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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Learn to drink coffee! Part 1

Aug 29

Believe it or not, this is something that’s come up many times over the past decade and a half. “I want to drink coffee, but I just can’t stand the taste!” “I need caffeine, but coffee tastes gross!” “I don’t like the taste of coffee, what can I drink?”

I’ll let y’all in on a little secret: I didn’t used to like coffee either. Couldn’t stand the taste. My early caffeine fixes were all from soda, because I didn’t like tea either.

What happened? Well for one thing, I got a job at Starbucks. That training gave me a ton of knowledge about coffee roasting, brewing, and drink recipes, and the time to experiment with different combinations.

The first thing I realized was that I’d been doing coffee all wrong. I figured that since I didn’t like coffee, the solution was just to load as much sugar and cream as I could into whatever cheap coffee was handy. Needless to say, the result was less than tasty and didn’t particularly incline me to drink more. If you don’t like something, then buying the cheapest version of it and trying to choke it down is not necessarily going to be productive.

Over the years I’ve developed a method for “teaching” people to drink coffee. I can’t guarantee it will work for everyone, but I’ve had good success with it on friends and family (because I share my addiction far and wide when I can). Here’s what to do:

Start with the most sugary froufrou drink you can stand. These will often be more expensive than less sugary drinks, but if you don’t like the taste of coffee then you’ll need to tone it down with something and sugar is the easiest way.

My usual recommendation is the White Chocolate Mocha. This is one of the sweetest drinks on the menu, hands down. If even this is too coffee-like for you, go even more to the sugary side with a single venti Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha. That’s a single shot of espresso in 20 ounces of sugar and milk.

Don’t like sweet things all that much? Try the Mocha. It’s chocolatey but not super sweet. If you need to tone the coffee down further, ask the barista for two or three pumps of a flavor syrup — hazelnut or vanilla would be good.

Want something cold? The above drinks can be ordered iced, or you can try the Java Chip Frappuccino. Basically a chocolate milkshake with some coffee in it.

Need to watch your sugar intake? Try a Skinny Mocha or a Sugar-free Vanilla Latte. Lactose intolerant? Order your drink made with soy. If you’re getting a mocha or white chocolate mocha, ask the barista whether the syrup has milk in it.

Once you’ve found your drink, then what? Tune in next week for part 2 of Learn to Drink Coffee!
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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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Review: Salted Caramel Mocha (Starbucks)

Sep 20

With all the buzz the Pumpkin Spice Latte is getting these days, it’s easy to forget that it’s not the only seasonal drink on the menu this fall. If you take a look you’ll see there’s two other drinks being quietly advertised right now — the Salted Caramel Mocha and the Chocolate Chai. A review of the Chocolate Chai will have to wait until some morning when I can allow myself that caffeine (it can’t be ordered decaf), but here’s the rundown on the Salted Caramel Mocha.

Salted caramel mocha

The Salted Caramel Mocha

The SCM is espresso, milk, chocolate, and toffee nut syrup, topped with whipped cream, caramel sauce, and a mix of sugar and salt. It’s a sugary comfort drink with a nice mix of flavors. Unlike most Starbucks mochas, it’s pretty sweet thanks to all the other stuff that’s added. You can, of course, order it with less sweet stuff, but why? I order most drinks with half sweetener, but the only change I usually make to SCMs is to leave off the whipped cream. If you like chocolate and caramel, this drink is for you.

It’s also pretty versatile. Since it’s an espresso drink, it can be ordered decaf, made with nonfat or soy milk, etc. You can leave out the espresso, making it a Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate. You can get it on the rocks (iced), you can get it in Frappuccino form, you can even add other flavors to it if you want (try a pump or two of gingerbread once that’s back in stock).

Like any drink with caramel sauce, I recommend you stir it thoroughly before drinking. The caramel doesn’t dissolve well in milk, so if you want to get that delicious flavor well-integrated into your drink you’ll need to give it a little help.

It’s worth noting that you can get a caramel mocha any time of the year — the chocolate syrup and caramel sauce are always available. I don’t recall if the toffee nut syrup is, but the most seasonal part of this drink is the salt/sugar mix that goes on the top. That is only shipped during the early fall, and once your local Starbucks is out of that they won’t get any more till next year.

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Review: Zona Rosa Cappuccino (Zona Rosa Caffe, Pasadena CA)

Nov 24

Given the amount of Starbucks stuff on this site, you might think I do my coffee drinking exclusively at one of my many local Starbucks locations. This isn’t true. I go there a lot, because it’s the closest coffee joint to my house, but living in Pasadena I do have a large number of independent coffeeshops available to me, and I visit them when I can.

So, in the spirit of Small Business Saturday, here’s a review of a beverage from one of those local, independent coffee places.

Zona Rosa Cappuccino

Zona Rosa Caffe is a great little shop in the Playhouse district. I’m linking to the Yelp page, because their website is one of those Flash monstrosities with autoplaying music. That tasty-looking drink in the picture is a Zona Rosa Cappuccino.

The first thing anyone with barista training will notice is that it is not, in fact, what we would normally call a cappuccino — there is far too little foam. Given the ratio of milk to foam, and the presence of chocolate, this is more of a mocha. But Cappuccino is what it’s called on the menu board, so that’s what I’m calling it here.

The Zona Rosa Cappuccino is a mix of espresso (their own roast), steamed milk, and Mexican chocolate (probably Ibarra). Usually there’s whipped cream on top, but I’m avoiding that particular temptation these days. Like a Mexican hot chocolate, the Cappuccino has a hint of spices like cinnamon that give it a distinct and delicious flavor.

It’s not too sweet and it doesn’t hit you over the head with cinnamon — the balance of chocolate, spices, and espresso is damn near perfect. It’s a great drink for sipping on a nice cool day. (Well okay, currently it’s 86 degrees F around here, but let’s pretend.) You can also get it decaf if you’re watching your caffeine intake.

If you happen to find yourself in Pasadena, give this drink a shot. It’s a nice departure from the heavily sweetened fare at most coffee chains.

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