Blends shake up java world

Icy drinks have `really taken off'

August 18, 2004|By Natasha Lesser | Natasha Lesser,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It used to be that people just drank coffee. Then came the upscale designer models - espressos, cappuccinos and lattes. And now, seemingly every coffee shop is selling cool, creamy blends of coffee, sugar, milk and ice - a kind of super-caffeinated milkshake - or "frozen blended coffee beverages," as they're known in the trade.

Starbucks has the Frappuccino, Dunkin' Donuts has the Coolatta, Panera Bread has the I.C. Mocha and XandO has the Arctic Chiller. This summer, Dairy Queen and Krispy Kreme entered the fray with their own versions.

"They've really taken off," said Joseph DeRupo, a spokesman for the National Coffee Association. In 2003, almost a third of adult consumers drank cold coffee beverages, according to the association's report on coffee trends. That's up 45 percent from the previous year. While the category also includes iced coffee, DeRupo said that blended drinks make up most of the growth.

The appeal of these potions is obvious, especially on a hot August day. "They're cold and sweet, but not too sweet. And it has the coffee taste," said Carolina De Los Rios, drinking a Frappuccino one recent warm day at the Starbucks on York Road in Towson. "I already had a regular coffee today. This is my snack."

Because of this dessertlike quality, the drinks are popular with people who don't normally drink coffee, said Michelle Gass, senior vice president of category management for Starbucks. "They're meant to be an involved, intensive treat," Gass said.

In its most basic form, the drink is a mix of coffee, milk (or, often, half-and-half), sugar and ice, blended into a thick, shakelike beverage. Many versions consist of a proprietary blend of coffee extract, sweetener and some form of dairy or nondairy creamer. Some include additional flavors like mocha, vanilla and caramel. More deluxe forms have chocolate chips or Oreo cookies.

Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts introduced the beverages almost a decade ago, and they have become increasingly elaborate. In 1998, Starbucks came out with its tea-based Frappuccinos; and in 2002, it came out with a coffee-free version, the Frappuccino Blended Creme. And just this summer, the company came out with the Frappuccino Light, a lower calorie version using reduced-fat milk and Splenda, a sugar substitute.

Starbucks usually has about 10 to 12 varieties on its menu at any one time. The company regularly introduces new flavors, often linked to the season, and phases out others. The latest offering: Strawberries & Creme, based, in part, on the current fashion favoring pink.

Other places offer almost as many variations - standard coffee, mocha, vanilla, caramel, chocolate chip, Oreo cookie, tea blends and fruit combinations.

Rachel Gross, 34, loves the new Coffee Frappucino Light, which has 150 calories for the 16-ounce version. "I was depriving myself of them for so long because of the calories," said Gross.

Most of the drinks do pack a caloric wallop. A 16-ounce Caramel Frappuccino with whipped cream has 430 calories, and a 16-ounce Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino with whipped cream has 600 calories - and 17 grams of fat. Compare those to a 16-ounce cup of coffee, black, which has only 10 calories.

"I suspect that very few people know how many calories these drinks have," said Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. He said that the 510-calorie Starbucks Java Chip Frappuccino contains a quarter of an adult woman's recommended daily caloric intake, with very little nutrient value. And even if blended coffee fans are drinking the new light version, said Cheskin, "They may be trading good calories for empty calories."

Some of the drinks have another little secret: Some include partially hydrogenated oil, which contains reviled trans fats that seem to stick like glue to the insides of arteries.

But when you're imbibing that intoxicating, icy mixture, who wants to think about arteries and fat grams? And in any case, most consumers see the drinks as a decadent indulgence rather than an everyday staple. That's what they say, anyway.

Checking out the mix

Comparing blended coffee drinks isn't easy. Are you looking for a grown-up treat or a milkshake substitute with a jolt of caffeine? Do you want an icy, creamy thirst quencher or something super-sweet topped with whipped cream?

Here's a look at some of the drinks that are available locally. The prices are all for 16 ounces. You can see there's something for every taste - as long as you like the taste of coffee.

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

City Cafe

1001 Cathedral St.

Frozen Cappuccino, $3.95

The Frozen Cappuccino is made from scratch of espresso, milk, half-and-half and sugar mixed in a slush machine, not a blender. This produces a creamy, coffee milkshakelike drink that isn't too sweet but is definitely more dessert than thirst quencher. ****

Daily Grind

1720 Thames St.

Granita, $4

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