How to make coffeeshop drinks: Other ingredients

May 18

Okay, so you’ve got your coffee (or tea), now what?

If you just want to make a regular cup of joe, or a regular cup of tea, you’re set! But if you’re looking to make some of the other drinks from the menu of your favorite caffeinated beverage retailer, you’ve got a few more things to acquire. Namely:

Milk: If you want to make lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, macchiatos, or cafe au lait, you’re gonna need some milk. What kind is up to you. I use whole milk because I try to stick with minimally-processed ingredients when I can. You may prefer lowfat or nonfat, or you may go in the opposite direction and use half-and-half or heavy cream. There’s also lots of non-dairy options available. Soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, any of these can be used to make espresso drinks.

There’s a caveat here, though. If you’re using a steam wand to make foam for your drink, like if you want to make a nice big cappuccino, some of these foam better than others. Soy milk, for example, is very hard to get good lasting foam out of. Whole milk is pretty good for making nice thick foam. So if you’re dairy-free but really dig your cappuccinos and macchiatos, you may need some practice to get the kind of drink you want.

Flavorings: These are for flavored lattes (vanilla latte, hazelnut latte, etc) or chocolate-based drinks (mochas). If you have a preferred drink at your local beverage vendor, take a look at how they make it or just ask. Do they use clear syrup from a pump bottle? Thick chocolatey syrup? Flavored powder?

The clear syrups in the pump bottles are what a lot of non-chocolate drinks are made with. Most coffee places will have at least vanilla and hazelnut, with other possible flavors including mint, almond, raspberry, and even plain “classic” syrup. These are all basically flavored sugar water (or unflavored, in the case of classic). You can find them at some grocery stores, some import stores like Cost Plus, and often you can buy them at coffee shops. At Starbucks, for example, you can buy the exact same bottles they’re using behind the counter (this may surprise your barista, as few people buy them so many baristas are unaware that they’re actually for sale). Special seasonal syrups may or may not be for sale, but it’s always worth asking. They’re generally not very expensive, and one bottle makes a lot of drinks.

Chocolate is usually either powdered or in a thick syrup similar to Nestle Quik. In fact, the thick syrups used at a lot of coffee shops are often mixed from powders (if the shop suddenly smells like brownies, they may be mixing this up). They may or may not sell the exact same chocolate they use to make the drinks, but chocolate is available pretty much everywhere as hot chocolate mix, chocolate milk mix, chocolate chips, etc. Keep in mind that chocolate in larger solid forms like chips or bars will need to be put into quite hot liquid if you want it to melt properly. Be sure to stir it well!

Some drinks are made from a thickish flavoring syrup that doesn’t fit into one of those categories. These are often proprietary syrups that may not be available for purchase. If you ask and are told you can’t buy it, you’ll have to wing it. You may be able to find a similar flavor for sale elsewhere, or you may be able to approximate the taste using other ingredients. Condensed milk makes a great base for this.

Whipped cream: People love their whipped cream. This can go on top of pretty much any drink, and is the non-coffee ingredient in a caffe con panna. Many coffee shops make it from scratch with heavy whipping cream, vanilla syrup, and a nitrous oxide “charger”. If you have the equipment for this, go for it — it’s fast and easy and so delicious. If you don’t have the specialized canisters and chargers, but do have some time, you can make whipped cream by, well, whipping the hell out of some cream. Recipes for this are available online and in some books.

The other, more common option, is to buy premade whipped cream. This is available at your grocery store in spray cans or tubs, with various brands. Just choose what you like, since this is a garnish where taste is the only really important quality.

Sauce toppings: These can be either garnishes (such as a chocolate drizzle on a mocha) or a key ingredient (like the caramel on a caramel macchiato). They may be tricky to find for sale, but check your local grocery store wherever ice cream toppings are kept. The fewer artificial flavorings the better, in my experience. If you want the sauce to flavor the whole drink (again, like the caramel macchiato), you will need to mix the hell out of it, especially if you’re making a cold drink.

Sprinkles: Some people are really into these little details. Once again, check the ice cream topping section. Or you can sprinkle your drink with a spice like nutmeg. Some drinks have a special proprietary sprinkle on top — these may be tough to find.

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What I’m Drinking: Clover-Brewed Verona

May 17

I’ve mentioned a number of times that I’m a latte junkie. They’re not the only thing I drink, though. And the first “real drink” I ordered a few months ago when I no longer had to restrict caffeine for baby-related reasons wasn’t a latte at all — it was a return to my favorite Starbucks beans, brewed in their most delicious form.

I haven’t done a full writeup on the Clover brewing machine yet, but let me give a quick summary: it’s the tastiest way to get a plain coffee at Starbucks. It’s a special machine that uses some kind of complex process to produce coffee with the extra flavor-packed deliciousness of a French press. Even better, they brew each coffee individually, so regardless of what they’re brewing on the regular machine when you come in (usually Pike Place Blend) you can get whatever beans you want brewed on the Clover.

