Monday, January 16, 2017

New and Seasonal Beverages from Starbucks

Update Review, December 2016 / January 2017

I generally stay away from the seasonal beverages at Starbucks (although I have had some successes before), mostly because I don't generally want a very sugary dessert-in-a-cup style latte.  If I'm getting coffee, I want it black.  I want to taste the  bitter.  The exception of course is if I want a sweet blended icy drink, but, I don't consider that coffee.  And, to be clear, this isn't that I don't like sugar, fat, and delicious things, it is just that I usually pick a "real" dessert, a piece of pie or an ice cream sundae over a sweet warm liquid beverage.

But, at the end of December, Starbucks drew me in with their 10 days of Cheer Celebration, where they offered free tall beverages from 1-2pm at 100 locations around the country every day, for 10 days.  I missed out on most of the days of the promotion since I was in New Hampshire where they didn't have any Starbucks stores, but I was able to make it for a few days once I returned t San Francisco.  I used it as an opportunity to get something crazy and different, and try the seasonal drinks, because, why not?  They were free!

Of the three drinks I tried, one was quite good, one was awful, and the other was decent.  I'd say my trials were a success.
Chestnut Praline Latte, Soy, Decaf.  Tall.  $5.05.
"Quintessentially festive flavors like caramelized chestnuts and subtle holiday spices mingle with our signature espresso and rich steamed milk. Topped with whipped cream and a sprinkle of spiced praline crumbs."

The first day, I went for the seasonal chestnut praline latte, because I do like chestnuts and praline, and, uh, it comes with whipped cream.  Since it was 1pm when I ordered, I opted for decaf, and since it was free, I went for soy milk (I love the flavor of soy, but usually don't splurge for the extra charge).

The flavor of the latte was ... sweet and spiced.  I'm not sure I'd say I tasted "caramelized chestnut" or "praline" or "subtle holiday spices", but it was sweet and spiced in an interesting way.  You couldn't taste the espresso at all, as it was drowned out by sweet syrup and milk.  

The toppings were great.  My barista originally didn't add the whipped cream on mine since I got soy, but I assured him I did indeed want it.  The whipped cream wasn't anything special, but it melted in nicely, and provided a surface for all the delicious praline crunch topping to set on top of.  That stuff was crunchy, sweet, and totally delicious.  To be honest, the latte was basically just sweet spiced milk, but the whipped cream and topping were tasty dessert.

So, I'll admit ... this was very delicious, particularly comforting on a fairly cold San Francisco day.  Was it a coffee?  Well, no.  But for a warm liquid-dessert-in-a-cup, it was very tasty, and I gulped it down way too quickly.

The cost is normally $5.05, even for the smallest size ($0.50 extra for soy).  I wouldn't ever pay that myself, but for a freebie, who is complaining?
Chile Mocha, Soy, Extra Foamy, Whip, Decaf, Tall.  $5.05.
"Cocoa, cinnamon and vanilla satisfy your sweet tooth while ancho and cayenne chile spices answer the call for something warmer ... for those mornings that need an extra kick."

The next day the San Francisco popup location was 3 blocks from my house.  I couldn't resist swinging by, and trying another seasonal beverage, this time the Chile Mocha, as I recently discovered that I like putting a little cayenne in my coffee for some extra kick from time to time.  I again opted for decaf and soy, and this time asked for extra foam, since I like a foamier beverage.

The chile mocha is quite different from most Starbucks chocolately beverages, in that it does not use mocha sauce.  Instead, it uses cinnamon (and sugar of course) infused cocoa powder (I'm pretty sure no other beverages use cocoa powder).  The chocolate flavor isn't quite as pronounced as in a mocha, but it is a deeper, richer chocolate flavor.  Real cocoa seems better than whatever goes in the sauce?  The cinnamon adds a "Mexican chocolate" element to it that I liked.

On top is whipped cream and the magic spiced mocha topping with chile pepper, more cinnamon, and paprika.  (I kinda think the paprika is just for color?)

This drink was one of the better flavored espresso drinks that I have ever had from Starbucks.  It wasn't overboard on the sweet.  The cinnamon and chile added a lot more complexity to the flavor than syrupy ingredients like caramel, flan, dolce, and the other more commonly used additives.   Was it spicy?  Not really, but it was spiced, and that was nice.  I'd get it again.
Holiday Spice Flat White, Soy, Decaf, with Whip.
"Smooth ristretto shots of Christmas Blend Espresso Roast and perfectly steamed micro-foam are infused with warm holiday spices to create a festive version of an espresso classic."

