Jesse, who has worked at Starbucks for almost a year, has written a mythbusting “Buyer’s Guide” that will help you in your quest to save money when ordering your favorite Starbucks beverage. Our favorite tips? Frappucinos are a rip off, there’s no free ride at the drive-thru, and ordering a latte with chai syrup is cheaper than a chai with espresso.
Consumerist drinks its coffee black, but Jesse obviously loves the complicated world of Starbucks, and if you do too, this is the post for you.
Jesse’s Starbucks Buyer’s Guide
I’ve been working for Starbucks for almost a year, and my love for coffee and free coffee beverages are what keep me there. As much as some people may complain, Starbucks does offer a high quality coffee, even if it comes at a premium price. Here’s my take on some tips for ordering at Starbucks in order to keep prices low and tastebuds happy. I’ll also try to bust down some myths and educate about basic coffee principles.
Starbucks coffee tastes burnt.
While it’s true that Starbucks does tend to roast their beans a bit darker than most other coffee places, what you’re tasting isn’t actually “burnt.” The Specialty Coffee Association of America says that standard brewing should have two full tablespoons of coffee for every six ounces of water. Most other coffee shops and restaurants will barely even use half that much coffee. The coffee then ends up tasting much stronger than what most casual coffee drinkers are used to. Choosing the mild coffee of the day isn’t really going to help if you think Starbucks coffee is stronger. The mild coffees tend to have what’s known as a stronger acidity. Acidity refers to the sharp taste on the tongue and how long the flavor of the coffee lasts – not the actual PH balance. If you don’t like the taste of burnt coffee, you’ll probably shy away from Latin American and African coffees which have a higher acidity.
What you probably should order is an Americano. An Americano is espresso and hot water to dilute it to the flavor strength of brewed coffee. It’s milder in body and won’t seem as “burnt.”
As far as price goes, standard coffee is the cheapest that you’re going to get at Starbucks. It does seem to be a bit more expensive that other coffee shops, but remember – they’re using more actual coffee. An Americano runs more expensive because making the drink takes more man hours. We’ll break down the cost of espresso later.
Instead of paying higher amounts for iced coffee, I can just buy regular coffee, ask for a cup of ice, and pour the coffee over that.
Iced coffee is brewed double strength before it’s poured over ice in order to give it the regular strength of coffee. If you just buy a regular cup of coffee and pour it over ice, you’re getting extremely week coffee that’s half as strong as it should be.
Going for the Venti espresso drink is a better value.
A Venti drink is twenty ounces. It has two shots of espresso in it. The Specialty Coffee Association of America says that there should be one ounce of espresso for every eight ounces of beverage. This means that there are eighteen ounces of milk for two ounces of espresso – that’s a lot of milk! The only drink sizes that meet the SCAA regulations are the eight once Short that has one shot and the sixteen ounce Grande that has two shots. The tall is twelve ounces and also only has one shot. Because Starbucks follows SCAA guidelines strictly, they won’t put two shots into a tall or three shots into a Venti because that technically would be too much espresso.
What people don’t realize is that Starbucks even offers the Short. Back in the day, there were only two sizes – short and tall. As our American appetites grew, so did the size of our drinks. But the short is actually a lot closer to the size of what a traditional latte would be. It’s also a couple dollars cheaper than going for the Venti.
Now my personal preference is one ounce of espresso to every four ounces of beverage – but I like my drinks strong and I get them for free.
The Truth About Espresso and the Great Frappucino Swindle:
A few years ago, Starbucks made the jump to automatic espresso machines. Standard procedure for pulling a shot of espresso requires grinding into the portafilter, tamping it down, locking it into the espresso machine, and pressing the button to start the water. The Starbucks machine does all of this with the touch of one button – it also stores the coffee grounds as compressed pucks in a drawer that needs to be emptied only twice a day. This saves a lot of time for baristas, especially when there’s a long line. The shots themselves are very good for an automatic machine. But these machines cost about ten thousand dollars apiece compared to about three thousand for a quality manual commercial grade espresso machine. That’s a lot of money to recoup at about two dollars for a double shot. Not to mention that Starbucks also pays its employees a higher wage than most coffee shops because they don’t make as much tips working at Starbucks. The cost of operating a Starbucks is astronomical. But the quality is there.
Even with the cost of these machines, Starbucks doesn’t charge much more than your local coffeeshop. In fact, sometimes it’s cheaper. And the way they recoup these costs? Frappucinos. A Frappucino is a blended coffee beverage that most people find quite tasty. But what the hell is actually inside it? Standard Frappucino recipe relies on using a Frappucino Base and ice, along with a pump of the flavor syrup of your choice. And the Frappucino Base? First you add instant coffee to water. Then you pour in a box of Frappucino Mix, which lists its first ingredients as “Milk Ingerdients.” The amount of high fructose corn syrup and strange processed food materials in these things is scary. And the best part? They will run you about four bucks a piece. It doesn’t cost barely anything to make one, but you better believe that they’re going to overcharge you for it. And because the Frappucino base is already extremely sweetened, the recipe only calls for one pump of syrup even though you’ll be charged the full thirty cents. A Tall drink usually gets three, a Grande four, and a Venti gets five pumps.
If you like cold drinks, try an iced latte or a mocha. It won’t taste as sweet, but here’s the best part – if you pay for syrup, you can ask for as much as you want as long as it’s only one type! Standard Starbucks practice is to charge for each type of syrup used not how much of each. You can avoid this by asking for half and half – if you like the taste of Vanilla and Hazelnut, ask for half Vanilla and half Hazelnut – this will help from being overcharged.
Other tips for money saving:
Soy milk costs more. Organic milk costs more. They’re tastier, but also cost more.
If you like the taste of espresso with a chai latte, ask them to ring it up as a latte with chai syrup added instead of a chai latte with espresso added. Espresso costs about fifty cents to add a shot while syrup is only thirty cents. If you get a Grande latte, you already get two shots and only add thirty cents for the chai syrup. If you get a Grande chai latte and add two shots, you’re adding about a dollar to the drink.
Try to do the math – sometimes it’s cheaper to ask to be rung up as a larger size instead of a small size with an added shot. It never hurts to ask – Starbucks employees are people too and probably don’t want to overcharge you.
Don’t use the drive-thru. If you use the drive thru, every single modifier gets added on the computer, otherwise your drink won’t be made right. Usually asking for soy milk as a creamer is free, and you can ask them to put whipped cream on anything for free as well, but if you go through the drive-thru you bet your sweet bippy you’ll get charged for it.
And finally – try it without a flavoring! Milk is inherently sweet because of lactose and only gets sweeter once steamed. You don’t always need a vanilla latte and after ten drinks it’s like you’re getting a free Tall latte! Once you get used to the flavor of espresso and milk, then you’re one step closer to order regular brewed coffee which is as cheap as you go.
However, if you’re a tea drinker you’re in luck. Hot and iced tea are just about the same price as coffee.
(Photo: Beautiful Machine)
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Consumerist.