Personal Thursday: Personal Coffee

Oct 09

I feel like it’s cheating, doing my Personal Thursday entry on something coffee-related this week. But here I go anyway.

There’s a reason my website is mostly about coffee, and it’s not just for Google clicks. It’s because, as weird as it sounds, cofee and tea occupy a important spot in my life. Before I got a job wearing a green apron, that wasn’t the case. My caffeination needs (and voracious non-alcoholic drinking habits) were fulfilled by soda, in mass quantities when possible. But as I began to pick up a coffee habit, and a decade later, a tea habit, I realized just how useful it was to me.

It means I can make myself comfortable almost anywhere with a nice warm drink. I’m a habitually early person, so I often find myself with some time to fill in a random location. All I have to do is locate the nearest coffee/tea joint — not always a Starbucks — order myself a drink, and sit there sipping it for a while. Usually while checking Twitter or writing. Wherever I go, there’s always a drink somewhere, even if it’s mediocre coffee in a lobby.

It also gives me something to help focus while I work on things. Not just because of the caffeine, but because the act of stopping to take a sip helps regulate my thought process and give my hands a break. When I worked in an office, I always had a mug on my desk. At home, I have a coaster that hosts a wide array of beverages throughout the week. Seriously, even if all you have to drink is water, give this a try. You’ll pee more but you might just find yourself getting a better rhythm going.

Thirdly, coffee and tea occupy the place in my life that a lot of people fill with alcohol. No, seriously — if I have a rough day, I crave a hot drink to help me unwind. If I want to be less inhibited, a boost of caffeine is the way I go. I drink it in social situations, I treat myself to it when I need a pick-me-up, and best of all it’s not illegal for me to drink too much or drive a car afterward.

Everybody has their vices. Smoking, shopping, beer, movies, games … everybody has something they spend some spare money and time on to get a little more enjoyment out of life. I spend a fair amount on my habit, and I’ve suffered through some pretty nasty withdrawal, but this is one habit I don’t see myself ever giving up.

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Learn to drink tea!

Sep 12

A little while ago I wrote about how to “learn” to drink coffee, and admitted that I didn’t originally like coffee. Some of you may have noticed that I mentioned I didn’t originally like tea, either. But I clearly drink it now! So what happened?

For years I was frustrated at how I couldn’t stand tea at all. It’s a cheap, healthy drink. You can stick a few tea bags in your purse and then all you need is hot water for a good beverage! All kinds of tea are recommended to help with colds, sore throats, etc. But every time I tried tea, I just couldn’t drink it. What was I doing wrong?

First of all, just like coffee, cheap tea will not help you like it. So ignore those boxes of tea bags your office has in the break room for free. Don’t bother with the nameless tea that comes out of the spout at your local fast food restaurant. You don’t need to spend top dollar on fancy tea but you should stay away from the super cheap stuff.

Second of all, don’t assume that you take your tea the same way you take your coffee. I always drink coffee with sweetener and cream, so I figured I needed that in tea too. I’d make a cup of tea, pour in sugar and milk, stir it up, take a sip, and just pour the rest out. It turns out, I like tea a lot better when I don’t add anything after brewing! At most, I add about a quarter teaspoon of sugar. So experiment with what you add to the tea and don’t be afraid to just drink it straight, even if you don’t drink coffee that way.

Third of all, brew it properly. You probably don’t need to be picky about the brewing temperature, but pay attention to the directions on the tea bag or box for how long it should be brewed. If there’s no directions, figure out what kind of tea it is (black, green, white, etc) and ask the internets how long it should be brewed. There’s usually a pretty good consensus.

So given that I was brewing cheap tea poorly and adding too much crap to it, how did I manage to learn to drink it properly? I used the same method I use on other people to teach them to drink coffee: start with sugary froufrou drinks and work your way down to the “real” stuff!

To be honest, my preferred chain retailer for this process isn’t Starbucks, it’s Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. And not just because I went through it while I was working in the same building as CBTL — in my experience, one should go to Starbucks for better coffee drinks and CBTL for better tea drinks. This may change now that Starbucks has bought Teavana, who knows.

In any case, start with tea lattes. At CBTL, these are teas that are mixed with steamed milk and vanilla. Starbucks has them too, but I haven’t tried them since they were added to the menu (shame on me!). Pick something flavored, like the Pomegranate Blueberry tea latte. This is sweet and fruity, and doesn’t taste too strongly of tea. Once you get used to that, you can work your way through the tea lattes toward ones that are less flavory and more tea-y. A good middle-ground is the Earl Grey tea latte. Earl Grey is flavored with bergamot oil, but it’s a “real” tea (you can find it pretty much anywhere). Eventually you can get tea lattes with plain black or green tea.