On the final day, I went even more rogue, and got the holiday version of the flat white.  As always, I opted for soy and decaf.  This drink does not normally include whipped cream, but I asked for it added, because, well, whipped cream.

This was the least successful of the holiday drinks that I tried, by far.  On the plus side, it wasn't too sweet.  But it also just wasn't good.  It doesn't use a a sauce or syrup like most Starbucks drinks, but uses a "Holiday Spice Blend", a mix including seasonal favorites like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves, plus sugar (of course), and, uh, rice concentrate and citric acid?

It was just kinda gritty from all the spices (2 big scoops go into a tall), and the bottom of my drink was just all spices, like sludge.  The flavors all seemed muddled.  I certainly wouldn't get this again.

Original Review, January 2014

When I last posted about Starbucks, I hadn't tried many items.  Since I've had a bunch more since, it seemed only fitting that I post a new review.

I still haven't found a coffee drink there that I'm all that excited about, but I keep trying, as everyone else seems to love it, so I figure, I must just need to find "my" drink.  In addition to trying the basic drinks, I've tried pretty much every seasonal drink that I've seen.  The Eggnog Latte was the best I've found so far, but sadly is only available for a very short time, so I'll have to continue my quest, perhaps moving back to their standard drinks, particularly the iced or blended ones, once it becomes warm out.

In general, I must say, the staff at Starbucks are always surprisingly friendly and helpful, no matter which location I visit.  When I've asked about the different drinks, they've seemed happy to explain them, and always add in a line about how if I'm not happy with it, they'll just make me something else.  This clearly seems part of the corporate mantra, as I've been told that every single time I've asked anything about a drink, like "is that one very sweet?".  I haven't ever taken them up on this offer, but it is kinda nice to hear.  It makes me brave enough to order these ridiculous things!
Tall Eggnog Latte, Decaf.  $3.75.
I've probably only had a glass of eggnog ... once in my life?  Maybe twice?  But for some reason, this holiday season, I was seriously craving it.  I had pretty much every eggnog flavored thing I came across (cakes with eggnog drizzle, almonds in eggnog chocolate coating, eggnog crème brûlée, etc, etc).  So when I saw the eggnog latte listed, I took a serious leap of faith and went for it.

Unlike most of the flavored drinks at Starbucks, this is not just a latte with eggnog flavored syrup in it, it is actually made with eggnog in place of the steamed milk.  It is then topped with some ground nutmeg.  This is uh, not a light drink.

I liked this far more than I was expecting.  I think I really just was in the mood for it.  It was warm, it was sweet but not overpowering, and it was really pleasantly spiced.  Was it earth shattering?  No.  But a nice warm beverage filled with holiday flavors for sure.  I'd even consider another if I was strangely craving eggnog again.  Sadly only available around Christmas.
Tall Vanilla Spice Latte, Soy, Whip.  $4.35.
Another seasonal offering, and I felt like something kinda dessert-y.  Desserty it was.  Described as "Starbucks signature espresso combined with freshly steamed milk, rich vanilla, and subtle hints of cardamom and spice. Topped with whipped cream, crushed vanilla bean and a touch of sugar."

I asked the girl taking my order about it, asking if it was sweet.  She said it wasn't too sweet, and that the spicing was really nice, like horchata.  I do sometimes like horchata, so this sounded good.  I asked what the "spice" was, and she got really excited, proclaiming "carmadon!"  Then she looked puzzled. And tried again, "carmadom!"  And again.  Finally she was just like "its that spice that ends in 'dom'!  It is really good!".  Sigh.

I still got it, and went for soy since I love the flavor of soy milk.  I totally forgot to specify decaf in all the 'carmadon' excitement.  Whoops.

Anyway.  This drink was crazy sweet.  All I tasted was sweet.  I could not identify the sweetness as vanilla at all.  I did not taste any espresso.  I did not taste any soy, which I paid a whopping $0.60 extra for.  I know soy milk is more expensive, but for a tall size beverage, I really don't see how that soy milk costs $0.60.

Anyway.  There was some spicing, and I did taste the cardamom.   That part was pleasant, and reminded me slightly of a chai.  I'm not really sure I'd say it tasted like a horchata, but I can see where she was coming from.  The whipped cream on top was their standard whip, not that great, but it added an additional creaminess.  The only really interesting thing about this drink was the crushed vanilla bean and sugar on top of the whipped cream.  They added a nice little crunch.

