I’ve only tasted hazlenut coffee by accident. America’s flavored coffee movement, which initially seemed like a fad that would quickly disappear, has really passed me by. I’m starting to feel like one of those kids who grew up without TV, and doesn’t understand references to Three’s Company or Who’s the Boss. Now that the holidays are upon us, the movement is at its annual aggressive peak, with even the burliest of men ordering up Grande Skim Eggnog Chai Lattes and Tall Peppermint Mochas with whipped cream. A horrible thought popped into my head recently. Am I the weird one? Is my “small coffee with milk—no sugar” a sign of my utter party-pooperness?
In an effort to join the rest of society, I decided to sample the seasonal offering at Starbucks, beginning with the extremely popular Gingerbread Latte. At the first store I visited, the girl behind the counter put on a frown-y face when I requested it, saying “Aww, I’m so sorry, we’re all out.” Then she sighed and said “I’m tired. What time is it?” I moved on to another of the 47 billion locations, which was one block away, and ordered the same. The guy behind the counter nodded with approval. “That’s the best one.”
The gingerbread latte, like all flavored coffee drinks, is extraordinarily sweet and packs in an absurd number of calories (330 for a “tall” which is a “small”), but it is one of the more bearable of the holiday-inspired beverages. That’s not to say I enjoyed the actual experience of drinking it, but at least it is clever and had a distinct flavor, aside from “sweet.” The peppermint hot chocolate is a reasonable combination, but a peppermint mocha takes it a step too far: Coffee goes with chocolate, and chocolate goes with peppermint, but does peppermint go with coffee?
The eggnog series, though a cute idea, was offensive in execution. An eggnog latte consists of espresso, a lot of eggnog mix from a supermarket carton, and milk. It is the color of a Caucasian baby’s knees and the smallest size contains 25 grams of fat. Do people think because it is in some abstract sense “coffee,” that it doesn’t count? The Pumpkin Spice Latte, which has stuck around since Thanksgiving, had a milder taste. A friend who loves fruity cocktails and hates beer and wine tasted it and said ” That’s nice.” It had the appearance of chicken soup (the whipped cream melted to leave a greasy film on the surface) and tasted like milk and sugar.
But what about the competition? Dunkin’ Donuts has come out with endearingly enthusiastic ads for lattes, a little late in the game. And they have an alarming array of flavored coffees as well (Cinnamon! Coconut! Marshmallow! Blueberry?). But their holiday lineup is far less ambitious than Starbucks’. It contains no Christmas-specific references, just two humble seasonal offerings: Mocha Almond and Caramel Creme. But they make up for this lack of range by making these straightforward-sounding flavors unbelievably sweet. The caramel latte has not even a hint of coffee taste to it. When I asked a friend to confirm that this was by far the sweetest drink we had tasted, he said “I’m losing my perspective. What is coffee supposed to taste like?”