The next step, of course, is to drink plain tea. Possibly with some milk and sugar. For this I recommend getting something of decent quality. If there’s something you particularly liked at Coffee Bean, order that as a cup of tea rather than a tea latte. If you like that, buy a tin so you can make it on your own. Experiment with different teas, different additives, etc.

As with coffee, the key is to not be afraid to try things. If you have a tea-loving friend, ask them for recommendations. Friends from different tea-drinking cultures may give you interesting insights — I learned a lot of my tea-drinking habits from a Chinese friend of mine who always had a desk covered in different types of tea. If you have a local tea room, go there and ask for recommendations, or even a tasting. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, Chado Tea Room is great for this.

And again, as with coffee — don’t let anyone tell you what you “should” like. What matters is trying new things, and finding what you do like.

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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: Blackberry Mojito (Starbucks)

Jun 20

This is the second of the two shaken tea drinks coming up at Starbucks this year. And if you’re anything like me, or the baristas I got the drink from, you’re looking at the name and thinking “Mojito? Is this alcoholic or something?” No, it’s not alcoholic. Nobody seems to know why it’s named like that. I learned ages ago when I was a barista never to try to figure out the logic in the Starbucks marketing department. As a shaken iced tea, it can only be ordered “on the rocks”, in sizes from 12 ounce Tall to 30 ounce Trenta.

A tall Blackberry Mojito.

A tall Blackberry Mojito.

Like the Peach Green Tea Lemonade, this drink surprised me. Knowing Starbucks’s tendency toward sweet drinks, I expected the Blackberry Mojito to be similar to the Very Berry Hibiscus Refresher or the Passion Tea Lemonade.

But this drink isn’t actually very sweet — instead, it’s basically an iced tea with an understated hint of berry in it. It’s much more tea than berry. You could probably order it with some Classic syrup if you wanted a sweeter iced tea experience, but I think it’s best without it, so you can enjoy the uncharacteristically downplayed flavors.

I’m usually not a fan of iced tea overall, but if you are, and you want a drink that’s more “tea with a hint of flavor” rather than Starbucks’s usual “flavorings with a hint of tea”, give this drink a shot.

Edit: Now that Starbucks has info on this drink up on their website, I see that it can be ordered with lemonade. That would make it somewhat sweeter. It also mentions that the tea used is a blackberry green tea from Teavana, so I’ve corrected a sentence that referred to it as a black tea. Also worth noting is the tea in question is apparently called “Blackberry Mojito Green”, hence the name of the drink.

Bullet-pointed summary:

  • What:¬†Blackberry Mojito shaken iced tea
  • Where: Starbucks
  • Options: Just the size
  • Verdict: A surprisingly understated berry flavor for iced tea lovers.
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Review: Peach Green Tea Lemonade (Starbucks)

Jun 20

I’ve written a few posts speculating about the upcoming carbonated offerings at Starbucks, but there’s two other drinks coming up on the summer menu that don’t involve the mysterious carbonation machine — both shaken teas springing from the recent Teavana acquisition.

A tall Peach Green Tea Lemonade. The blur is optional.

A tall Peach Green Tea Lemonade. The blur is optional.

This review covers the Peach Green Tea Lemonade. It’s a shaken iced tea with lemonade added, like the Passion Tea Lemonade (one of my favorite drinks on the rare occasions that I want something cold). It can only be ordered iced, but can be ordered in any size from Tall up through the 30-ounce Trenta.

I’ll be honest, peach is not one of my favorite flavors, especially fake peach. So I was expecting to be kind of “meh” on this one. However, I was pleasantly surprised: the peach flavor is not overwhelming, and doesn’t hit you over the head with fakeness. Instead, it blends quite nicely with the green tea. The lemonade is also not overwhelming, just adding an overall citrus-ness to the drink. Unlike a lot of sweetened Starbucks drinks, you can actually taste the tea.

Overall it’s a nice balance of fruity, citrusy flavors and crisp green tea. I recommend it if you want a nice cool drink that’s not as sugary as a Frappuccino.

Bullet-pointed summary:

  • What: Peach Green Tea Lemonade¬†shaken iced tea
  • Where: Starbucks
  • Options: Just the size
  • Verdict: A sweet, fruity, citrusy drink that manages not to completely bury the green tea.
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