They’re usually advertising rarer, more premium beans to brew on the Clover, and I’ve tried those and enjoyed them, but my all-time favorite Starbucks coffee remains Caffe Verona. This is a blend that nicely balances a dark roast with a smooth taste. It’s not as dark and charry as Italian Roast or French Roast, and the smoothness keeps it from straying into “Charbucks” territory.

Despite my years of coffee addiction, I don’t generally drink black coffee. But with a Clover coffee you don’t want to add too much or the delicious brewing process is wasted and you might as well get regular drip. So like most drinks I order, I made it a little more complicated.

Normally I don't include the cup markings, but this barista had such nice handwriting!

Normally I don’t include the cup markings, but this barista had such nice handwriting!

First off, I order a grande Clover-brewed Verona in a venti cup. This leaves plenty of room for me to add half-and-half, without needing to pour out any of this delicious goodness.

Secondly, I ask for two pumps of classic syrup. This is basically flavorless sugar water, which sweetens the drink a little without adding any extra flavors. I find it blends in better than just adding a sugar packet, and it’s half the number of pumps a grande drink would normally get so it’s not oversweetened.

The end result is a grande Clover-brewed Verona in a venti cup with two pumps of classic. A nice, smooth coffee with a little cream and sweetness but not so much it overpowers the coffee itself.

Not all Starbuckses have a Clover machine, because they take up a bunch of space and usually require a renovation to the espresso bar area. But if you find yourself in a store that’s got one, give it a shot. You can even use the Starbucks website or app to search for the nearest store with a Clover!

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How to make coffeeshop drinks: Equipment

Sep 28

One thing people ask me frequently is how to make their favorite coffee shop drinks at home. A lot of drinks are surprisingly easy to make, especially if you have the right things on hand. In this part of what will hopefully be an ongoing series of posts, I’ll give a quick introduction to the equipment you’d need to create most of these delicious concoctions in the comfort of your own kitchen.

Note: The items linked below are for example purposes only and do not consitute an endorsement or advertisement. Even the machine I have at home is a matter of personal preference.
Note 2: I’m going out of my way to avoid mentioning any trademarked drink names from any particular establishment. I don’t really want to be seen as encouraging people not to shop anywhere. Hopefully the generic, public-domain drink descriptions will suffice.

What you need will depend on what drink you’re trying to make. I’ll break it down by drink type.

Brewed coffee/cafe au lait: The proper brewing of regular coffee will be the subject of a whole ‘nother post. Suffice to say that for these, all you’ll need is a way to make plain old coffee. Options range from inexpensive French presses and regular coffee machines to more expensive brewing methods like Chemex, Keurig K-cups, and expensive machines that even grind the beans for you. If you just want a cup of joe, that’s all you need. If you’re making a cafe au lait, you’ll want a way to heat up the milk, so check the “Hot Espresso Drinks” section below.

Espresso drinks: This includes lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, mochas, con pannas, affogatos, Americanos, and plain espresso shots. For these you’ll need something that makes espresso, which is not the same as regular brewed coffee. Espresso is more concentrated, and requires forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee beans.

Like with regular brewed coffee, there’s a wide price range of espresso brewers available. You can get something as simple and inexpensive as a stovetop espresso maker, something a little handier like a low- to mid-range countertop espresso machine (this is what I use), or something with all the bells and whistles like a super-automatic espresso machine. All of these will be significantly smaller and simpler than the machines the baristas use at your local coffee shop – after all, the average person making drinks at home is going to be serving at most a house full of guests, whereas a coffee shop needs to be able to quickly serve drinks to a constant stream of customers. Your machine will not need to be hooked up to your plumbing, nor will it need its own circuit breaker, and you’re not likely to have to call a specialized technician to come fix it if it breaks.

Which espresso maker is right for you will depend on a few things: How often you plan to use it, how much espresso you want to make at once, how much space you have in your kitchen, what your budget is, and whether you want steamed milk for your drinks. If you’re making cold drinks (“on the rocks” i.e. on ice), if you’re planning to put the espresso over ice cream (affogato) or whipped cream (con panna), or if you’re making plain espresso or Americanos, all you need is something that makes espresso. If you want, say, a nice hot latte, then the next section is relevant to your interests …

Hot espresso drinks: Lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, mochas. If you want to make one of these, and you want it toasty hot, you will need a way to heat up the milk of your choice.

To get closest to what you get at a coffee shop, you’ll want an espresso machine with a milk steaming wand. This heats the milk by forcing hot steam through it, and is also how you make that nice foam for the top of the drinks. Using a steam wand is a little loud, and can take a bit of practice to perfect, but the results are worth it in my opinion. This is how I make lattes at home.

