It's only the very beginning of May, yet it's already becoming oppressively hot by 10 a.m. each day. And although no good morning can start without a cup of coffee, the hot black stuff just doesn't appeal on days when my legs are sticking to the car seat before noon.
That's where iced coffee comes in. Sure, you can make the stuff yourself at home. Our onetime coffee blogger, Greenway Barista, even has a handy how-to guide (complete with obnoxious comments from coffee purists like, "Are you SERIOUS? Iced coffee SHOULD ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS BE COLD BREWED.") should you feel so inclined to make a pitcher for yourself in the comfort of your own kitchen. But sometimes you're on the go and a pit stop is necessary.
The nice thing about the increasing prevalence of iced coffee is that you can get it pretty much anywhere you turn, even at McDonald's. And before you turn your finely calibrated nose up at me, let's just clear a few things up: I'm not a coffee snob. Beer, yes. Fatty foods, yes. Cheetos, yes. (Don't even try to get those creepy Planters cheese puffs knockoffs near me.) But a good, strong cup of coffee is a good, strong cup of coffee...whether or not the beans came from the ass of a civet monkey or from a can of Maxwell House.
With that out of the way, let's proceed.
For comparison's sake, I ordered two forms of iced coffee from each place. A medium vanilla iced coffee (a.k.a. grande vanilla latte at Starbucks) and a medium mocha frappe (a.k.a. grande medium mocha Frappucino at Starbucks). Armed with four enormous cups of caffeine and calories, I began to make my assessments.
The iced vanilla coffee at McDonald's has long been a personal favorite. It's cheap. It's not terribly bad for you. Unlike many items at McDonald's, it has exactly three ingredients, all of them pronouncable: whole milk, espresso and vanilla syrup. God only knows what's in the vanilla syrup, but the iced coffee on the whole is fantastic. It's sweet, refreshing, surprisingly light and has a well-balanced coffee-to-vanilla ratio that doesn't overly emphasize either flavor.
I once made the mistake of letting the friendly folks at my local McDonald's drive-thru window talk me into a sample size of the mocha frappe, and I went seriously downhill for about two weeks. They're like liquid crack, topped with whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup. "You're basically drinking a coffee milkshake, dude," our editorial assistant Blake said one morning, sadly shaking his head at me as he judged me from my doorway.
But the thing is, the mocha frappes here are fantastic. I never much cared for Frappucinos, and didn't think I'd like these either. But, as Blake said, they're like drinking a chocolate milkshake with a peppy espresso finish. Sadly, they also contain excessive amounts of high fructose corn syrup, 540 calories and 24 grams of fat per drink. I weaned myself off of them over the course of a few days, but still have one every once in a while as a treat.
I stopped drinking the coffee at Starbucks around the same time they introduced the Pike Place roast as their main (mild) brew a few years ago. It's horrid. It tastes the way burning tires smell. And that's coming from someone who is admittedly not picky about her coffee. The only coffee that's decent there now is whatever they have rotating in and out as the "bold" selection. But no one ever orders it, so you have to sit around and wait for them to brew an entire 25 gallon container of it and by the time that whole ordeal is done, I could have used my French press at home to brew a far better cup of coffee and be on to doing more interesting things.
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The iced vanilla latte suffers from the same problem as all the other drinks at Starbucks: it's made with the aforementioned hellbrew. It's as bitter as Katherine Heigl and far too saturated with milk and vanilla syrup in an effort to mask the taste.
The mocha Frappucino doesn't fare much better. I can recall distantly when the drink first hit Starbucks across the nation. My friends who were baristas hated making the drink because it takes so long to prep and blend, and the majority of the customers who ordered them were uppity assholes, making their jobs that much more unpleasant. I also remember the Frappucinos never being well blended (perhaps because of the reasons I just mentioned), so that the mix would separate quickly from the ice, which was always too chunky and migrated quickly to the bottom of the cup. Turns out, the Frappucino hasn't changed one bit. It tastes grainy, the ice isn't well-incorporated and the whole thing smacks of a good idea gone bad.
McDonald's, by a long shot. Not only are their drinks cheaper by at least $1, they taste far better and you don't have to put up with the other insufferable customers inside your local Starbucks. Just the crazy homeless guy in the McDonald's parking lot, yelling at the trash cans. (I'll take that guy any day.)