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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What should I order at Starbucks?

Jun 27

This has to be the #1 question I've been asked over the years. People walk into Starbucks, see the unfamiliar terminology on the menu boards, get overwhelmed and feel completely lost. That's one of the reasons I started a website waaay back in the early '00s with drink info on it, to help people navigate the menu.

The problem is, “What should I order?” is a hard question to answer without context. It's like “What should I order at McDonald's?” or “What book should I buy from Amazon?” To give a useful answer, you need to know the asker's preferences and what they're in the mood for. I'll list some of the more common things people have in mind here and my suggestions for what to order. And remember — when in doubt, ask the barista.

I just want a coffee. Go ahead and order a coffee, that's totally allowed. If they're in the middle of brewing a new batch, or if they've stopped brewing the coffee you want for the day, they may offer you an Americano, a French press, or a Clover brew. All of those are pretty good options.

I want something kinda sweet but not too expensive or fancy. Try the vanilla latte. It can be made hot or cold, depending on what temperature of drink you're in the mood for.

I want that thing that's like a coffee milkshake. That's a Frappuccino. The most popular flavor is usually the Mocha Frappuccino, followed closely by the Caramel Frappuccino.

I need something with a lot of caffeine to wake me up. Try a venti (large) vanilla latte with an “add shot”. That will get you three shots of espresso in a moderately sweet drink. If you want to up the ante more, make it a quad (four shots). Careful not to overdo it, though — know your caffeine limits. If you need a lot of caffeine but don't want it to taste like coffee, get a venti white mocha with an addshot instead. It will be more expensive, but the white mocha syrup is very sweet, to balance out the espresso.

I want something with no coffee at all. There's lots of options. Want a hot drink? Try a hot chocolate or a chai latte (this has tea in it, so there's still some caffeine). Want a cold drink? Grab a passion tea lemonade, a vanilla bean creme Frappuccino, or one of their new Fizzio sodas.

I'm a tea drinker. You can get a regular tea (there's several varieties to choose from) or a regular iced tea, as well as a line of tea lattes and chai if you want something more than just tea.

I want something caramelly! For a hot drink, get the caramel macchiato (mah-kee-AH-toe) and make sure you stir it well before drinking. For a cold drink, get the caramel Frappuccino.

I need to get something for my kid. The pastry case usually has some milks and juices to choose from. You can also get a kid's hot chocolate (it's an 8 oz cup, and not steamed as hot as adult drinks), an apple juice, or a vanilla bean creme Frappuccino (this has a lot of sugar in it, however). If your kid wants something different, ask the barista if they can make it with no coffee, or at least decaf. Be aware that decaffeinated coffee is not caffeine-free, so it's best to avoid coffee-based things entirely later in the evening.

I'm vegan/lactose intolerant. Most espresso drinks can be made with soy milk. Be aware that the basic flavoring syrups such as vanilla and hazelnut are made with sugar, so if that is an animal product concern for you, avoid these. Seasonal syrups such as pumpkin spice may contain milk products; check with your barista to be sure. When I worked for Starbucks many ages ago I was told that the mocha syrup was vegan, but I don't know if this is still true. Your barista should be able to check the ingredients on the package or syrup bottle if you have questions. If in doubt, stick to simple drinks like coffee, tea, or the juices in the pastry case.

I'm diabetic/on a diet. Plain coffee and tea are extremely low in calories and sugar-free. However, if you need more sweetness in your drink, sugar-free syrups such as sugar-free vanilla are available. Most Frappuccinos can be ordered Light, which reduces the calories and sugar by about half. For more detailed information, check the nutrition info on the Starbucks website.

That covers the most common “what should I order?” questions I get. If you've got a request that's not on the list, leave it in the comments and I'll make a suggestion. And like I said before, you can always ask the person behind the register for advice. Be ready to give them a rough idea of what you like (hot/cold, sweet/not sweet, coffee/tea/neither, etc). And if you don't like what you get, let them know and they'll probably be willing to make you a replacement drink! (Just … don't drink the whole thing and then claim you didn't like it and demand a new drink. They may humor you but they've seen that con game before.)

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Drink comparison: Mocha vs Macchiato

Jun 08

A glance through the search terms bringing people to my site tells me that people hunting for a comparison of Mocha vs. Macchiato. These are very different drinks, so let me straighten this out for you guys. You definitely don’t want to grab the wrong one.

A mocha is chocolate, espresso, steamed milk and usually whipped cream on top. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a latte with chocolate and whipped cream, or a hot chocolate with espresso. It’s chocolatey and often not super-sweet. It can be ordered “on the rocks” aka iced.

An espresso macchiato on the other hand is a cup of milk foam with espresso shots poured into it, “marking” the foam with the espresso. It’s not sweet at all, and is ordered by the number of shots rather than the cup size.

However, as far as Starbucks drinks, when people ask about a macchiato they’re often asking about the caramel macchiato. This is a sweeter drink consisting of vanilla syrup, steamed milk, milk foam, espresso shots poured through the foam, and caramel drizzled on top. It’s more like a vanilla/caramel latte than an espresso macchiato or a mocha. If you order it iced you can see the layers of ingredients through the side of the cup — unless of course you order it “upside down”, with the shots going in first.

