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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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.

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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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