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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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!
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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


  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.


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Learn to drink coffee! Part 1

Aug 29

Believe it or not, this is something that’s come up many times over the past decade and a half. “I want to drink coffee, but I just can’t stand the taste!” “I need caffeine, but coffee tastes gross!” “I don’t like the taste of coffee, what can I drink?”

I’ll let y’all in on a little secret: I didn’t used to like coffee either. Couldn’t stand the taste. My early caffeine fixes were all from soda, because I didn’t like tea either.

What happened? Well for one thing, I got a job at Starbucks. That training gave me a ton of knowledge about coffee roasting, brewing, and drink recipes, and the time to experiment with different combinations.

The first thing I realized was that I’d been doing coffee all wrong. I figured that since I didn’t like coffee, the solution was just to load as much sugar and cream as I could into whatever cheap coffee was handy. Needless to say, the result was less than tasty and didn’t particularly incline me to drink more. If you don’t like something, then buying the cheapest version of it and trying to choke it down is not necessarily going to be productive.

Over the years I’ve developed a method for “teaching” people to drink coffee. I can’t guarantee it will work for everyone, but I’ve had good success with it on friends and family (because I share my addiction far and wide when I can). Here’s what to do:

Start with the most sugary froufrou drink you can stand. These will often be more expensive than less sugary drinks, but if you don’t like the taste of coffee then you’ll need to tone it down with something and sugar is the easiest way.

My usual recommendation is the White Chocolate Mocha. This is one of the sweetest drinks on the menu, hands down. If even this is too coffee-like for you, go even more to the sugary side with a single venti Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha. That’s a single shot of espresso in 20 ounces of sugar and milk.

Don’t like sweet things all that much? Try the Mocha. It’s chocolatey but not super sweet. If you need to tone the coffee down further, ask the barista for two or three pumps of a flavor syrup — hazelnut or vanilla would be good.

Want something cold? The above drinks can be ordered iced, or you can try the Java Chip Frappuccino. Basically a chocolate milkshake with some coffee in it.

Need to watch your sugar intake? Try a Skinny Mocha or a Sugar-free Vanilla Latte. Lactose intolerant? Order your drink made with soy. If you’re getting a mocha or white chocolate mocha, ask the barista whether the syrup has milk in it.

Once you’ve found your drink, then what? Tune in next week for part 2 of Learn to Drink Coffee!
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How to make coffeeshop drinks: Cutting corners

Jun 01

Okay, so. I’ve written several blog entries so far describing how, in general, to make your favorite drinks at home. And through the power of the internets I can feel some of you looking at all these words words words and thinking “Are you crazy? That is way too much effort.”

You know what? It may very well be.

Hear me out here. A quick Google search will turn up page after page and video after video explaining to you how to make the perfect coffee/tea/latte/hot chocolate or whatever your drink preference is. Roast your own coffee beans, grind them with an expensive grinder and then brew them in a Chemex! Buy a specific brand of chocolate and carefully shave it into milk that’s been steamed to an exact temperature! Put your tea into water that is precisely 180 degrees and not boiling! I’ve seen everything down to instructions on precisely regulating the water temperature in your espresso machine and the grind in your grinder.

Will all of that painstaking attention to detail make a better-tasting beverage? Probably, yes.

Will it make a difference that matters to you? It might not. That’s something that varies from person to person.

I look at it this way. I make myself a latte every morning with my espresso machine. And I know a couple of things — I usually put flavored sweetener in it (currently hazelnut syrup), and I hate cleaning up coffee grinders. Because I’m drinking my espresso with milk and sweetener, I don’t care that my beans aren’t freshly-ground, or even if they were ground in the last month. What I care is that I can brew some shots with it to put in my drink, and that those shots have caffeine. So I have my beans ground when I buy them and I don’t use them all up right away.

In some circles that’s a cardinal sin. But you know what? The difference between fresh-ground beans and month-old ground beans is not something I can detect in a hazelnut latte.

What I do care about is freshly steamed milk and a decent-quality flavored syrup. So instead of microwaving the milk or using flavored non-dairy creamer or something, I pour some hazelnut into my mug and fire up the steam wand on my machine, even though those take extra time and cleaning (especially that steam wand!). That’s what matters to me, so that’s what I spend extra time on. It’s not a perfect latte, but it’s a latte I enjoy drinking as I read my morning work emails.

I’ve tried to give a general idea of what to do to recreate your favorite drinks at home, but I’ve also tried to refrain from any value judgments on shortcuts. You don’t necessarily need the most expensive ingredients or the most complicated brewing process to make a drink you enjoy. You can give them a try, especially if you have a coffeeshop or tea room nearby that will do it for you — that way you can sample a Chemex or a carefully temperature-controlled latte or perfectly-brewed loose-leaf tea without making any special investments — but if you’re content drinking something that’s easier for you to make, there’s no particular need for you to do anything else.

