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Friday, June 13, 2008

Iced Mocha: Mud in the Eye of the Little Guy Coffee Shop

Normally a fairly happy person, sometimes I just feel the urge to rant. On this blog I've ranted against Starbuck's efforts to brand coffee as the new wine and against the ridiculous marketing of Wolfgang Puck's crappy wrapped sandwiches as airport gourmet. And everyone feels happy, because both those target Goliath, and give him a little spit in the eye. Well, I'm sorry to say, but today is David's turn to get some egg on his face. Because it's time for some Indie Coffee Shops to get a little wake up call.

This morning I decided it was time for a change in my coffee and work routine. Often I go to Starbucks because it is only two blocks from my house. I cringe a little out of Liberal foodie guilt about going to the massive chain, but then I duck my head and crash on through that wave of guilt into the friendly environs of that conveniently close and quick coffee conglomerate. But this morning I felt it was time for a change, so I hopped into the car (gas!!) and drove to a locally-owned and independent cafe. As I walked through the front door, I bathed in the eclectic, non-standardized decor, the quirky combination of mismatched chairs, the indie and emo barristas. High on this, my little homage to anti-corporate consumption, I bellied up to the bar to place my order. I was even a little giddy as I shed the pretentious ordering syntax of "tall iced mocha" in favor of the more vernacular "regular iced mocha."

"That'll be $4.62." I feel my anti-corporate feel-good glow rapidly dissipating.

"What?" I say. My mouth is a little slack. It sounds stupid, but I can't think of anything more intelligent to say. Somehow I am convinced that just can't be right. Has she accidentally rung me up for two iced mochas? or maybe inadvertently added in a slice of pie to the total?

"$4.62." She repeats pleasantly. As if this isn't somehow an absurd mini-drama or perhaps an especially perverse SNL skit.

"Wow." I say. Again, feeling particularly articulate. I can't help myself. I add in, "Really?" Just to be sure one last time that there isn't an accidental miscalculation.

"Yup" She responds, thinking I must be a bit slow. I fish in my wallet for my credit card while blinking, disoriented, at the chalk sign hanging all artsy above the counter. On the cheerily chalked sign the "Cafe Mocha" is listed as $3.50 for a regular, $4.50 for an extra-large. Even with close inspection, I can't find an "Iced Mocha" listed anywhere, so I must have stupidly assumed that an iced mocha, if not listed separately, would cost, say, the same as a regular mocha?

Because it isn't as though they put it through some space-aged expensive NASA technology to make it cold. They use this 18th Century technology for cooling things: we call it ice. Ice people! This is a technology so simple that the Amish are still happily using it. Mother Nature cranks it out for free all winter long.

Does it not seem absurd to anyone else then, that the mere addition of coldness to my morning Joe cost me a whopping $1.12 over the regular hot version?

Now I'm sure some smarty barrista out there will be inclined to write in and educate me on the finer technologies of coffee and how the chocolate used in the hot drinks can't be used in the cold drinks because it will get gritty or something. Fine. But truthfully I don't care. Because if Hershey's (another giant evil corporation, right?) can manage to make some cheapo chocolate syrup that works either hot or cold, that has made both hot chocolate and chocolate milk for generations of children, then by God, some indie coffee house should be able to manage something roughly similar.

Furthermore, at Starbucks, they will smile indulgently at me as I order my far-too-complicated favorite "Tall Decaf Skim Peppermint Mocha in a Grande Here Cup, No Whip, Extra Foamy." Whereas here, at Independent Cafe, I get more of a Coffee Nazi experience. You are looked upon with suspicion for even trying to order a decaf or (heavens!) specify that you prefer skim milk. Even on days when I just order a decaf coffee I sometimes feel compelled to grovel and beg forgiveness as I pay.

So I feel conflicted. I am all for the little guy. I think variation and choice is a healthy thing for a society, and I recognize that all those little guys can't compete with the sheer economies of scale that mega-corporations have through bulk buying and distribution systems. Fine. So I'll pay a little more. But pay 30 percent more for a cup of coffee? And be treated poorly? At some point, all those little guys have to sack up and compete on some dimensions, rather than just limp along sucking on the teat of liberal market guilt.


