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: 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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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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Pumpkin Spice News

Aug 22

As you may have read on the internet — especially if you’re as coffee-obsessed as I am — the Pumpkin Spice Latte is coming back early this year. Here’s the dates: Official launch is September 2nd. However, through a series of “challenges” on social media, people can “unlock” the PSL at their local Starbucks as early as August 25.

The PSL is traditionally a fall drink, which has some people crying foul at the early release. After all, it’s still August and already we have Halloween candy going on sale, and even some Christmas merch appearing in stores. The tendency in retail is to draw out lucrative seasonal sales as long as possible in the hopes of drawing in more money.

On the flip side, however, drinks that evoke a certain season might reasonably be marketed during a time when people are preparing for that season. Like the first turning of the leaves (if you live in a place where leaves turn, which I don’t), the PSL could be considered as much a sign that fall is coming, as a sign that fall is actually hear. I think that’s the feeling that Starbucks is trying to get in on — a seasonal drink as a sign that the season is coming soon.

Last year, Starbucks realized the social media potential of this drink and pushed it hard on their Twitter account. This year they’re going even further, with a Twitter account specifically for the drink itself (@theRealPSL). The idea is that you follow this Twitter account, complete certain challenges by replying to it — today’s challenge was to find an ingredient on the Starbucks Instagram account — and eventually learn a “passcode” that you give at your local Starbucks to “unlock” the drink, allowing them to start selling it early.

Why go through all this just to sell a drink? Well, “social media engagement” is a big buzzword right now and Starbucks has jumped aboard that train with both feet. It can be an effective and inexpensive way to build buzz about a product, as well as getting immediate feedback on how well the campaign is going. And it’s working: mainstream media outlets are carrying the story. The return of a seasonal drink at a coffee restaurant is now “news”. You can buy billboards and TV ads, but here with a few minutes of typing every day they’ve gotten a crazy amount of publicity.

Of course, it’s a little hypocritical for me to scrutinize their methods. After all, here I am, writing about both the drink and the social media campaign. Just like I wrote with excitement about the coming of the Fizzio sodas and the new shaken teas (all five of those reviews are still among the highest-viewed pages on this site). So if it’s a problem, I’m part of the problem. If it’s a trend, I’m part of the trend. In my defense, I try to be as informational as I can.

Will I be trying to get my Starbucks to sell the Pumpkin Spice Latte early? Probably, I love those things.

For last year’s review of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, click here.
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