Monday, October 12, 2015

Starbucks Frappuccinos

Update Review, October 2015

If you didn't read my original Starbucks frappucino review, I suggest you start there, and then return to this update, since I'm skipping the background this time around.  See "Original Review, September 2013" below.

I'm a member of the Starbucks reward program, and every year, for my birthday, I get a birthday reward, valid for a free food or drink item.  You also get one every so many "stars" you earn.  The reward is basically any food or drink item, with as many modifications as you like.  You know me and freebies, I can't resist maximizing my value.  So, when my birthday roles around, I don't just get a small cup of coffee, or a $3 baked good.  Nope, I go for a ridiculously large drink, with as many modifications as I want.

(There are people who take this to much more of an extreme than me, and create beverages that are like $30, whereas mine tend to fall in the ~$7 range, since far more than I'd ever spend on a Starbucks beverage normally ...)

Custom "Mint Chocolate Chip" Drink: Venti Vanilla Bean Crème Frappuccino® Blended Crème + 3 Pumps Peppermint + Java Chips + Mocha Drizzle, Soy, Light Whip.  $6.65. 
I finally earned enough stars to get a free drink!  I decided to go all out.  I haven't ever loved frappuccinos before, but it was a hot day, and a milk shake sounded amazing.  Maybe, just maybe, I could craft a frappuccino into a milkshake?  (This has been my never ending quest, as you may recall from when I tried to use heavy cream rather than milk in a frappuccino before, to maximize the milkshaky-ness).

It was late afternoon, and I also didn't want caffeine.  I could have gone for decaf, but I didn't really want coffee flavor anyway, I was trying to just make a milkshake after all.  I decided to craft my creation from the "creme" base, rather than a coffee base.

I used the Vanilla Bean Crème Frappuccino® Blended Crème as my starting point, described as "a rich and creamy blend of vanilla bean, milk and ice. Topped with whipped cream."

This gave me a base recipe of 4 pumps cream base, 4 Scoops Vanilla Bean Powder, and ice, plus the soy milk I swapped in for the regular milk, since I love the flavor of soy.  Of course, Starbucks uses sweetened vanilla soy milk for all soy drinks.

Basically, a blank canvas to turn into the creation I wanted, albeit a sweet one.  At this point, just this base recipe includes 74g of sugar (plus 470 calories and 14 grams of fat).  I was creating a milkshake after all, I didn't expect it to be remotely healthy, but wow that is a lot of sugar.

I decided I wanted to try to create a mint chocolate chip shake.  Mint sounded perfectly refreshing.  So, addition #1: 3 pumps of peppermint syrup.  I recalled that 4 pumps is standard for syrups, and knew I'd likely want it slightly less sweet, so I reduced down to 3.  (+15 grams sugar, 60 calories).

Next, I needed the chips.  I didn't specify how many, just asked for the java chips.  For a Venti, this seems to mean 4 scoops.  (+90 calories, 4 grams fat, 9 grams sugar).  I've never had chips in a frappuccino before, but, I thought they'd add a great texture, and, just a tiny bit of chocolate.

Finally, I asked for just a little mocha drizzle on top.  I just wanted it for decoration.  I was thus very shocked when I got the end result, clearly loaded up with mocha sauce.  There was the expected drizzle on top, but also, tons in the cup itself.  I didn't actually want this to be chocolately!  I think this means I got the standard 2 pumps of mocha sauce for a Venti? (+ 60 cal, 8 grams sugar).



I opted for light whip, because I never actually like their whipped cream much, but I want a little extra creaminess.

Another way to think of this drink is the Double Chocolaty Chip Crème Frappuccino® Blended Crème + Vanilla Bean Powder + 3 Pumps Peppermint Syrup, Soy, Light Whip, since, that is what I ended up getting.

When I saw how chocolately this was, I briefly considered saying something.  I didn't ask for mocha sauce inside.  I asked for a drizzle on top.  I didn't want a chocolately drink.  But ... I didn't really feel like bothering the barista.  This was clearly the fault of the person who took my order, not the barista.

I took an initial sip. Wow, sweet.  So sweet.  The frappuccino creme base is sweetened, the soy milk is sweetened, the peppermint syrup is pure sugar, the mocha sauce is sweetened, even the vanilla powder to make the vanilla bean component is sweet.  So. Much. Sweet.

Once I got over the sweet overload, I was able to appreciate the drink.  It really was nearly what I wanted.  Too much chocolate, for sure.  I clearly didn't want that.  But I liked the mintyness, and I absolutely loved the chips.  I can't believe I've never had them in a frappuccino before.  It was perfectly blended, although it separated a bit more than I expected.  The light whip was actually perfect, I was able to mix a little in, but I didn't have to deal with lots of mediocre whipped cream.

