When it comes to coffee, most people know exactly how they like it: black and scalding hot, syrupy sweet with a swirl of whipped cream, or somewhere in between. Where you get your fix is also a key detail, and in the Starbucks-Dunkin' battle for coffee-chain dominance, there are fierce supporters on both sides.
But which chain makes the better coffee, and how do McDonald's McCafé offerings fare in the mix?
I tried a regular black coffee, a mocha, and a frozen caramel drink from each of the three chains to determine the best in each category and an overall winner.
Here's how it went down:
First stop: Starbucks.
Oh, Starbucks. I've chugged many a PSL and a selection of its other sweetened espresso beverages throughout my college years, but as my tastes have grown to crave specialty roasts and rich, chocolatey syrups (mochas are my go-to coffee drink), my Starbucks visits are much fewer these days.
As I am most familiar with Starbucks' offerings, I thought it would be a good place to establish a baseline for this taste test.
I ordered a tall Pike Place roast ($1.95), a mocha ($3.75), and a caramel Frappuccino ($3.95).
The Pike Place roast tasted like a typical black coffee.
Starbucks describes this medium roast as having a "smooth, balanced and rich flavor" and being "the perfect everyday coffee in a cup."
I'm not a black-coffee drinker (see the mocha note above), so there wasn't anything that stood out to me about this cup of coffee. It was more bitter than I like my coffee (it's black coffee, after all), but it wasn't unpleasant. Both my fiancé (who drinks black coffee) and I said it was just fine.
The mocha tasted like a bland hot chocolate.
The whipped cream had melted into the drink by the time I took my first sip, and all I tasted was hot chocolate. It wasn't rich hot chocolate, with decadent chocolatey flavors, but something more like Swiss Miss. It was bland and tasted more of milk than chocolate, and there was no coffee flavor to be found.
The caramel Frappuccino was deliciously decadent.
Last up was the caramel Frappuccino, which I had high hopes for, as Starbucks Frappuccinos are an icon in the frozen-coffee-drink category — and it did not disappoint.
It was definitely sweet, but a hint of bitterness coming from the coffee helped to balance the sweetness, and the whipped cream had a nice, thick consistency.
My only critique is that it was a bit watery, but I couldn't help taking a few extra sips before moving on.
Next, we tried the coffees from McDonald's.
McCafé is the line of coffee and espresso drinks at McDonald's. I was pleasantly surprised to find a solid array of coffeehouse classics, including caramel macchiatos, cappuccinos, lattés, and iced coffees.
I ordered a small coffee ($1.29), a mocha ($2), and a caramel frappé ($2).
A quick note on prices, as $2 is a steal for an espresso drink: This seems to be a limited-time offer at participating McDonald's.
The McDonald's coffee tasted like a typical cup of black coffee.
Again, I'm no coffee connoisseur, and black coffee just isn't my thing. My fiancé said that he found McDonald's coffee a bit bitter and that it tasted slightly burned, as if it had been left in the pot for too long.
The mocha was delicious, but it didn’t taste like a mocha.
I was delighted to find the whipped cream still intact when I took the first sip of the McDonald's mocha.
At first, the bittersweet chocolate drizzle dominated my palate. But as I continued to sip, I detected a hint of coffee flavor, as well as other flavors that I had difficulty nailing down. Vanilla? Caramel? Condensed milk?
In any case, it was delicious, but points off for not tasting like a mocha.
The caramel frappé tasted like a straight-up milkshake.
This drink was creamier than the icy Starbucks Frappuccino, but it dangerously toed the line between frozen coffee drink and coffee milkshake.
Like with the mocha, I felt there was a bit of an identity crisis here, but (also like the mocha) it was delicious.
Dunkin' was our last stop.
I'd been to Dunkin' Donuts before, but it's not my first choice. The syrups have always been too sweet for me (and I have a pretty big sweet tooth), the doughnuts are disappointing, and, while we're not taking ambiance into account for this ranking, the scene at DD has never been inspiring. But I pushed all that aside in the name of this taste test.
I ordered a small coffee ($2.39), a latté with a mocha swirl ($3.29), and a frozen coffee with a caramel swirl ($3.39).
The coffee was served super hot.
I waited for the coffee to cool a little so as not to scald my tongue. It tasted as if it had been sitting a bit too long in the pot and gotten stale and burnt. The taste was one-dimensional to me, and my fiancé said it was watery.
The mocha had a nice foam layer and a perceptible coffee taste.
Finally, a mocha that actually tasted like a mocha. I thought it had a good balance of bitter (from the coffee flavor) and sweet, and it was much more chocolatey than the others.
The frozen caramel coffee had the best texture — but a strange aftertaste.
I really wanted this one to sweep the frozen-drink category, as the texture was on point — not too watery, and not milkshake-like, but the perfect in-between.
Even the whipped cream was the perfect middle ground between Starbucks' super thick whipped cream and McDonald's thinner one. But the caramel threw me off with its weird aftertaste. I took several sips and even cleansed my palate with some water and black coffee, but I couldn't shake it.
And the category winners are...
Regular coffee (black): Starbucks.
Espresso-based drink (mocha): Dunkin' Donuts.
Frozen coffee drink (caramel): Starbucks.
And the overall winner? Starbucks' caramel Frappuccino.
The classic reigns supreme. This one is dangerously good.