canister of ground beans, all bets are off.

Ponder the alluring packaging.

Ponder the alluring packaging.

When I opened the canister, the smell was quite striking. Unfortunately, I don’t mean that in a good way. I expected to smell pumpkin pie spices, or possibly orange peel. What I actually smelled was … honestly, I don’t know. It seemed almost chemical. It certainly didn’t smell like any ingredient I would expect in pumpkin spice coffee.

I brewed this coffee the same way I brew my regular morning coffee — as a cold brew. It’s too fine a grind for a French press filter, so I had to strain the grounds out manually, but that’s no big deal. I tried brewing it with and without the brown sugar included in my usual cold brew, so I’d have a good basis for comparison.

This coffee is definitely flavored. But the flavor doesn’t seem like any other pumpkin spice product I’ve tried. If you’re brewing this hoping to get something similar to a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte, you will be disappointed. I couldn’t really identify any of the traditional spices, nor anything in the ingredients list. It just has a vague “some kind of spices” flavor.

As for the coffee beans themselves, I’m not impressed. But then, I have never been a fan of Trader Joe’s coffee. It may be a quality thing or it may be a personal preference. I have tried some coffees of theirs that were pretty decent (the Breakfast Blend comes to mind). But compared to the cold-brewed Verona I have every morning, this stuff was just not as good. A little bitter, a little burnt — and yes, I know that’s an odd thing to say in comparison to a Starbucks dark roast! — and just underwhelming.

If you like Trader Joe’s coffee, you may enjoy this more than I did. But don’t expect it to have a classic pumpkin spice flavor.

 

  • What: Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Coffee
  • Where: Trader Joe’s grocery stores
  • Verdict: Underwhelming coffee, with a not-very-pumpkin-spice-like flavor. But it may be a decent brew for fans of other coffees from Trader Joe’s.

 

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Review: Starbucks VIA Pumpkin Spice Latte

Oct 03

Packet is not for consumption.

Packet is not for consumption.

It’s that time of year again — the time for pumpkin spice everything. Starbucks, the traditional harbinger of fall with its Pumpkin Spice Latte, has taken the opportunity to also expand their VIA instant latte line with a pumpkin spice variety. Since I’ve already reviewed the real PSL, today I’m reviewing the instant version.

First of all, a standard reminder: pumpkin spice does not mean there’s pumpkin in it. Pumpkin spice means the spices you’d put in a pumpkin pie. We’re just too lazy to say pumpkin pie spice.

Like other VIA instant lattes, this one comes in a large single-serving packet, sold in packs of four. The ingredients include the dreaded, vague “natural flavors”, but since it’s instant coffee I don’t really expect any different. You pour the powder into a mug, add boiling water (the instructions say 8 ounces but I say however much it takes to fill your mug) and stir. Bam! Instant pumpkin spice latte.

Your happy sun mug may vary.

Your happy sun mug may vary.

Like the VIA vanilla latte, this is not as good as the “real thing”, made with actual espresso, non-powdered steamed milk, and syrup from a bottle. The pumpkin spice flavor is similar, and if you’re jonesing for pumpkin spice Starbucks and can’t leave the house it would probably tide you over. Also like the VIA vanilla latte, however, the overall taste is still reminiscent of the kind of instant flavored cream/coffee blends you can get in the grocery store, for a considerably higher price.

It’s not a bad drink, and I’ll certainly finish all four packets in the box I bought. And as far as an instant beverage, it’s decent. However, if you need a just-add-water drink that’s much heavier on the pumpkin spice and lighter on the instant taste, you may be better off with the Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Chai. It’s cheaper per drink and in my opinion much more flavorful.

 

  • What: Starbucks VIA Pumpkin Spice Latte
  • Where: Starbucks locations and possibly some grocery stores
  • Verdict: Not bad, but you can probably find something better for cheaper.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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