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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How to make coffeeshop drinks: Cutting corners

Jun 01

Okay, so. I’ve written several blog entries so far describing how, in general, to make your favorite drinks at home. And through the power of the internets I can feel some of you looking at all these words words words and thinking “Are you crazy? That is way too much effort.”

You know what? It may very well be.

Hear me out here. A quick Google search will turn up page after page and video after video explaining to you how to make the perfect coffee/tea/latte/hot chocolate or whatever your drink preference is. Roast your own coffee beans, grind them with an expensive grinder and then brew them in a Chemex! Buy a specific brand of chocolate and carefully shave it into milk that’s been steamed to an exact temperature! Put your tea into water that is precisely 180 degrees and not boiling! I’ve seen everything down to instructions on precisely regulating the water temperature in your espresso machine and the grind in your grinder.

Will all of that painstaking attention to detail make a better-tasting beverage? Probably, yes.

Will it make a difference that matters to you? It might not. That’s something that varies from person to person.

I look at it this way. I make myself a latte every morning with my espresso machine. And I know a couple of things — I usually put flavored sweetener in it (currently hazelnut syrup), and I hate cleaning up coffee grinders. Because I’m drinking my espresso with milk and sweetener, I don’t care that my beans aren’t freshly-ground, or even if they were ground in the last month. What I care is that I can brew some shots with it to put in my drink, and that those shots have caffeine. So I have my beans ground when I buy them and I don’t use them all up right away.

In some circles that’s a cardinal sin. But you know what? The difference between fresh-ground beans and month-old ground beans is not something I can detect in a hazelnut latte.

What I do care about is freshly steamed milk and a decent-quality flavored syrup. So instead of microwaving the milk or using flavored non-dairy creamer or something, I pour some hazelnut into my mug and fire up the steam wand on my machine, even though those take extra time and cleaning (especially that steam wand!). That’s what matters to me, so that’s what I spend extra time on. It’s not a perfect latte, but it’s a latte I enjoy drinking as I read my morning work emails.

I’ve tried to give a general idea of what to do to recreate your favorite drinks at home, but I’ve also tried to refrain from any value judgments on shortcuts. You don’t necessarily need the most expensive ingredients or the most complicated brewing process to make a drink you enjoy. You can give them a try, especially if you have a coffeeshop or tea room nearby that will do it for you — that way you can sample a Chemex or a carefully temperature-controlled latte or perfectly-brewed loose-leaf tea without making any special investments — but if you’re content drinking something that’s easier for you to make, there’s no particular need for you to do anything else.

I can taste the difference between a carefully-crafted latte at Intelligentsia and my lazy morning latte, sure. But when I’ve just gotten out of bed and the baby needs feeding and my work emails are starting to pile up, the lazy latte is all I need.

So if there’s only one lesson you take away from all my blathering, it’s this: try things until you find what you like, not what you “should” like.

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Review: Hazelnut Macchiato (Starbucks)

May 30

Last week I talked about the caramel macchiato’s younger sibling, the vanilla macchiato. Today the drink in the spotlight is another younger sibling in Starbucks’s macchiato family — the Hazelnut Macchiato.

Like the vanilla macch and the caramel macch, this drink starts with vanilla syrup, steamed milk, foam, and espresso shots, in that order. What makes this one different is the sauce on top: not caramel, not vanilla, but hazelnut sauce. Which is apparently a thing now?

A grande Hazelnut Macchiato

A grande Hazelnut Macchiato

The result of replacing the caramel sauce with hazelnut sauce is a sweet, hazelnutty, delicious drink. What makes it different from a regular old hazelnut latte? Not only does the sauce give it a richer, slightly darker hazelnut flavor than the regular hazelnut syrup usually does, but the additional vanilla syrup bumps up the sweetness a notch and tones down the nuttiness a little. As with the caramel version of this drink, I recommend giving it a good stir before drinking, to make sure the hazelnut syrup has dissolved in the milk.

It’s a regular espresso drink, so the usual options apply — hot/iced, regular/decaf, choice of milk. It can also be ordered “upside-down”, meaning the sauce and the espresso go in the cup first instead of last so everything mixes together better.

Little personal anecdote here — when I first saw this drink appear on the menu, I thought it was an officialization of one of my favorite custom drinks. For several years now, I’ve frequently ordered a caramel macchiato with hazelnut syrup instead of vanilla. I spotted it on a “your barista recommends” board at some point, gave it a shot, and have been hooked ever since. In fact, the hazelnut macchiato is kind of the reverse of mine; instead of swapping out the vanilla for hazelnut and leaving the caramel, it swaps out the caramel and leaves the vanilla. Personally, I think hazelnut + caramel is a more interesting combo than hazelnut + vanilla. If you find yourself between ordering a caramel macchiato and a hazelnut macchiato, try this version instead and you’ll basically have both!

Bullet-pointed summary:

  • What: Hazelnut Macchiato
  • Where: Starbucks
  • Options: hot or iced, decaf or regular, your choice of milk
  • Verdict: A sweeter take on the hazelnut latte, or possibly a hazelnuttier take on the caramel macchiato
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Recipe: Instant Dirty Chai

May 27

All right, recipe time ladies and gents! Today I’m gonna show you a little recipe I call “oops there’s no milk in the house and I let my wife take the last of the espresso”. Or, if you want a slightly more useful name, the Instant Dirty Chai. A dirty chai is chai with an espresso shot added. An instant dirty chai is laziness with ingenuity added.

This is a good emergency-caffeination drink because the ingredients are powders with a super long shelf life, you only need hot water to make it with, and you avoid that instant coffee taste you get with a regular “coffee from a powder” drink. Please pardon the photos on this post, I took them somewhat groggily with my cell phone camera with no caffeine (because that was my morning caffeine in the pictures).

Step 1: Boil some water. No photo here, use your favorite water-heating method.

Step 2: Place one serving of instant chai powder into your mug. I use Trader Joe’s chai mix, so one serving is one scoop.

Happy sun mug optional.

Happy sun mug optional.

Step 3: Mix in one spoonful of espresso powder. This is a little trickier to acquire, but specialty kitchen shops and grocery stores with a good baking aisle may have it. I use King Arthur brand, which is available on Amazon. Take a nice sniff of the jar when you open it, it’ll help you wake up enough to finish the drink.

Mix mix mix.

Mix mix mix.

Step 4: Add boiling water. You could measure out the correct amount of boiling water according to your instant chai package, but in my opinion the correct amount is always “one mugful”.

Happy sun mug approves.

Happy sun mug approves.

Step 5: Stir stir stir.

Smells like victory!

Smells like victory!

Step 6: Enjoy! Or be like me and drink it before it’s cooled off at all, so some of your tastebuds die a fiery death while you enjoy.

Between the strong flavor of the instant chai, and the fact that you’re using espresso powder instead of regular instant coffee, you get a delicious drink without that annoying taste of the coffee gods being disappointed in your laziness. You could even mix the powders together ahead of time, so when you’re sleepy and uncaffeinated all you have to do is pour powder and water, and stir. Great for camping or hotel rooms where you don’t trust the coffee machine!

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