In the first episode of our iced coffee saga, we took a little closer look at what’s available when you’re on the go. That’s right, we checked out the National (and sometimes international) brands of ‘fast food’ coffee. Whether you’re out and about, stuck in the airport or just plain old road tripping, it’s handy to have a handle on what’s what in the realm of name brand coffee.
Experiment Design: To have a little more control in the experiment process, all coffees were ordered black and without ice (to be added at the time of the actual tasting). Using the official Roast Ratings score sheet, we blind tasted all the options. Without further ado, here are the chilling results!
Price: $2.17 for 12oz
How They Make It: Using more coffee than for their standard hot brew, they make a hot concentrate that is diluted with ice and then refrigerated until use.
Ordering/Service: Starbucks is probably the most prolific purveyor of coffee on the planet. In many ways they set the expectation bar for peoples’ experiences in coffee. To acquire my experimental brew I rode through the drive thru at my local franchise. The service was friendly and fast, and the ordering process was mostly painless- they always have to be convinced that I indeed really want my coffee black. While a drive thru experience is never that personal by nature, they tend to do a pretty good job of making you feel good while you’re on your way wherever you are going.
Tasting Experience: Starting with smells only, we were pretty sure we knew which coffee this was based on the potency of the roast aroma. It was really intense, also reminding us of sour OJ and other less than happy things. Heavy and a little bit sticky, if there is one thing this coffee has in spades it’s definitely body. When it comes to flavor, it opens on normal coffee notes, but as the temperature changes in your mouth it blooms into intense bitter notes. The aftertaste is really dry and, as one of our friends pointed out, it made him want to drink more just to get the taste out of his mouth. At the end of the day, the nicest thing we can really say about this coffee is that it sometimes kind of reminded us of dark chocolate (?). This option is probably best reserved for someone that is interested in adding cream and sugar…maybe even twice.
Price: $1.83 for a 16oz
How They Make It: So I’m not sure if this is true of all locations, but it turns out at mine that today’s iced coffee is merely yesterday’s hot brew, chilled overnight.
Ordering/Service: My local Caribou is actually inside of a Hy-Vee grocery store. Ordering the coffee was pretty easy and friendly and it was in my hands within a minute of ordering. It’s hard to argue with speed of coffee service!
Tasting Experience: To use just one word to describe the sum total of our experience with this one, we’d have to go with “Weird”. The aromas and flavors that we got off this coffee were odd and ever changing, making it a ‘flavor roulette, only all the chambers have bullets’. Ever evolving in surprise tasting notes, we got things like- pickling spices, lemon pledge, vinegar and leather. We’ve had some coffee from Caribou that was pretty okay, but this one was pretty funky. While it’s not the worst option out there, there are definitely some that are more worthy of exploration.
1 & 1/2 STAR
Price: $2.45 for a 12oz
How They Make It: Hot brewed concentrate diluted with ice and then chilled until use.
Ordering/Service: Having ordered from McDonald’s drive thru more times than I would like to count, I think all parties involved in the transaction have come to rely pretty heavily on product familiarity. But this was my first attempt at ordering iced coffee from them and once we got past the perfunctory ordering of my breakfast burritos, things went a little awry. I suppose it should come as no surprise that it’s rare for someone to ask for their iced coffee without cream, sugar and, for the purposes of the experiment, ice. Who knew that ordering something simple could make things so complicated? In the end, they almost got it right. It was indeed black coffee, but it still had ice which I removed as quickly as possible. The receipt was correct…A for effort?
Tasting Experience: As is their usual approach, the McCafe brew was pretty non-offensive, but definitely on the weak side when it came to strength of body and flavor. Everything about this coffee was pretty subtle which made us wonder how well it could hold up with cream and sugar. On the bright side it was a pretty balanced cup, a slight hint of acidity, sweetness and bitterness. While traveling we’d potentially drink it again, depending on the options available.
Price: $2.45 for a 16oz
How They Make It: By the time it gets to the individual stores the “iced coffee” is already in liquid form. In some mysterious facility somewhere hordes of coffee concentrate is made and then shipped to each location to be diluted with water and then served.
Ordering/Service: No matter what you really think of Chick Fil-A, the staff is one of the super-friendliest I have ever encountered. Whether you’re in the drive thru line or calling to ask them about how they make their iced coffee, they’re unfailingly helpful. In this particular exchange I didn’t exactly get what I had ordered (there was sweetener added in the first round) but they fixed it quickly without questions and, most importantly, with pleasantries.
Tasting Experience: This one was altogether not too shabby. It didn’t smell like a whole lot of anything, but once you got into it it was surprisingly intense in its strength. It almost felt like drinking maple syrup. Overall it was a pretty balanced experience, offering some light fruit notes and rich sweetness. It was definitely on the more concentrated side of the spectrum, but that can always be remedied with a little dilution. But not too much on this one….once the ice melts down it flattens out into a husk of its former self.
Price: $2.45 for a 12oz
How They Make It: They brew a hot concentrate and then dilute it with a combination of ice and water.
Ordering/Service: Taking advantage of the drive thru scenario, everything went pretty easily (other than my donut indecision). Once I got the the window I met two lovely genuine people who couldn’t hold back their curiosity at why I already had so many cups of coffee in my car. I gave them the low down and promised to let them know how things turned out. Needless to say, they came out pretty good!
Tasting Experience: Getting tasty coffee from Dunkin Donuts is still a pleasant surprise. From a sourcing standpoint they do tend to buy well cultivated coffees. Smooth and round, this one is all about tasting like a peanut butter cup. It was some sweet, easy drinkin’. If ever stuck in an airport in need of coffee we will pray that there’s a Dunkin in the terminal. We’d happily drink this one again (and again).
And the winner is…
Allegro at Whole Foods
Price: $2.20 for 16oz
How They Make It: This one is brewed up ‘Toddy’ style, which is a concentrate brewed over the course of several hours. Once it’s drained they have a special ratio of water to coffee.
Ordering/Experience: Since this one is in Whole Foods I had to go in to get a cup, but I couldn’t resist buying a couple of things along the way (I can never pass up a chance to get my hands on some Ski Queen Cheese). Ordering an iced coffee was the easiest part, and they can ring up anything else you purchased right there.
Tasting Experience: Truthfully, this was a damn nice cup of coffee. It was balanced, sweet like tootsie rolls and brightness that reminded us of cacao. Malty and complex, there was some debate about whether the chocolate flavor was more ‘HoHo’ or Little Debbie’s Swiss Cake Rolls, we agreed on the fact that we wanted not only seconds but could easily drink this every day. Cacao may be a flavor call in this lovely drink, but we’d never say ‘cacao’ to this…