Starbucks, Dunkin' et al: Who has best frozen coffee drink?
It's winter in the United States, and while that may mean something different in California from, say, Maine, it's still cold. The Chicagoan in me hangs his head in shame as the 50-degree temperatures feel like a polar vortex to my now-tender skin.
And what better time, honestly, than when there's a chill in the weather to do a round-up of slushy, freezing-cold, blended coffee beverages? You may know them as Frappuccinos, Ice Blendeds, Frozen Coffees or one of a number of monikers; I simply know them as an answer to the question: How can I turn my morning cup of coffee into dessert?
To reiterate, before my email inbox burns to the ground: This is not about coffee or iced coffee drinks. This is specifically about frozen coffee drinks, those with a texture like a Slurpee or granita.
This is by no means an exhaustive survey, but I tried 45 of these puppies and eight distinct brands, so I feel like I have a good lay of the land. That, and I've ingested so much sugar, I'm more hopped up than a craft brewery in San Diego.
I have not ranked these strictly by best to worst but rather have thrown them into loose categories: the good, the not so bad and the ugly.
I have good news and bad news. The good news is that, yes, it's doughnut specialist Krispy Kreme, of all places, that makes some of the best frozen coffee drinks you'll find in all the land. They've figured out the texture perfectly — it's creamy but not so thick you can't sip it through a straw. It's suitably slushy but doesn't veer into excessively icy.
Now the bad news: Two flavors I absolutely loved, peppermint mocha and hazelnut, you may not be able to enjoy anytime soon. Peppermint mocha is a holiday flavor, and during a phone call to my local Krispy Kreme store, I was told — heartbreakingly, tragically told — that hazelnut was pulled sometime in January.
But let's end on a positive note. You won't go wrong with any regularly available Krispy Kreme flavors, such as caramel, mocha and vanilla. They're nicely blended, balanced and flavorful without clobbering you with sucrose.
Dutch Bros. Cocomo Freeze
Coffee chain Dutch Bros., with a cute little windmill logo, has hundreds of locations nationwide. If you happen to be near one, consider stopping by. Dutch Bros.' take on the slushy coffee drink, a Dutch Freeze, is excellent.
The Cocomo has a mild, nutty coconut flavor and is reminiscent of a frozen Mounds bar, for those of you who are fans.
Dunkin' Donuts Frozen Coffee
We all know why we get Dunkin' Donuts coffee. Here's a hint: It's not because you want to taste coffee. It's because you want sweet, creamy candy with just a hint of coffee flavor. And the Frozen Coffee is exactly what you expect and want it to be. It is a cup of Dunkin' coffee in the form of a shopping mall Icee. It's rich and sweet, resembling a coffee milkshake more than any of the other brands, and it's totally delightful.
McDonald's Caramel Frappe
McDonald's is going pretty heavily into its McCafé brand and has transformed itself into, among other things, a decent place to get an average cup of coffee. It has two flavors of blended coffee drinks too, caramel and mocha, of which caramel is clearly superior. It's one of the only caramel-flavored drinks I tried that doesn't cross a line into cloying while maintaining a steady, buttery caramel flavor.
Starbucks Java Chip Frappuccino
We now come to Starbucks, the world's largest coffee chain, which has, ironically, some of the world's worst coffee. It's fair to say that Starbucks owes a lot to the Frappuccino, the famous portmanteau originally developed by Boston-based chain the Coffee Connection, acquired by Starbucks, along with rights to the drink's name, for $23 million in 1994. You think Starbucks is pretty happy with its end of the deal?
The Frappuccino has become the standard-bearer of the frozen coffee drink and, while not actually the best one out there, has the broadest, most well-considered menu of flavors. The Java Chip is a perennial favorite, with a satisfying chocolaty grit that's fun to chew but doesn't turn into labor.
Pretty much every other Freeze I tried at Dutch Bros.
Dutch Bros., literally founded by a couple of Dutch bros (brothers of Dutch descent), has some other great flavors — the Golden Eagle, a sweet vanilla-caramel combo, and the Picture Perfect, which pushes the boundaries of decadence with chocolate
and caramel syrups. The seasonal Candy Cane Freeze is another winner. It's essentially a frozen peppermint mocha that nicely balances the mint with chocolate and coffee flavors and is neither too medicinal nor too sweet.
Starbucks Sugar Cookie Almondmilk Frappuccino
Surprise! This option with plant-based milk
(that the company insists on spelling “almondmilk,” one word, makes me pause slightly) surpasses many dairy-based beverages in quality. Sometimes a cookie-flavored syrup can taste overly manufactured, but in this case, the slight nuttiness and gentle chalkiness of the almond milk works to the drink's advantage to create a mild, buttery baked sensation. It's a nice union of flavors.
A note on Starbucks holiday flavors like this one and others I mention in this article: A barista at my local store explained that the company doesn't have a firm cutoff date for holiday drinks but rather stops shipping syrups; this means stores can keep making the drinks until they run out of product. It varies from store to store and depends on the popularity of the drinks.
Krispy Kreme Original Glazed and Sugar Cookie Frozen Lattes
The Original Glazed and seasonal Sugar Cookie Frozen Lattes are decent, but these flavors don't quite reach the heights of the better ones listed above. The Sugar Cookie has slight plasticky undertones, like drinking a cup of sprinkles or nonpareils. The Original Glazed flavor doesn't taste much like a doughnut at all — in fact, it tastes a lot like the Sugar Cookie.
Peet's Holiday Spice Frappe
This is the one drink from Peet's that was halfway decent. I don't often love the generic profile of “holiday spice,” but this drink tastes like your lips after a pull off of a clove cigarette: sweet and pungent. It's warm and cozy, despite the literal coldness of the drink, and tastes of cinnamon and nutmeg. It's hygge in slush form. N.B.: I called a local Peet's store and was told that this flavor has a decent chance to remain available for a while beyond the holiday season; however, an employee at a different Peet's store said they likely would stop selling the flavor soon after the holidays, so YMMV.
Panera Frozen Chocolate Cold Brew
I was hoping for more from Panera; this is decent, not great. The flavor of its frozen chocolate cold brew is a bit like Hershey's syrup but redeemed by a decent texture: a little on the loose side, but wellblended and not too thin.
McDonald's Mocha Frappe
There's good texture to the McDonald's frappes, but go with the caramel instead of mocha, which has a little too much of that bite of commercial chocolate syrup, like sucking on a chocolateflavored penny.