Overall, this was not a good drink.  Way too sweet, no good flavor, and very expensive for a small drink.  Would not get again.
Tall Caramel Flan Latte, Skim, Decaf.
And yet another new seasonal treat, promising to taste like dessert.  And in this case, a particular dessert: flan.  Fully described as "espresso with steamed milk and caramel flavors of creamy flan. Topped with caramel-infused whipped cream and caramel flan drizzle."

Since I haven't ever loved Starbucks drinks in general, and I don't even love flan that much, I wouldn't normally get this.  But, to help get people trying them, Starbucks offered one for free, and you know I can't resist freebies ...

It was basically what I'd expect.  Creamy, sweet.  It didn't matter that I don't like Starbucks decaf coffee, because I couldn't taste any coffee in here.  The caramel whipped cream and caramel drizzle were tasty, but please, this is not a coffee.

I wouldn't get another, but I gladly finished the one I had.
Tall Hazelnut Macchiato, Skim, Decaf.  $3.55.
Not a seasonal offering, but a new menu item: the Hazelnut Macchiato.  Basically the Starbuck's classic Caramel Macchiato, but with hazelnut finish instead of caramel: "freshly steamed milk with vanilla syrup, marked with espresso and finished with hazelnut drizzle."  I'd say it is just a vanilla latte with some additional syrup on top, but they seem to think these things are "macchiatos".  Whatevs.

Anyway.  It has been years since I had one, but when I first was learning to drink coffee drinks, I did go for the caramel macchiatos.  I recall them as being very sweet and milky.  I expected this to be about the same.

It actually wasn't as cloyingly sweet as I was expecting.  The base seemed to have very little of the vanilla syrup, and in fact, if I hadn't read the description, I wouldn't have known it was there.  The layer of foam on top was very thick, far better than I am used to at Starbucks.  Then on top was drizzled a ton of the hazelnut syrup.  This is different from the hazelnut flavor syrup they use to just make flavored beverages, as it was far thicker, more like a hazelnut flavored caramel.  It actually tasted pretty good.

This drink surprised me.  It wasn't bad.  It wasn't too sweet, although I'd probably ask for half sweet next time.  The hazelnut flavor was really good.  I'd also probably go for soy next time, as I prefer it, and I think the hazelnut and soy combination would be a good one.

[ I had this a second time, when they were running a promotion and giving them free to Starbuck's reward members.  It again was pretty good.  I got the exact same drink, but at a different Starbuck's location.  It wasn't too sweet, and again, I didn't really notice the vanilla.  The foam was well done.  And that hazelnut caramel stuff was delicious! It really isn't what I normally go for in an espresso drink, but it is much better than any of the other cloyingly sweet warm Starbuck's drinks I've tried! ]

[ And I had it a third time, this time, with soy milk.  It was much, much sweeter, presumably because the soy milk they use is vanilla flavored and sweetened?  I did like the soy flavor much more though, I'd just be sure to get it only half-sweet if getting soy in the future.  I'm loving this hazelnut caramel sauce! ]
Tall Iced Hazelnut Macchiato, Skim, Decaf.  $3.55.
On another visit, inspired by my surprising liking of the hot version of the hazelnut macchiato, I went for the iced one, since it was a warm day.

It was fairly disappointing.  I think at some level I just don't appreciate iced espresso drinks.  It is just ice, milk poured straight out of the pitcher, a shot of espresso, and some syrup.  Not exciting.

But anyway.  Starbuck's decaf espresso just isn't very good, hot or cold.  And you could really taste it in here, before I mixed it up.  It is bitter, tastes burnt, and is just ... bad.  It doesn't seem to matter which Starbucks I visit, the decaf is just never good.  And milk is milk.  Like the hot version, it also had some vanilla syrup in it, but I didn't really taste it, and it actually wasn't very sweet.

The only part of this that I liked was that hazelnut caramel syrup.  There was a bunch that settled in the bottom of the cup, and a bunch sitting on the ice on top, and it was delicious.  The flavor is just really good.  I may or may not have licked the inside of my lid since it was covered in it.  Noms.

But overall, not a good drink, and I wouldn't get again.  Or maybe I would, I'd just ask them to "hold the milk, espresso, and ice ... just give me the hazelnut caramel!" :)
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