Philip said...

Hi Erin,
I've been running into a similar bit of shock lately, although not like this one. I wonder what would have happened had you ordered a regular mocha and a cup of ice?
Recently I dined at Chik Fil A and was shocked that the price of a simple chicken wrap, medium fries, and medium soft drink came to $8.32. I could have enjoyed a nice large bowl of chicken & sausage gumbo with an ice cold beer down at Jammin Java.

cookinpanda said...

This whole "iced" being more expensive than "regular" has bugged me for a long time.
I'm not coffee shop expert, but don't the iced drinks actually contain LESS coffee beverage? ...The ice taking up the majority of the space in the cup since they fill it about 3/4 with ice!! Yet, they're always more expensive. Always. Even at places like Dunkin' Donuts.

Laura said...

I am a Starbucks defender, I must confess, for a lot of the reasons you have stated plus more. I like the fact that I can rely on my drink being made the way I want it--even in Thailand where frankly I needed the occasional iced mocha made my way. The one that really got to me, however, was arguing with an independent coffee person (barrista?) about the fact that it is better to put the ice in last so it won't melt. She kept insisting my iced mocha would be hot unless we poured the very hot espresso over the ice, totally melting it, first. At which point I had a very watery mocha. BLECH. OK thanks for letting me vent too. :) And I also like that they never blink at my very personalized orders.

Kitchen Vixen said...

I'm a loyal Starbucks customer as well. It helps that my boyfriend is a starbucks employee and provided both of our *unmarried* health benefits while we were living together. It also helps that everyone at "my" Starbucks knows me by name and drink and asks how my life is on a regular basis. Yes, I support local farming and shop for as much as possible my farmer's market, but I also love my Starbucks.

anobion said...

not to be a know it all, but...i used to work in a coffee shop. iced drinks actually have to use more espresso, usually double, to compensate for the watering down caused by ice melting. i know seattle's best (so also maybe starbuck's since they are affiliated) doesn't use espresso shots in their iced coffee drinks. they use a cold coffee concentrate. they can use less since this product is already chilled. it is also very strong; it brews for 24 hours, so they don't have to use much to make a similar tasting drink. some coffee places make coffee and put it in the fridge to use for their regular iced coffee drinks. i usually ask for that instead of an iced mocha if i'm not at seattle's best. they can make a mocha with that, you just have to stir a little more to get the chocolate mised in. i guess the compromise is in the taste departmemnt. coffee just isn't meant to be brewed hot and put in the fridge, but if you're mixing it with milk and syrup, i think, the taste is better than a watery drink. also usually cheaper-they only charge you for a regular iced coffee with a shot of syrup at most places. sorry this is so long, but maybe your cold drinks will be cheaper and taste better!

Erin @ The Skinny Gourmet said...

I have to say I'm a little surprised. I hestitated before posting this, imagining the virtual flogging I was going to receive from a very passionate and well informed community of localvores and anti-corporate food folks.

Philip and Cookinpanda, there's definitely sticker shock all around in this economy. I'm sorry you've felt the pain too.

Laura and Kitchen, I'm relieved to see that I have easy company: it seems you feel the same need for an awkward apologetic start to your preference for starbucks.

Anobion, no worries. I'm always game to be more informed, even if I sometimes sound like a ranting lune. The tip on getting iced coffee with a shot is probably a great one. My only trouble is I am all decaf, and often they dont have decaf cold.

Terence McDonnell said...

As both the Skinny Gourmet's husband and former barista (at a local coffee place), I feel like I should contribute to the conversation here. Hot espresso drinks (latte, cappuccino, etc.) use far less milk than do cold espresso drinks. As milk is steamed it expands, often three-four times the volume of cold milk. Therefore hot beverages require far less milk than cold beverages. With the price of milk the way it is, well, there you have the price difference.

Additionally, some places have cold drink cups that are greater in volume than hot drink cups.