To improve this, I'd obviously leave out the mocha sauce that I didn't want to begin with.  I might even leave out the vanilla bean powder, I'm not sure it added anything, and certainly contributed a lot of sweet.  So maybe just creme base, peppermint, and chips?  If I wanted some caffeine, I'd also love to throw the chips into a matcha frappuccino.

As you may have noticed, my "drink" was massive; a Venti is a full 24 ounces.  Sure, some of that is ice, but, it is still ridiculously large.  My creation likely clocked in around 700 calories, 110 grams of sugar, and 20 grams of fat.  No human should get one of these on a regular basis.  I'll be honest, I actually finished almost the entire thing, and I felt ill after.  I was hopped up on sugar, in a way that made me quite uncomfortable.  It actually makes me a bit sick that Starbucks even offers a 24 ounce size like this, but, well, it is what America wants.

The final price was $6.80, with each addition racking up $0.60 each (soy milk, peppermint, chips, drizzle).  Sure, an extravagant one, but people have certainly created far more expensive ones than this.  I wasn't really trying to create the highest price, I really wanted to make something I'd want.  Any why not make it humongous?
Venti Crème Frappuccino®, Skim Milk, 1 Pump Toffee Nut, Java Chips, Light Marshmallow Whipped Cream.
Another year, another birthday reward.  This came just several weeks after my last reward creation.  It was a crazy hot day, and I wanted something like a milkshake, so it was time to try my hand at crafting another frappuccino.

I had many ideas in mind, but I was mostly inspired by my last creation of the minty vanilla bean  cream frappuccino with chips blended in.  I knew that I wanted chips blended in again, that much was clear.  I loved the texture they added.  And I knew I wanted the cream base, not a coffee base.

I almost decided to just perfect that one, taking my own advice to leave out the mocha sauce.  I also strongly considered trying the cinnamon dolce syrup instead of peppermint, as folks say it tastes sorta like cookie dough or a cinnamon roll, particularly if you add white mocha sauce.  A cookie dough frappuccino sounded pretty awesome.

But in the end, I opted for Toffee Nut as my syrup of choice.  Now, I've never had the toffee nut before.  But I've always wondered what it tastes like, so, no time like the present, right?  I reduced the syrup amount down to 1 pump rather than 2, because these drinks always just wind up crazy sweet, and I knew the cream base was already plenty sugary.  I also opted for skim milk rather than soy, because they use sweetened vanilla soy milk, and although I love the flavor of soy milk, it always makes these already sweet drinks just way too sweet.  And finally, instead of the regular, totally boring whipped cream, I opted for the fancy new marshmallow whipped cream crafted specially for the S'mores Frappuccino.

So, how was it?

It was ... decent.  As always, very nicely blended, no bits of ice remaining.  I again really loved the chips.

So far, so good.

It was plenty sweet, almost too sweet, even with regular milk and single pump of syrup.  The toffee nut flavor was pretty good, sorta nutty, sweet.  A single pump wasn't enough to really give it tons of flavor, but I'm certain that two pumps would have pushed it far over the sweet threshold for me.  So that was all fine, but I wouldn't opt for it again.

The marshmallow whipped cream was a winner.  It was fluffier, sweeter, just more interesting than standard whipped cream, and definitely the right choice.

I'm glad I tried this, and I did manage to consume the entire ridiculous thing, but it is back to the drawing board for me.  This much is clear though: Always blend in chips.  Always use the marshmallow whipped cream (and light amount is plenty).  Skim milk works fine and is less sweet than soy, so, not a bad option.

Original Review, September 2013

I've reviewed Starbucks a few times (most recently, I featured a bunch of their seasonal or new offerings), but since then, I've of course continued to try more drinks, mostly Frappuccinos.

The recent San Francisco summer weather inspired me to try the infamous Frappuccino.  I had never had a Frappuccino before, but I feel like it is impossible to walk down the street, even when it is crazy cold, and not see at least a few people happily guzzling them down.  Since I don't like the flavor of Starbucks coffee in the first place, I stuck mostly with the non-coffee ones.  I didn't really like them, and just don't see why people are so obsessed.  My issue is that they just aren't as good as milkshakes.  I don't see why I'd pick one instead of the real deal.  This isn't Starbuck's specific, I feel the same way about the Peet's freddos.  If I want a blendy milky icy beverage, I want a real milkshake!

[ Not Pictured ]
Peppermint Mocha Frappuccino
"Coffee blended with flavored peppermint syrup, rich mocha sauce, milk and ice. Topped with sweetened whipped cream and dark chocolate curls."

This was my first ever Frappuccino.  The image on the Starbucks sign looked so good it inspired me to finally try one.

