How to find your perfect drink at Starbucks

Caffeine withdrawal, and understanding tall/grande/venti, can cause headaches There’s no substitute for a well-placed beverage in your day; even sweeter when you don’t get one often. Somewhere out there lies that perfect drink at Starbucks. But what if you don’t know what to order with that huge menu? Or if you don’t know how to order with all that particular verbiage? Don’t worry about it. In this post, I’ll give you 4 decision-makers that will help you hone in on your perfect drink in 10 seconds or less.


“I’ll have a small, caramel—-whatever.”

Of the tens of thousands of drinks a barista can make, there are really only a handful you need to know in order to navigate your way to a decision. Don’t worry about the boards or ordering it “just right”–there are only a few key words that are plot points in your drink’s story. Here are the decision makers, in order, to get you to that perfect drink:

1) Do you like the taste of coffee?

This will virtually half the decision options you need to consider. If you don’t like coffee but still want a boost, see A below. If you don’t want caffeine at all, see B below. Do you even want caffeine? If you like coffee, decaf is easy enough. Starbucks only has decaf HOT coffee, and decaf HOT espresso, but espresso can be iced so it can be used in cold and blended drinks.

A) Tea — Coffee has the most caffeine per ounce, but next is Black Tea, and then Green Tea. Green tea is known for its antioxidants too so it is a little bit ‘healthier’ caffeine, as well as milder.

Green Coffee Extract — Starbucks “Refreshers” are juices which have caffeine extracted from unroasted beans. The total amount of caffeine in the end is lower than coffee but a little higher than tea.

B) Herbal Teas, fruit flavored teas, and juice drinks are available. Starbucks can provide apple juice, use the strawberry or orange-mango purees as juice, and sells bottled and boxed drinks. *Note that Herbal Teas are not really teas at all since they don’t have tea leaves, and are therefore caffeine free.

2) Cold or hot?

Baristas follow recipes so that if a drink is iced, it won’t be watered down; therefore most drinks can’t simply be poured over ice. However, there is a hot and iced version of nearly every drink Starbucks makes. HOT options are brewed coffee, espresso drinks, and all the teas.

  • Brewed coffee still is the “strongest medicine.” (Technically, caffeine breaks down as you roast, so lighter blends have the most of it, but this is pretty negligible.) You can jazz it up by adding syrups and any milk or soy to it. If you like it less strong and with more milk, try a Misto (aka cafe au lait) which is half milk and half coffee.
  • Espresso is simply coffee ground finer and with less water pressed through the grinds, which concentrates it. This makes it ideal for flavored, milk drinks like lattes (lots of milk, a little foam) and cappuccinos (a lot more foam). The caffeine content is ONLY a result of how many shots are in it, not the size of the drink. Tall=1 shot, Grande/Venti=2 shots.
    • A word on espresso and caffeine myths: Caffeine is natural to coffee, so the only way you’ll get more caffeine is with more ground beans. Even though espresso is concentrated because it’s a lot of grounds for 1 ounce of water, a regular cup of coffee uses more grounds; therefore, there is more caffeine in a cup of regular coffee than in a couple of shots of espresso.

COLD options are iced coffee, espresso drinks, 3 teas (black, green, and passion), frappuccinos, and Refreshers.

  • Iced coffee is bold, usually dark-roasted coffee that is brewed stronger so it still tastes strong when ice is melted in it.
  • As with the hot espresso drinks, only the number of shots gives it more coffee and more caffeine. Tall=1 shot, Grande=2, Venti=3. (Only Venti iced gets 3 automatically.)
  • Starbucks double brews their ice tea so it can have ice and/or lemonade added to it without watering it down. That’s why they cut it with water by default.
  • Frappuccinos are the sweetest, craziest drinks and are always blended. Some have coffee and some don’t, but the coffee ones are made with a cool, concentrated coffee base which is pumped–not espresso shots. You can simply add more pumps for more coffee. You can add espresso shots too but they will melt the ice and make your drink more liquidy and foamy. A sweet oil base is added to them so that they will blend and be drinkable, but there is a lighter option. There are virtually limitless drinks ‘off the menu’ that can be created with the blenders.
  • Refreshers have the caffeinated juice as mentioned above, ice, and fruit shaken into them. More caffeine than tea but less than coffee.

3) Do you like it sweet, savory, or a mix of both?

  • Sweet drinks have syrups like vanilla, cinnamon dolce, white mocha, etc.
  • Savory flavors like toffee nut and hazelnut have a slightly salty edge to them. Combined with other flavors these give the most robust and interesting recipes.
  • Mocha has a bit of both since it is a darker, slightly bittersweet chocolate. For this reason, Starbucks adds vanilla to their hot chocolates. (Not to mochas though, because of the coffee. The bitterness is part of the awesomeness there.) Mocha is also great combined with peppermint, toffee nut, raspberry, and other contrasts.

It may help you to look at it this way. Most drinks will fit into just 4 categories, so look at this to help you see the relationships between them.

Bev families

4) Lastly: adjust, customize, substitute, and tweak

  • Nearly every drink Starbucks makes can be lighter by substituting lower or non fat milk, sugar-free syrups, less shots, etc. Whipped cream is fun but packs on a lot of calories so that can be left off easily.
  • Foam is a direct result of heating milk by steam and is a sign of good quality, but it tends to collect more of the natural sugars and fat in the milk/soy so it can be left off too.* Plus some people just plain don’t like it.
    • A word about “No Foam”: Since the milk is heated by steaming and aerating (infusing hot, wet air into it) foam is a part of the process. You can request “no foam” but it is helpful to know that it takes more milk and more time to fill this request. The hotter you want it, the more milk and time it takes to make it that way, especially with non fat milk and soy. Soy comes out of the box foamy before you steam it, so that takes even longer.

That’s it!

If you can answer those first 3 questions, then customize it with number 4, your drink is easy to place. If you just give out those answers to a good barista, they’ll probably be able to guess it from there–“Okay, how about this?” Mmm, that sounds good–I’ll have that.

To recap:

1) Do you like coffee?

2) Hot or Cold?

3) Sweet, savory, or both?

4) Customization and substitution

And to recap for my visual peeps:
3 Choices Funnel

3 Choices Funnel

Now, go try it out! And remember that baristas want to make you happy, so let them know if it’s something new you’re trying. They won’t make you drink something you don’t like. 😉

Support me AND start your own site. Win-win-win scenario!


  1. That is a good tip especially to those new to the blogosphere.
    Brief but very precise information… Thank you for sharing this one.

    A must read post!

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