There’s an unspoken culture surrounding the way one takes their coffee. The classic first date, the stressful interview, catching up with a friend from home after months of not seeing each other—all these moments that revolve entirely around hanging out at the nearest Starbucks or your favorite hidden spot. And your choice of drink—a calming tea or an espresso–laden latte—might tell more about you as a person than the conversation you hold for hours.
For me, that drink has always been a classic cold brew—no cream, no sugar. Chilled enough to overcome the bitterness, smooth enough to sip between playful banter—I have always found myself crawling back to it time and time again. The beverage is prepared by steeping coffee grounds in room temperature water for several hours before diluting with more water and serving over ice. It’s a fairly new style of preparation compared to the steaming cups of black coffee always depicted on Seinfeld, but it’s now been adopted by coffee shops everywhere.
Here on Penn’s campus, there are several options at the disposal of groggy college students to bring bits of smooth caffeine into their routine. I recently sought out to discover which of these were the best, for both taste and economic value, and compiled a list of which to order before your next 9 a.m. lecture.
Arguably the most accessible option, the Seattle–based coffee chain has taken the caffeine–consuming crowd by storm. The more basic departures from heavily marketed drinks, such as the Unicorn Frappuccino or coveted Pumpkin Spice Latte, are just okay. Starbucks offers several options for cold brew, including the Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew or a Nitro Cold Brew, but at the heart of these choices is the classic Cold Brew Coffee. As Starbucks coffee goes, it offers exactly what you think commercial coffee would: slightly sour, unnecessarily bitter, and the opposite of smooth sailing down your throat. It would get you by in a pinch when running late or meeting a friend at a convenient corner, but is not necessarily what you want your first taste of happiness in the morning to be. For roughly $3.50, this drink is simply not worth the money.
I must confess, I will always have a slight preference for this other top coffee–chain in America, as the medium iced coffee with cream and sugar has helped me through a lot of late nights in Van Pelt. But I was actually surprised to find that Dunkin’ Donuts offered a cold–brew that was worth more than just sheer trendiness. The quality of the steep overall tasted better than their regular brews, and I was able to finish the cup without contesting for my usual add–ons that make the drink a sugary treat rather than a coffee experience. And since I was able to get it during their latest happy–hour special for $2, it was undeniably worth the buy.
The coffee shop destined to accompany Wharton students on their way to STAT 101, Pret a Manger’s take on cold brew was disappointing. The brew was rather watery and diluted, as if I were drinking day–old iced coffee long after the ice had melted away. It was not worth the approximately $4 I spent on it, even if I had paid with Dining Dollars. If you’re looking for quality coffee at Pret, I suggest sticking with the espresso.
United by Blue is notorious for its coffee–chat game. Located at 34th and Walnut Street, the low–lighting coupled with pleasing jazz music makes the café an intimate setting for getting to know someone. Unfortunately, their cold brew was not worth getting to know. Upon first sip it immediately had a sharp, sour taste reminiscent of that from Starbucks—but with a much higher concentration. It was completely unpleasant, something your coffee experience should never be, and reminded me of all the reasons why some find black coffee unpalatable.
Overall, whether or not you decide to grab a cold brew from your favorite Starbucks on the way to class or over breakfast with a friend, we hope this list helps to narrow down your choices so you can find the perfect drink for you. Keep your conversations fun and your brew cold!