Which one should you pick? If you want something chocolatey, get the mocha. If you want the dark taste of the espresso, only toned down slightly by the milk foam, get the espresso macchiato. If you want something pretty sweet and you like caramel, get the caramel macchiato.

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Reader Q&A (courtesy of search engines)

Nov 01

Since I haven’t worked for Starbucks in, oh, a decade or so, I don’t get as many questions about their drinks as I used to. Or questions about coffee in general, for that matter. But the unrelenting flow of people to this little corner of the internet shows that people are still curious, confused, and otherwise question-filled when it comes to the big green leviathan. And I’m here to answer whatever questions y’all have.

Now, people don’t actually ask me things through this blog. Possibly because I have the spam protection turned up to 11, and possibly because I’ve hidden the associated email address and never, ever check it. But thanks to the magic of search engines, I can look into the things people have in their mind when they come here. Some of these things are already answered on the main drinks-explaining page, but some of them aren’t.

So here, in a hopefully-recurring feature, is … Reader Q&A! Where I sift through the search terms that brought people to my site and answer them directly.

Q: is iced caramel macchiato sweet
Yes, it is. You’ll have to stir the everloving hell out of it before drinking it, though, if you want the caramel to mix with the rest of the drink. Caramel sauce doesn’t dissolve very well in cold milk.

Q: can you get an iced cafe misto
Technically, yes. However, this is basically an iced coffee with milk in it, so you’d be better off getting an iced coffee with extra room for cream and just putting the milk in yourself.

Q: caffe misto with soymilk starbucks?
Huh, people actually use punctuation on Google sometimes. Yes, you can get a misto with soy milk.

Q: how to remember how to make starbucks drinks
This is the biggest question I used to get from people applying to Starbucks. It can seem overwhelming at first, looking at that menu full of drinks, but there is logic behind it. Most espresso drinks are basically based around the latte (espresso with milk). For example, a mocha is a latte with chocolate. A caramel macchiato is a vanilla latte with a little less vanilla, the shots dropped in last, and caramel syrup. An americano is a latte with hot water instead of milk, and an extra shot. Frappuccinos are based around the coffee frappuccino — and if my recent visits to Starbucks are any indication, there’s usually stickers on the wall to help you remember the recipe. Shaken drinks are (I think) based around the shaken iced tea. The amount of syrup in any given drink size usually follows a pattern too. Don’t worry, you’ll pick it up pretty quick.

Q: what is a quad macchiato
Four shots poured into a cup full of milk foam.

Q: what’s a normal coffee at starbucks
It’s called a “coffee”. I know, right? You’d never guess that you can walk up to the counter and order a “large coffee”. It’s also sometimes called a “drip”. Cups are rarely marked when someone orders a coffee, since the barista usually just turns around and pours it, but when I was working there, on the rare occasion we marked a coffee it was “COD”, for Coffee Of the Day.

Q: what is an upside down coffee?
Uh … a reason to grab a mop? Caramel macchiatos can be made upside down (with the shots first), but coffee is just coffee. There’s no way to make it upside down.

Q: chocolate macchiato upside down breve
Espresso shots and chocolate with steamed half-and-half and extra foam. Basically a breve mocha with no whipped cream. Okay, so that’s not a question … but it sounds like a tasty drink.

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Review: Salted Caramel Mocha (Starbucks)

Sep 20

With all the buzz the Pumpkin Spice Latte is getting these days, it’s easy to forget that it’s not the only seasonal drink on the menu this fall. If you take a look you’ll see there’s two other drinks being quietly advertised right now — the Salted Caramel Mocha and the Chocolate Chai. A review of the Chocolate Chai will have to wait until some morning when I can allow myself that caffeine (it can’t be ordered decaf), but here’s the rundown on the Salted Caramel Mocha.

Salted caramel mocha

The Salted Caramel Mocha

The SCM is espresso, milk, chocolate, and toffee nut syrup, topped with whipped cream, caramel sauce, and a mix of sugar and salt. It’s a sugary comfort drink with a nice mix of flavors. Unlike most Starbucks mochas, it’s pretty sweet thanks to all the other stuff that’s added. You can, of course, order it with less sweet stuff, but why? I order most drinks with half sweetener, but the only change I usually make to SCMs is to leave off the whipped cream. If you like chocolate and caramel, this drink is for you.

It’s also pretty versatile. Since it’s an espresso drink, it can be ordered decaf, made with nonfat or soy milk, etc. You can leave out the espresso, making it a Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate. You can get it on the rocks (iced), you can get it in Frappuccino form, you can even add other flavors to it if you want (try a pump or two of gingerbread once that’s back in stock).

Like any drink with caramel sauce, I recommend you stir it thoroughly before drinking. The caramel doesn’t dissolve well in milk, so if you want to get that delicious flavor well-integrated into your drink you’ll need to give it a little help.

It’s worth noting that you can get a caramel mocha any time of the year — the chocolate syrup and caramel sauce are always available. I don’t recall if the toffee nut syrup is, but the most seasonal part of this drink is the salt/sugar mix that goes on the top. That is only shipped during the early fall, and once your local Starbucks is out of that they won’t get any more till next year.

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