Personal Thursday: Personal Coffee

Oct 09

I feel like it’s cheating, doing my Personal Thursday entry on something coffee-related this week. But here I go anyway.

There’s a reason my website is mostly about coffee, and it’s not just for Google clicks. It’s because, as weird as it sounds, cofee and tea occupy a important spot in my life. Before I got a job wearing a green apron, that wasn’t the case. My caffeination needs (and voracious non-alcoholic drinking habits) were fulfilled by soda, in mass quantities when possible. But as I began to pick up a coffee habit, and a decade later, a tea habit, I realized just how useful it was to me.

It means I can make myself comfortable almost anywhere with a nice warm drink. I’m a habitually early person, so I often find myself with some time to fill in a random location. All I have to do is locate the nearest coffee/tea joint — not always a Starbucks — order myself a drink, and sit there sipping it for a while. Usually while checking Twitter or writing. Wherever I go, there’s always a drink somewhere, even if it’s mediocre coffee in a lobby.

It also gives me something to help focus while I work on things. Not just because of the caffeine, but because the act of stopping to take a sip helps regulate my thought process and give my hands a break. When I worked in an office, I always had a mug on my desk. At home, I have a coaster that hosts a wide array of beverages throughout the week. Seriously, even if all you have to drink is water, give this a try. You’ll pee more but you might just find yourself getting a better rhythm going.

Thirdly, coffee and tea occupy the place in my life that a lot of people fill with alcohol. No, seriously — if I have a rough day, I crave a hot drink to help me unwind. If I want to be less inhibited, a boost of caffeine is the way I go. I drink it in social situations, I treat myself to it when I need a pick-me-up, and best of all it’s not illegal for me to drink too much or drive a car afterward.

Everybody has their vices. Smoking, shopping, beer, movies, games … everybody has something they spend some spare money and time on to get a little more enjoyment out of life. I spend a fair amount on my habit, and I’ve suffered through some pretty nasty withdrawal, but this is one habit I don’t see myself ever giving up.

Read More

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.

 

Read More

Personal Thursday: Things I’ve Learned as a Sewing Noob

Oct 02

As my tag says, I knit because the needles aren’t sharp. Dexterity is my dump stat — I’m an astoundingly clumsy person and to be honest it’s only my high pain tolerance and solid durability that account for the fact that I still have all my limbs and most of my organs.

Kitty and Kenmore

Kitty and Kenmore

However, there’s been a gap in my textile skills that’s been itching at me for a long time: sewing. Sharp needles, unforgiving machinery, it pretty much spells disaster for a person like me. And yet, with the help of books, the internet, and my mom (who even gave me a vintage 70s Kenmore sewing machine), I’ve embarked upon this path of folly. And now that I’ve been sewing for like a whole two weeks now, I figured I’d use this Personal Thursday post to share some of the lessons I’ve learned so far.

  • Don’t forget to put the presser foot down.
  • You might have been laughed at in college for owning an iron and ironing board, but who’s laughing now?
  • Hang some scissors on a retractable badge lanyard and wear it every time you work on sewing. It is your new best friend.
  • Put the presser foot down.
  • A clear grid ruler is also your new best friend.
  • Cheap cotton muslin makes trying new things less scary.
  • Having a borrowed manual for a different model of sewing machine is not helpful at all when you’ve never threaded a machine before.
  • Put the presser foot down.
  • Pillowcases and napkins are the best thing ever for practice, because it’s super hard to fuck them up so bad they’re not usable.
  • Sewing books always assume the reader is a woman who wants to make feminine clothes for herself. Always. In the 21st century we’re still doing this sexist bullshit.
  • Michael’s doesn’t have a lot of sewing supplies, but it does have a few colors of thread and some cheap bundled fat quarters.
  • Have I mentioned the presser foot? Put it down.
  • Sometimes even the simplest patterns are wrong. Mock it up with paper and fix the measurements.
  • Cats love to help.
  • Your friends (besides the scissors and grid ruler) will patiently put up with you when you keep IMing them yelling “I MADE A THING!”
  • Presser foot. Down.

 

You think I’m joking about that presser foot?


I’m pretty sure I get distracted too easily to ever be good at sewing. But maybe I’ll get passable at it.

Read More

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