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 Brul√©e 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: 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: Americano vs Latte

Jun 13

Today in “drink comparisons I find in the list of search term referrals”, I’m gonna talk about a couple of the simpler drinks on the menu: Americano vs latte.

I’ll start with the latte — it’s the drink that forms the basis of most of the espresso drinks on the Starbucks menu. It’s made with espresso shots, steamed milk, and a little bit of milk foam on top. It’s not sweet on its own, but many people add sugar or some kind of flavoring syrup to it. It can be made iced (espresso, cold milk, ice), decaf, pretty much any customization available can be done to it. It’s a very flexible drink and a good test of a coffeeshop’s quality.

The Americano on the other hand is unusual among the espresso drink lineup in that it has no milk in it at all. It’s just espresso shots and water — hot water if you’re ordering it hot, cold water and ice if you’re ordering it iced. Essentially it’s espresso watered down to roughly the strength of regular brewed coffee. You may wonder what the point of that is; why water down espresso when you can just get coffee? One reason is that because of the espresso brewing process, an Americano doesn’t have the same taste as a regular coffee. It retains some of its deep espresso-ness. Another reason is that it’s a way you can brew a quick coffee on an espresso machine, if you don’t have a regular coffee machine handy.

People often make snide remarks about going to Starbucks and finding they’re out of coffee, but it’s true that sometimes the baristas can’t immediately pour a cup of coffee for a customer who wants one. Since the coffee is thrown out and rebrewed on a regular basis, there is often a delay while a new pot is brewed. You don’t just pour a cup of coffee while it’s still brewing, because the strength of the coffee is different between the beginning and end of the brewing process and pulling a cup early throws that balance off. Some stores will stop brewing a type of coffee, like decaf, at a certain time of the day due to low sales. Sometimes the coffee machine just breaks down, or (as happened once at my store) is the winner of a game of “where’s that electrical burning smell coming from?”

When something like this happens, and a customer wants a cup of coffee, the baristas will nearly always offer to make them an Americano instead. For most people this is an acceptable replacement, and it’s quicker than brewing up a French Press or a Clover cup of coffee instead.

Which one should you pick? If you want something dairy-based (or soy-based) and easily customized, especially if you’re not big on the taste of coffee and want something sweeter, get the latte. If you avoid milk, or prefer your drinks more on the coffee-flavored side of the spectrum, or if you just want something as close to a regular coffee as possible, get an Americano.

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