Taste-Testing Starbucks’ New Non-Coffee Coffee

Actual picture of our purchased test samples. You see Cat's hand in the background, clutching her regular decaf venti latte. She wasn't taking any chances.

It’s not enough that here in San Diego we have miles upon miles of some of the most beautiful beaches and coastal lands in the world, along with weather so perfect I’m already preparing to be disappointed by the climate in heaven.

“Pffft,” I’ll say as I stroll through the Pearly Gates. “You call this weather? Have you ever been to La Jolla?”

“Get out,” Saint Peter will say. “I knew letting you in here was a mistake. Out. Forget your harp; drop your wings. Boys, show Mr. Weatherbee here the exit.”

“I was kidding!” I’ll cry as I’m dragged back toward the gates. “I thought you were the funny disciple!”

Then I’ll roast in hell forever.

And while I am, I know I’ll often think back to that wonderful time when I tasted the “Refreshers” that Starbucks was test marketing in San Diego.

From Reuters, dated August 4:

Starbucks will begin testing summer drinks with a base of green, unroasted coffee in San Diego today as it works on new products to drive sales and put more distance between itself and rivals like McDonald’s — which is rolling out the kinds of drinks that Starbucks built its business on.

The drinks, called “Refreshers,” will be offered in cool lime and very berry hibiscus flavors. They are made with fruit and are low in calories and caffeine, said Julie Felss Masino, Starbucks’ vice president of global beverage.

Ingredients include a “flavor neutral” powdered extract made from unroasted green coffee and formulated to have less of a caffeine kick than regular coffee, Felss Masino said.

“It’s coffee that doesn’t taste like coffee,” she said, noting that the test is a response to customer requests for more “overtly” thirst-quenching drinks.

Starbucks has been focused on introducing new drinks like Via instant coffee and create-your-own Frappuccino after a massive restructuring that resulted in the closure of roughly 900 cafes around the globe.  Both new drinks efforts have helped to boost sales amid a still weak U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s has built a profitable new beverage business based on Starbucks’ core products, including espresso-based drinks, fruit smoothies and frappes.

The green coffee-based drinks are a first for Starbucks. While some companies are marketing green coffee on the Internet as a weight-loss aid, the world’s biggest coffee chain does not promote Refreshers to shed pounds, representatives said.

A “tall”, 12-ounce serving of the lime Refresher has 50 calories, while the similarly sized hibiscus drink has 70 calories.

The 12-ounce drinks will be sold at 113 company-operated cafes around San Diego at prices ranging from $2.50 to $2.95.

Both versions are packed with Vitamin C and have fewer than 15 milligrams of caffeine. That’s less caffeine than a cup of green tea and significantly less than the 260 milligrams in a 12-ounce brewed coffee, Starbucks said.

Now, isn’t that more about these drinks than you wanted to know? Me too.

In the interest of bringing you, my far-flung friends, a taste-test review of these drinks, this morning I went so far as to say, right out loud, from the other side of a Starbucks cash register, “A small very berry hibiscus, please.” Ouch. I quickly moved on to the second part of my order, for which I at least got to say, “Cool lime.”

After that I felt deeply compelled to order a grande macchiatto. Cuz … you know.

Anyway, for you marketing geeks, here’s a snapshot of the sign they had in the store about these Refreshers:

So, as to the drinks themselves:

They were both deliciously refreshing! I wish they weren’t, so I could say anything more interesting about them. For a fleeing moment I thought maybe the VeryBerry Hibiscus tasted slightly medicinal, like cough syrup. But it too was nothing more or less than deliciously refreshing.

And if you love mint juleps, you’ll love the Cool Lime flavor of these drinks, which are refreshingly delicious.

Their flavors are complex without being presumptuous, pretentious, precocious, or prevaricatingly provocative, as piquant as a pollen-laden butterfly posing precariously upon your proboscis, and as perfectly balanced as two twins on a see-saw. They pick you up—but lightly, like a blimp accidentally catching your jacket collar. And they’re sweet without being at all cloying, like a darling old aunt who still isn’t afraid to hit you with a dictionary.

