Fast Food

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Iced Coffee Roundup: McDonald's, Starbucks, and Dunkin' Donuts

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[Photos: John M. Edwards]

If there's one thing we all do on the fly, it's grab coffee. Who hasn't seen someone simultaneously speedwalking and BBM-ing down the street while holding a latte? Even the Italians, famous for their slow food, enjoy fast coffee. Most don't even sit down, they just order, sip, pay (hopefully), and leave. In fact, coffee might be the only fast and efficient aspect of Italian life. With Swiss precision they usher you through the register, pop out a cappuccino, and you're out the door.

Starbucks has always attempted to offer coffee at a fast pace. They adopted the Italian assembly line process, with cashier and barista as two separate and distinct positions. So, I think it's only fitting that McDonald's, ever the assembly line, has entered the coffee space. Clearly, these aren't artisan coffee bars with cold-brewed iced coffee or particularly skilled baristas. But there are times when all you need is a good strong summer wake-up, and at those times, it's good to know what chain will do you right.

Recently, McDonald's began offering iced coffee and frappes, stepping on the toes of Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts. All three offer standard iced coffees, as well as sweet and flavored twists on the iced coffee theme. Intrigued, I set off to compare the three offerings.

Starbucks

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Long the industry standard, Starbucks has become synonymous with both yuppie coffee and an ubiquity that formerly belonged only to McDonald's. I tried both their regular iced coffee ($1.85) and their Iced Vanilla Latte ($2.85). The iced coffee, unsweetened, is a refreshing cold coffee—it's not too bitter, with a strong roasted smell. It gives you a strong boost and opens your eyes with a quick jolt of caffeine. Their Iced Vanilla Latte, on the other hand, ought to be renamed "Iced Vanilla Milk." It's sweet, milky, and potently vanilla-flavored, but you don't really taste any coffee; it's more like a flavored milk. Though it's not bad, if you're trying to stay awake (or want your coffee to taste like, well, coffee), it probably won't do the job.

McDonald's

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As with many restaurants, drinks form a substantial portion of McDonald's business. It's no surprise that they've begun competing with Starbucks, offering both regular and flavored iced coffee.

They offer a Newman's Own / Green Mountain regular blend in New England ($1.99), which I tried with great excitement. Initially, it had no coffee taste, no depth or bitterness. But, almost like a glass of wine, the coffee somehow opened up as I continued through the drink. As I sipped, I tasted more of the roasted flavor, and the coffee became very aromatic, even under the ice and milk.

Though they have a good iced coffee, I recommend staying away from the flavorings. The hazelnut-flavored coffee was, simply put, revolting—incredibly, unpleasantly sweet, with hazelnut flavor too strong to be natural, and leaving a gummy taste in my mouth. Halfway through, I disposed of it; I couldn't take any more McLiquid.

Their newest offering, the Frappe, is actually good. I tried the Mocha Frappe ($1.79)an though it's just as sweet as the Iced Vanilla Latte, it's also thick, rich, not too milky, very mocha-chocolaty, and natural-tasting. It's like their regular chocolate shake, just with less Xantham gum and more mocha flavor. I would go back for another.

Dunkin' Donuts

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Last stop was Boston favorite Dunkin' Donuts for their regular Iced Coffee ($2.05) and a Vanilla Coolata ($2.65). Whereas the milk in the coffee at Starbucks and McDonald's tempers the coffee flavor, Dunkin's iced coffee isn't overly milky, and the coffee taste shines through. It's bold, slightly bitter, and strong. It has a no-nonsense quality about it, and will definitely jolt you awake.

The Coolata, on the other hand, doesn't taste much like a coffee drink. It's like a Milky Vanilla Icee, and while I enjoyed drinking it—as I would a Slush Puppie or Red Icee—the coffee hardly played a role.

The Verdict?

It's difficult to pick a winner when it comes to fast-food coffee. I can certainly tell you that if you want a jolt in the morning, the Coolata and the Iced Vanilla Latte are not the way to go. And the McDonald's coffee flavorings taste too "flavorful" not to have been synthesized in a lab. However, their Mocha Frappe is definitely the best iced treat.

As far as plain iced coffee goes, though, McDonald's offers a mellow brew, without a great deal of bite or bitterness. Starbucks steps up one notch in terms of strength, and Dunkin' remains Dunkin': strong, bold, and a great pick-me-up.

To me, it's a matter of the right coffee at the right time. I'd prefer a Dunkin iced coffee in the morning, Starbucks as an anytime coffee, and McDonald's as more of an afternoon beverage to savor and enjoy. What do you guys think?

Related: McCafe: McDonald's New Fancier, Pricier Coffee

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