Regardless, I don't think Starbucks is actively trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

Laura, there are other reasons not to pour hot espresso into a plastic cup and then add ice...the plastic cups melt. If you were being served in a glass, there is no reason for the barista not to make it to your preference. Another way to avoid watery iced espresso drinks is to have the espresso mixed first with chocolate (if a mocha) and then the milk in a separate container (which dissipates the heat), and then pour the cool(er) liquid over ice.

Hope this helps.

Erin @ The Skinny Gourmet said...

Ahh, see. Now that is why you should never post on the spot, while sipping your overpriced mocha. Because your amazing husband (who whips up killer espresso drinks at home btw) probably knows the answer.

Stupid non-expanding milk.

Grace said...

"Tall Decaf Skim Peppermint Mocha in a Grande Here Cup, No Whip, Extra Foamy."

as a former barista, i resent you for this. as an avid coffee drinker, i hear you loud and clear. :)

Mahlookma said...

Obviously I'm coming up on your post a tad bit late. I found your blog via a search for artichoke recipes and stuck around to look through your back posts because I like your style. That said, I managed and pulled espresso in a number of indie coffee shops for over a decade in three different states, and I have to say: You, m'dear, were ripped off. There is absolutely no reason to charge more for an iced drink. As for one commenter's conjecture that more espresso has to be added to an iced drink--bzzzt, wrong. Unless your barista wants to shock the espresso into a bitter, bitter mess, they should be tempering it with a little milk or water (in case they happen to be getting an americano) before adding ice to the drink. Not only have I never seen extra shots of espresso added to a drink (not just in one of my establishments but in any of the myriad others I've visited), I've never even seen the hint of "extra shots" being added to the iced version of a drink. Furthermore, if we're talking purely about sizing, I've never seen an iced cup (one that's kept in stock just for cold drinks--some shops use the same cup as the hot, but many will use an iced-drink-specific cup) that was more than 2 oz larger than its hot drink counterpart--that is, if there's any difference in number of ounces at all. When one takes into account ice displacement, it's easy to notice that there's significantly less milk used. Trust me when I say that rising milk prices are the true price-killer over the past couple of years. See a rise in drink prices recently? It's the cost of milk that's doing it. So the one part of the equation in this situation in which there's an increase is: ice. The labor is virtually identical (even less when a shop chooses to use cold-press/toddy brew in place of espresso) and cup prices are, at their worst, within 10 cents of one another. So you were paying that absurd price increase While I was able to justify pricing iced drinks the same as their hot counterparts due to the cost of running machines/lights/whatever, the idea that someone actually charged you over a dollar more hints at you encountering a barista who rung you up incorrectly or a shop owner who has decided to gouge on iced drinks during the summer to make up for less clientele...either way, it sucks.

Okay, now for the happier bit of this post: have you tried making your own cold press at home? I've been using cold press (which I've always called toddy brew) since 1991 to make my iced coffee drinks. The very first shop that I worked at also employed a lovely gentleman from New Orleans who taught us how to make his "New Orleans-style iced coffee". I've been a bit amused at its sudden popularity on food blogs this summer. If you're craving iced mochas and have a French press (or even just a jar), I suggest that you do a quick search on "cold brew coffee", make some, and try out the following:

In a glass, pour two fingers' worth of cold brew, add chocolate syrup (enough that it causes about a 1/3rd rise in the liquid line), stir vigorously a few times to fully mix the two, add ice to fill the glass to about the 2/3rds line, and then add milk (I prefer skim because the lipids in whole and 2% cut down on the lovely chocolate taste). Add whip cream if you prefer yours that way. I don't know why, but iced drinks always taste better through a make sure you have some on hand.


PS--I've used the most ragged of beans to make toddy brew successfully. You won't have the nuances that you would from a small estate coffee that's been roasted within the past 24 hours, but it will generally suffice for any iced mocha-type drink. However, I highly recommend that you never use "flavored" coffees for this process. The flavoring oils that they use are highly volatile and more than a bit scary in concentration.

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