Starbucks’ new non-coffee drinks are great. But will they survive against Starbucks’ coffee-coffee drinks?! I guess we’ll just have to wait to care see!

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  • DR

    "Their flavors are complex without being presumptuous, pretentious, or prevaricatingly provocative. "

    What about precocious. Are they precocious?

    I read the above article, saw "San Diego" and thought "that bastard is going to try that drink!" And here you are, enjoying it and writing about enjoying it which of course only makes you a bastard in my envious mind. Still.

  • "Precocious"! I knew there was one biggie I was missing! It's in, baby. Positively.

  • DR

    Thank you, now I'm going to be able to sleep tonight.

  • berkshire

    I just love this, so thought I'd share it:


    Here in the NYC region, you can't turn around without bumping into a Starbucks. Is it like that on the West Coast where they started, too?

  • I cannot wait to try them out.

  • JB

    Pretty much. There was a scene in one of the Shrek movies that cracked me up. Giant gingerbread man is wreaking havoc in Far Far Away land…..People run screaming out of one "Farbucks", only to go into the "Farbucks" right across the street. It was hilari….. oh, well, I guess you had to see it. 😉

  • You have to ask for it specifically but I highly recommend a Venti Vanilla Bean Frap with a banana inside.

  • But you do know, of course, Brian, that they only sell those in your home town of San Francisco.

  • I ordered and got one when I went to Washington D.C. last year to visit the International Spy Museum. Oops, I wasn’t supposed to discuss that trip in public.

  • Gina Powers

    International Spy Museum? I'm SO jel, Brian….;). And yes, great post, John…..wonder if the East Coast S-bux has these out yet.

  • Freda

    This reminds me of a James Thurber cartoon quote: “It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”

    St. Peter has a sense of humor? I missed that memo.

  • Nicole

    They are now serving them in So Cal… and in the INLAND EMPIRE to be exact… DELISH… I’ve only tried the Hibiscus, and it is simply Divine… I really like the blackberries to eat once my drink is gone… like a little “bonus”… Haven’t tried the Cool Lime yet, not big on lime/mint.. 🙁 I did read on another blog that there is a RASPBERRY POMEGRANATE.. and that they are making these delectable treats in CANS too!! Can’t wait to see those…

  • Beth Ann Fried via Facebook

    They are really good. Very refreshing. Slightly more caffeine than soda, but less sugar. They don’t even remotely resemble or taste of coffee, even though they say the caffeine comes from coffee. They are more like a fresh lemonade.

  • They’re giving away free Refreshers on Friday: http://www.starbucks.com/refreshers/

  • Alexis Smith via Facebook

    I saw a bunch of folks on my Facebook sharing a picture of the drinks, so my guess is Starbucks is promoting them right now

  • Acia Francis Jernigan via Facebook

    Not precocious. But are they supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? I was tempted to get one this morning, but opted for my usual Chai Latte. Might just stop by again on my way home.

  • p.

    “Their flavors are complex without being presumptuous, . . like a darling old aunt who still isn’t afraid to hit you with a dictionary.”

    Starbucks should pay you to write their advertising copy.

  • Leslie Marbach

    Great post. I particularly liked your alliteration. For me, I’ll stick with something much more caffeinated. I’m a big fan of Starbucks as a company but am not particularly fond of their coffee. I know, it’s almost sacrilegious.

  • Ruby

    That scene was awesome!!

  • Ruby

    I got one of those also (Inland Empire), plus you add a shot of hazelnut and a shot of vanilla (the frap uses a powder) with whipped cream. Just like banana cream pie. Delish!!!!

  • They may be good, but they sound horrid! And more caffeine than a soda? I guess that it has less sugar makes it slightly better for you — but most f0lks who are addicted to soda can’t afford those.

    I’m with Cat on this. Give me my chai or my decaf latte. If only I didn’t have to drive an hour to the nearest Starbucks. (And I sheepishly admit that I have.)

  • Jill

    I know I’m WAY late to the convo, but these crazy things only just showed up in the backwaters of the midwest, and they are bombdiggity. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it’s a good thing really.

    It’s slick if you do a mixed version- berry/lime. I’m the purist that loves lime, but yum.