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 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

Instructions:

  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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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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Review: Fizzio Lemon Ale (Starbucks)

Jun 24

A tall Lemon Ale.

A tall Lemon Ale.

The third soda in the new Fizzio lineup is the Lemon Ale. While not as well-known a flavor as root beer or ginger ale, and not alcoholic as its name might imply (it’s an ale like ginger ale, not like actual ale), the Lemon Ale still makes a good third member to the trio. When I ordered it, the barista identified it as her favorite of the three offerings, and I can see why.

Like its soda siblings, this drink is not too calorie-laden (80 calories in a tall) and is made from concentrate and then freshly carbonated with the new and mysterious Fizzio carbonation machine. The result is a soda that is quite sweet, and not at all tart like one might expect from a lemony drink.

I expected this drink to basically taste like a carbonated lemonade, but there’s more to it than that. It seems to have more citrus flavors in it than just lemon — in fact, it reminded me a little bit of the Peach Green Tea Lemonade. It’s fruity and very tasty, while not hitting you over the head with lemon flavor. If you like the various tea lemonades at Starbucks, you’ll like this soda.

Bullet-pointed summary:

  • What: Fizzio Lemon Ale
  • Where: Starbucks
  • Options: Just the size
  • Verdict: A fruity, lemony soda that is much more on the sweet side than the tart side.

Check out all three Fizzio sodas:

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Review: Fizzio Golden Ginger Ale (Starbucks)

Jun 24

A tall Golden Ginger Ale.

A tall Golden Ginger Ale.

Along with the highly anticipated Spiced Root Beer, Starbucks’s new lineup of “handcrafted sodas” includes the Golden Ginger Ale.

I was pretty excited by this, because ginger ale is one of my favorite drinks. Not only does it help calm upset stomachs, it’s a nice flavorful drink option that’s reliably caffeine-free and pretty widely available. So I got one the first day the sodas became available to check it out.

I was not disappointed. The Golden Ginger Ale is very gingery, and while it’s sweet it’s not overwhelmingly sweet for a soda. I’d put it a little lower on the sweetness level than the root beer. It has a clean, crisp taste with no extra nonsense and a good level of carbonation. To be honest, it’s one of the better ginger ales I’ve had. Definitely worth getting if you want a nice refreshing soda (or pop, depending on your dialect).

Like the other sodas, the Ginger Ale is pretty reasonable calorie-wise (80 calories in a tall, 100 in a grande) and made without high fructose corn syrup. It’s made from concentrate and freshly carbonated while you wait. Or while you fidget impatiently, if you’re me.

Bullet-pointed summary:

  • What: Fizzio Golden Ginger Ale
  • Where: Starbucks
  • Options: Just the size
  • Verdict: An excellent, refreshing ginger ale.

Check out all three Fizzio sodas:

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