It was sorta satisfying on a hot day, but what I enjoyed was the whipped cream and chocolate on top, and it would have been far better if it was just the chocolate milkshake it was pretending to be.
Tall Vanilla Bean Crème Frappuccino, made with heavy cream,  Dark Caramel Sauce, Caramel Drizzle, and Caramel Cookie Crunch. $1.48.
As I said, I'm amongst the small percentage of the population who isn't obsessed with Frappuccinos.  In fact, I'd only had the one before, and I thought it was ok, but wished it was a milkshake.

But, to start off the summer, Starbucks declared "Frappuccino Happy Hour", every day, from 3-5pm; all Frappuccinos were 50% off!  Their promotion worked on me, and on a hot afternoon, I ventured in.  I knew I didn't want caffeine, and that I don't really like the taste of their decaf, so I looked at the menu for non-caffeinated options.  There were only two listed, vanilla bean or strawberry, neither of which sounded all that interesting (sidenote: I went online later and discovered that they make a zillion more, but all are basically the same base just with any of their syrups mixed in).

Anyway, even though I've gotten horrible recommendations from Starbucks cashiers before, I asked my cashier which she'd pick.  Without missing a beat, she flipped a sign around.  "I'm so glad you asked!!!" she exclaimed.  "I would recommend this!  It is my custom creation!"  She described it as the Vanilla Bean Crème Frappuccino, but with all the great new ingredients from their newest Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccino mixed in, and, the icing on the cake, made with heavy cream instead of milk to make it more like a milkshake.  "I promise it is sooo good!  You'd never know it wasn't a real milkshake!"  Given that my biggest complaint about Frappucinos, Freddos, and the like is that I always wish they were milkshakes instead, I went with her recommendation, against my better judgement.

The barista making the drink was equally excited.  "She got you to order this!!!", she gleefully exclaimed as she began preparing it.  At one point, she stopped and started to ask if I wanted the whipped cream on top.  "Hahaha, of course you want the whipped cream, you just got a drink made with heavy cream instead of milk!"  Oh boy, what was I in for?

The drink featured most of the elements from their new Caramel Ribbon Crunch drink, the only missing pieces were the caramel syrup and the coffee base.  In place of the coffee base was was the Vanilla Bean Crème Frappuccino base.  And instead of milk, it was made with the heavy cream.  It also had the new caramel cookie crunch mixed into the base.  The new dark caramel sauce was swirled all around the outer edge.   And finally, it was topped with standard whipped cream, caramel drizzle, and more of the caramel cookie crunch.

It certainly was different from other Frappuccinos, and in fact, her claim that it was basically a milkshake was pretty true.  At the end of the day, heavy cream + very blended ice is a pretty good approximation for ice cream.  It was rich and creamy, and very well blended.

The flavor wasn't awesome, I didn't really taste vanilla bean, it was mostly just sweet.  The dark caramel drizzle around the outside just added to the sweetness.  The caramel cookie crunch mixed in was really interesting, as it gave it great texture, something I always want in a milkshake.  The pieces were tiny enough to easily be sucked up with the straw, never clogging it, but big enough to be noticeable when drinking it.  Unfortunately, I didn't really like the way they tasted.  The whip cream was their standard stuff, as was the caramel drizzle.  Both added to the dessert-like experience, but didn't add much flavor-wise.  The extra cookie crunch on top would have been nice ... if I liked the cookie crunch.

I'm glad I tried this, and I do think it was far more decadent and milkshake-like than any normal Frappuccino.  And it was perfectly blended.  And it didn't separate out as it melted.  But, I wouldn't get it again, as it just didn't taste that great.
Venti Tazo® Green Tea Frappuccino Blended Crème, Non-Fat, Half-Sweet, with Whip.  $4.95. 
Wowzer.  The first thing to notice here is the size.  A venti Frappuccino is an insanely large thing!  I would never normally order this size, I always just go for a tall, but ... it was a special occasion.

The occasion being my birthday.  Starbucks gives rewards members a treat to use during their birthday month.  It can be any food or drink item, which is actually pretty remarkable.  I was struck with indecision.  Did I want to try out one of the new baked goods from La Boulange at Starbucks?  I tried to do a little research first, but there just aren't many reviews of them.  And given that I don't have the highest impression of the La Boulange goods from the actual La Boulange locations themselves, this seemed wasteful, as they are baked offsite and are less fresh than the bakeries.  If I wanted to maximize my freebie, I probably should have gotten one of the new warm toasted sandwiches, but I really wasn't optimistic about those either.  And since I haven't ever really liked their coffee, I decided that it was time to try another Frappuccino, and waited for a hot day.

