Thursday, December 31, 2009

PRODUCT REVIEW: Starbucks Ice Cream

My first product review of some Häagen-Dazs ice cream motivated me to delve into other brands of ice cream that, without said motivation, I would have never otherwise purchased.

I love coffee, but have never been the biggest fan of coffee ice cream. I've always liked my coffee hot and anything below 130-degrees Fahrenheit seems like a crime. But I like Starbucks. Starbucks seems to make decent supermarket products, so I figured, what the hell. This is Starbucks ice cream after a product refresh that happened earlier in the year. They dropped their ice cream bars, which weren't terribly good, and also jettisoned their more complex flavor concoctions like Mud Pie. Perhaps Starbucks' new-found focus in quality and product will result in something a bit more worthy of the name?

A little surprisingly, it's good! Not amazing, but very good. Coffee ice cream is a flavor that can be easily borked. Unlike vanilla, which regardless of other peccadilloes like poor texture is always just vanilla, can be seriously nasty if done wrong. The first area is the aftertaste. So many coffee ice creams have this horrid, bitter finish, and with ice cream savored, it's the finish that spends the most time lingering on your tongue.

Our taste buds don't work very well at low temperatures, which is why soft-serve ice cream tastes stronger than hard, scooped ice cream. So when eating hard ice cream, the majority of the flavor really emerges after both your mouth and the flavor compounds in your mouth have a chance to warm up. It's in that process that all the ass-like flavors of bad coffee ice cream come to the fore.

In Starbucks coffee, though, that after taste is a smooth, rich, deep caramel that truly reminds me of fine coffee. There's very little chocolate in it, but the fact that I can pick out any flavor notes is worthy of applause.

The swirls of espresso and coffee are a bit of a gimmick, I found. There's no Starbucks Espresso Concentrate on the ingredients list. Still, Starbucks coffee has a fair amount of coffee bite to it without that nasty bitter flavor. I just happened to have some Turkey Hill Colombian Coffee in the freezer, so I performed a taste test. Turkey Hill is, in my opinion, the best mass-market brand you can buy, so this is some good competition for the 'bucks.

Obviously, the Turkey Hill's texture is inferior. There's a lot more air whipped into the Turkey Hill, resulting in a 66g per 1/2 cup compared to Starbucks' 100g. But as with all Turkey Hill, the flavor is a home run. Very good for the price. It's smooth, sweet, with caramel and no bite. Definitely one of the best coffee flavors in the freezer. The Starbucks is a lot denser and more interesting to chew. It's got a stronger coffee bite to it and carries the aromas from your mouth into your nose much better. It's a more subdued flavor, as well. I assume many people would like this, but the stronger primary taste in the Turkey Hill is very pleasant and I wish the Starbucks had it.

All things considered, this is one of the best coffee ice creams on the shelves. I would not hesitate to recommend it to a fan of the flavor.

Starbucks Coffee Ice Cream: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Starbucks Rewards Official Mailing

The details of this plan had been a bit dodgy for awhile, but I now have the official mailing to confirm all of the changes to what tries to be a customer loyalty program.

The similarities are the birthday drink, the 2-hour WiFi, and "offers and coupons." I don't remember free soy milk, but I might be wrong. The big difference is the loss of 10% off all food and drink. I don't like this and I'll explain why.

The Gold Card cost $25, which means that to pay it off, I'd have to spend $250. For a heavy Starbucks user, let's assume a drink and sandwich per day. For the drink, we'll put it right in the middle, the $3.10 grande latte. For the sandwich, the $3.25 artisan roll sandwich. That's $6.35 per day, and let's say three times per week. That's $18.05 per week. 52 weeks in a year puts total cost at $938.60. So we lop $93.86 off the cost, subtract $25, and we're left with $68.86 in savings. For a heavy Starbuck's user, that's a good deal. And if you use it for groups, offices, friends, or just a quick dinner, the discount piles up. In 2009, I estimate that I saved over $250.

Let's look over the details:
  • The "exclusive offers" and such amounts to very little.

  • The free drink with coffee is good, but if you're drinking that much at home, you don't spend a lot of time at cafes, and for real coffee fans like me, they already get their beans locally.

  • I couldn't care less about soy milk (but I would like some free fucking extra shots!)

  • Free re-fills are decent

  • The two hours of WiFi is a continuing example of Starbucks' cluelessness

  • The free drink every 15 stars doesn't come close to matching the 10% discount when its applied to food and drink.