Not everyone has the budget, room, or desire for an espresso machine with a steam wand, however, so there’s a couple other options. You can heat the milk in a pan on the stove, or in the microwave. Or, I suppose, in a slow cooker, rice maker, or any other device made to safely heat up liquid for human consumption.

This will get you the hot milk, but not the foam. If you want foam (which is an integral part of cappuccinos, for example), there are inexpensive “milk frothers” available at most kitchen supply stores, or even Ikea. These basically whisk the top of your milk into a froth that is similar to the foam created by the espresso machine. I haven’t done a head-to-head test of the two methods, but a cheap frother is probably good enough for most people.

Blended drinks: Any beverage that looks like a milk shake. I’ll be honest with you, your results may vary on these. Most commercial blended beverages include some kind of thickening agent that gives the drink its thick, shake-like consistency. On the equipment side of things, however, all you really need is a blender and a source of ice. Whatever plain ol’ stand blender fits your kitchen and your budget is probably fine.

Shaken drinks: These are shaken like an alcoholic drink, so any drink shaker will do. These are available at kitchen supply stores and anywhere that sells booze supplies.

Tea drinks: Anything that’s not made from a premixed tea base (some green tea lattes and sweetened chai are usually made from mixes) is usually brewed with tea bags, so no special brewing equipment is needed. However, if you want a better tea experience, look into brewing with loose tea leaves – either with an infuser or a machine.

And there you have a quick rundown on the kind of equipment you’ll need to make your favorite coffee shop drinks at home. Tune in next time when I cover the “ingredients” part of the equation.

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Review: Green Tea Chai (Novel Cafe, Pasadena CA)

Jan 06

It’s getting to the point where I can’t buy a beverage anywhere without thinking to myself “I should take a picture and review this for my blog!” I buy a lot of drinks because let’s face it, I’m a coffee/tea addict. I can’t resist a good latte or cup of tea. So today, courtesy of my breakfast, here’s a quick review of the Green Tea Chai from Novel Cafe.

Green Tea Chai

There’s a few varieties of chai latte at Novel — I picked the green tea one because I needed a little extra zip. Green tea, being less processed than black tea, has more caffeine. And when it’s a gray, rainy sort of day, it’s nice to have a hot beverage to sip while you wait for your food.

This chai, served at a perfect temperature for drinking right away, has a very nice blend of spices. They overwhelm the flavor of the tea a little, but I generally expect that in a chai. I swear there’s a hint of mint in it — not something you usually find in chai spice blends, but it works amazingly well with the other flavors and gives it a nice refreshing finish. It’s sweet, but not as heavily sweetened as a Starbucks chai. All in all, a perfect starter for a meal … or a perfect drink to sit and sip while you watch the clouds and traffic go by.

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Review: Vanilla Spice Latte (Starbucks)

Jan 05

The holidays have come to an end — and with them, the season of Starbucks’s well-loved holiday drinks. But as the Gingerbread Latte, Eggnog Latte, and Peppermint Mocha ride off into the sunset to vanish until next November, new drinks arrive to take their place. We can’t have people getting bored with the regular menu, can we?

This year, the post-holiday theme is Vanilla — complete with an all-new drink, the Vanilla Spice Latte.

Vanilla Spice Latte

As a flavored latte, this concoction starts with espresso and steamed milk. The usual options apply: decaf, iced, nonfat, soy, etc. The flavor is created with “vanilla spice” syrup, which is kind of a French vanilla-y flavor mixed with cardamom and a few hints of other spices. Since this is a sweet froufrou drink, it comes with whipped cream and a sprinkling of vanilla bean sugar on top.

I love vanilla-flavored things, and this one does not disappoint. It’s not as overwhelmingly spice-flavored as the Pumpkin Spice latte; the cardamom is nicely balanced with the vanilla so you can still taste both. It is quite sweet, so if supersugar isn’t your thing you might want to get fewer pumps of the syrup, and leave the whipped cream off.

As a seasonal drink, the Vanilla Spice Latte will probably only be available for a limited time, and may or may not come back next year depending on sales. So if you want to give it a try, now’s the time. Also being advertised right now are the vanilla [no-spice] latte and vanilla coffee, but these are available year-round — they use the regular vanilla syrup that every Starbucks has on hand all the time.

As for me, I’m swapping this in as my daily latte (half-caf or decaf, no whip, only two pumps of syrup) to replace the soon-out-of-stock gingerbread latte I’m so addicted to.

(Edited to take the Peppermint Mocha off the list of vanishing seasonal drinks — you can buy it any time of the year, it’s just a little less fancy without the holiday chocolate sprinkles)

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