I can taste the difference between a carefully-crafted latte at Intelligentsia and my lazy morning latte, sure. But when I’ve just gotten out of bed and the baby needs feeding and my work emails are starting to pile up, the lazy latte is all I need.

So if there’s only one lesson you take away from all my blathering, it’s this: try things until you find what you like, not what you “should” like.

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How to make coffeeshop drinks: Putting it together

May 25

You’ve chugged through all those loooong posts on getting your equipment, your beans, your tea, your ingredients … finally you can put it all together and actually make your drink!

The first step is to have an idea of how your drink is made. My quick guide here will cover that. Most drinks will include some combination of brewed coffee, milk, and possibly flavors of some kind.

Hot espresso drinks: The first rule of hot espresso drinks is to always heat the milk first. The second rule is to always heat the milk first. Or the water, if you’re making an Americano. Espresso shots have a very short “shelf life” — once they brew you want to throw them into a drink right away. So if you’re using an espresso machine, start by steaming your milk. (For Americanos, you just need to heat up some water. Throw the shots in and you’re good.)

Steaming milk with a steam wand takes some practice. Check online for helpful videos. As a quick rundown, you need to make sure your machine is warmed up and set to whatever turns on the steam wand. Measure out your milk using the cup you’re going to drink from, but keep in mind steamed milk expands somewhat, and some space will be taken up by foam and espresso. When I make a latte, I only fill my cup halfway with milk. Transfer this milk to a good steaming pitcher, stick the steam wand into it, and turn on the steam. You’ll want to dip the pitcher a little to bring the wand close to the surface of the milk — this will make some foam and also cut down on the noise. Make sure you have a thermometer in the pitcher — aim for 130F for kids’ drinks, 140F if you don’t want it too hot, or 160F-170F for a regular hot drink.

As a rule, the thicker the milk the louder the noise. You can observe this by sitting in a Starbucks during the holiday season, because whenever an eggnog latte is being steamed the noise is incredibly loud. In pretty much every case, though, steaming milk is not something you want to do if there’s any light sleepers trying to get some shuteye nearby.

Once the milk is steamed, brew your espresso. This gives your milk a little time for the foam to separate from the milk, and also a little time to add any flavorings you want to the bottom of your cup. Chocolate for a mocha, vanilla syrup for a vanilla latte, whatever.

The art of brewing a good espresso shot depends heavily on your brewing apparatus, the grind and tamp of your beans, the heat of your water, even the humidity can be a factor if you have a touchy machine. I’ll cover that in detail in some other post, but for now the most important part is that you’re aiming for a full shot (about an ounce) of espresso to pull in about 20 seconds. You can adjust this by packing the ground beans in tighter or more loosely. This is another area where trial and error can be your friend.

As soon as your espresso finishes brewing, put the drink together! As a general rule, unless you’re making a macchiato where the shots go in last, you’ll want this order:

  1. Flavorings, if any (chocolate, vanilla, etc)
  2. Espresso (if your flavoring is thick, like mocha syrup, swirl the hot shots around to help it dissolve)
  3. Milk
  4. Foam, if desired
  5. Toppings, if any (whipped cream, nutmeg, sprinkles, etc)

Bam! There’s your drink. There’s a lot of flexibility in how this is done (I’ll cover that in yet another post) but basically, that’s how a lot of national chain coffeeshops do it. Doing pretty stuff like designs in the foam takes more effort and practice — you’re better off hitting YouTube if you want to master that kind of coffee artistry. Personally, I just aim for a drink I can stuff in my face to wake me up.

Iced espresso drinks: If this is what you’re aiming for, you’ve got it a lot simpler. Instead of all that milk steaming nonsense, here’s what you do:

  1. Put flavorings in the cup, if any
  2. Fill the cup with ice
  3. Brew shots and pour them over the ice
  4. Fill cup with milk (or water, for an Americano) and stir
  5. Top with toppings

And that’s it. Now, a lot of thicker flavor syrups and whatnot don’t dissolve as well in cold liquids as they do in hot liquids. You may have to stir quite a bit to get it to mix together properly. Another option is to put the shots in second, swirl the cup to mix everything, then add the ice and the milk.

Tea drinks: These vary more widely. If you’re making a tea latte, you’ll want to brew some tea, steam some milk, and put them together in a cup. What ratio really depends on your taste. If you get a tea latte at a coffeeshop that you like, ask them how they make it. There will probably be some sweeteners involved.

For chai lattes, it depends on where you’re getting your flavor from. There are premade chai mixes where you just mix the syrup with milk and you have your chai. Other mixes are made to be mixed with brewed tea. There are also some powdered chai mixes made to be mixed with hot or cold water. And if you want a chai without the latte, there’s tea/spice mixes designed for you to brew the spices together with the tea.

That’s the basics! Hopefully you’ve learned how to recreate your favorite drink at home. In the future I’ll write some posts covering some drinks in more detail. If there’s something you’d like me to cover, leave a comment or @reply me on Twitter!

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