I can understand some of the motivations behind this. Starbucks doesn't want to cut too deeply into margins of heavy users, their profit base, and wants to find a way to involve lighter users for whom the Gold Card made no financial sense. Still, taking value away from the big fans is a bad way to go about this. Instead, they should have found a way to increase value for light users while leaving heavy users alone.

UPDATE 2/12/2010: As if this silly program didn't have enough people annoyed with it, I have just been informed by a Starbucks barista that to get the discounts associated with the card, you must pay with the card. As in, you must either associate a credit card with it or charge the card with cash at the register.

First off, I just want to say that I liked my old Gold card. I also didn't mind this card, even though I preferred it before. I now hate this card. In the previous system, Starbucks had two cards. You could buy the Gold card, or you could register a gift card as a "Starbucks Card," or something along those lines. Each card had different benefits. Before the Gold Card came out, I had one of those cards. It was incredibly annoying because I had to pay with the card to get the benefits of free extra shots and free syrup.

This resulted in the laughably stupid situation where I had to first give cash to the cashier, have them put it on the card, and then pay with the card. Or, if I had $10 on the card and didn't want to go through that whole rigmarole, I restricted myself to a $10 visit.

Why didn't I just associate a credit card with it? Because I didn't want to. If Starbucks is all about choice, why make that choice so problematic? I simply don't like spreading my credit cards about. I have it associated with an Amazon account, and that's it. It's not being paranoid, it's simply being prudent with potentially valuable data.

So now, here we are. Back again to the situation that was supposedly fixed last time. I have this ridiculous middle-man between me and my purchase. Frankly, I'm probably just going to stop bothering. It's just not worth the trouble.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

PRODUCT REVIEW: Häagen-Dazs Five

I've decided to change this posting to my very first product review. I'll simply use a two-stage rating system of recommended or not recommended.

As I mentioned in my recommendation of Choctal ice cream, I'm frequently unimpressed with so-called "gourmet" ice creams. The texture is usually too icy, the flavor is too mild, or ridiculous flavors and fillings are used as a band-aid over low-quality ice cream.

I've never been impressed with Häagen-Dazs, specifically. I've always found their flavors weak or unpleasant, and the texture has never befitted a product that costs $4 per pint. I tried their Rerserve ice cream chocolate, and it was good, but it came at the same time as the epic Choctal.

So it was with skepticism that I bought some Haagen-Dazs Five. It's their philosophically pure ice cream, where any of the seven available flavors is made with the four primary ice cream ingredients and a flavor. In the end, while I was not totally bowled over, it was good ice cream.

I've only tried the coffee, vanilla, and chocolate flavors, but since the ice cream base is the same for all of the flavors, my analysis should be applicable. The vanilla was very smooth and light. The flavor tastes natural with none of the bite from artificial flavorings. They used both vanilla bean and vanilla extract, and the extract is not noticeable. The flavor lingers on the palate for a long time, which is really nice. Maybe this isn't complete marketing nonsense.

The chocolate was a similar story. It wasn't as strong a flavor, and certainly wasn't epic like Choctal, but it was very smooth with a little bite to it. I've never been terribly impressed with Haagen-Dazs texture, and this ice cream is no different. All three had a faint icy texture to them. The coffee was the only one that had a problem with the flavor. There was a hint of bitterness in the aftertaste, which isn't good since the flavor doesn't hit the palate until it's been on the tongue for a second or two. It wasn't terribly unpleasant, and many people might enjoy it, but I didn't.

Five also stands as a good counterpart to Choctal. I mentioned in the recommendation that most pints of ice cream have four servings, but Choctal wedged in five. The ice cream was so stunningly dense and almost gummy between the teeth. Its texture left all other ice creams wanting. Five is the opposite. It has 3.5 servings, lower fat, and is much lighter and airy. They've whipped in a greater amount of air which is bad, in my book. They advertise that the ice cream has lower fat, but a lot of that is simply because there's less matter in each fluid ounce of ice cream. It's noticeable. Not terribly so, but noticeable.

All in all, these are very good "default" ice creams. Nothing amazing, but nothing specifically negative. And for many people, you could treat these as a "diet" ice cream. For example, Ben & Jerry's chocolate has 250 calories per 1/2 cup (105g), while Five chocolate has 220 calories per 1/2 cup (102g). Importantly, Five has only 12g of fat compared to B&J's 15g. So Five has fewer servings, smaller servings, and fewer calories. Go ahead, eat a whole pint, because this is as close to diet as you're going to get without having to seriously compromise flavor. And even here, I wonder how much of the textural negatives are from the low fat as they are a result of Haagen-Dazs overall ice cream quality.

Häagen-Dazs Five: RECOMMENDED