Luckily, my birthday falls right before the start of San Francisco summer, so a hot day finally came.  I gleefully headed towards Starbucks.  I had my heart set on trying their version of a Green Tea Frappuccino, after having tried the Peet's version fairly recently.  I absolutely love the flavor of matcha green tea, so even though I haven't been impressed with Starbuck's drinks,  I hoped for the best.

"A refreshing blend of sweetened matcha green tea, milk and ice. Topped with sweetened whipped cream" is the official description, but does not tell the whole story.  I of course did my research before heading to Starbucks to get my drink.  When they first introduced the drink, they used to add a melon syrup to it, which apparently made it crazy sweet, but they discontinued that.  But now, they still use the "classic syrup", aka, liquid sugar, when they make it, although it is not included in the description.  And the matcha powder itself is already cut with extra sugar as well.  So people claim it is very, very sweet (and, ridiculously unhealthy ... do NOT look at the nutrition stats for this thing, particularly the venti size!  I don't mind the calories, but uh, >100 grams of sugar in my drink is really just not good for my blood sugar!)

Most reviewers seemed to fall in a few camps.  There were those who just don't like the taste of matcha, and no matter how sweet it was, they weren't ever going to like it.  They were easy to ignore.  Then there were the people who actually like matcha, and lamented over the fact that it was so sweet, and that the matcha got lost.  I tuned into their recommendations to get it half-sweet, or not-sweetened at all.  This adjusts the "classic" syrup, but it is still plenty sweet from the sugar added to the matcha, and from the milk.  Some of these folks also recommended that you ask for extra matcha powder so you could really taste it.

I decided to ask for it half-sweet.  Next time, I'd go all the way and have them leave out the classic syrup completely.  While I'd like a little sweetness, I really just don't want all that sugar.  The matcha tea has a fair amount of caffeine (100mg in my drink) and add 100 grams of sugar to that, and I was just bouncing off the walls in an uncomfortable way.

Anyway, back to the drink.  Half-sweet was certainly plenty sweet.  I wouldn't have wanted the full sweetness for sure.  And I'd still like some sweetness, so I think I'd ask for a pump of sugar-free vanilla instead of the classic syrup next time.  Then, I'd have some sweetness, but I'd also get some vanilla flavor, which I always like with matcha, and I'd lose some sugar grams.

The drink was, as always, perfectly blended.  No matter how much I don't love Frappuccinos, I do respect them for this aspect.  They have it down.  Tiny, tiny little bits of ice, all ingredients perfectly mixed.  And it doesn't melt too fast.  Serious science here.

The matcha flavor was stronger than I expected given the reviews, but I can see why people ask for more.  If I wanted to perfect the drink, I'd certainly consider adding an extra scoop of matcha powder.  Even as it was, it had more matcha flavor than the Peet's one, so that was point for Starbucks.

The whipped cream was generic as can be.  I don't understand why they don't have tastier whipped cream. I still always add it, because it makes it more milkshake-like.

I really wanted to get a soy version, since I think that soy and matcha were meant to go together, but uh, lately my body hasn't been liking soy as much as I've been liking soy.  So I skipped it and went for regular milk.  If I could though, I'd definitely get soy.

So, I liked this, far better than any other Frappuccino, or perhaps any other Starbucks drink in general, but I am pretty sure I could make it tastier in the future.  Ideal version would be ... soy, no classic syrup, 2 pumps of SF vanilla, extra scoop of matcha, whipped cream.  Oooh, and maybe something blended in for texture.  But now I'm just getting obnoxious :)
Venti Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino® Blended Crème, Non-Fat, Half-Sweet, Whipped Cream.  $4.75.
"A classic combination of strawberries, fresh milk and Starbucks® classic syrup blended with ice, topped with whipped cream."

Another hot day, and I was inspired by my success with the Green Tea Frappuccino, so I decided to try another Frappuccino.  I was again looking for a non-caffinated option, and the strawberry one jumped out at me.  Really, I just wanted a strawberry milkshake from Holy Grill, but I hoped this would satisfy.

As always, it was nicely blended, tiny chunks of ice.  But besides that, it really had nothing going on.  I ordered it half-sweet, after seeing that it had 71 grams of sugar normally.  I figured if it wasn't sweet enough I could just add some simple syrup myself.  It was plenty sweet at the half-sweet level, I kinda can't imagine it having twice as much syrup.

The real problem is that it just didn't taste like ... anything.  Sweet and milky, yes, but strawberry?  Not really.  I am not sure what they mix in to make it strawberry, I think a strawberry sauce, but it really wasn't effective.  I almost think they may have screwed up and reduced my strawberry sauce as well as the classic syrup?  If I'd had a few more sips while still in the store, I probably would have asked to have more added, or ... something.  But I'd already walked away by the time I realized how flavorless it was.

Not good, would not order again, and definitely not worth the $4.75.
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