Starbucks tests syrup extracts instead of sugary syrups.

Starbucks tests syrup extracts instead of sugary syrups.

In Portland, Oregon, Starbucks is testing a new idea for your latte, Frappuccino or whatever: Your beverage flavored with a syrup extract and sugar on the side. Rather than large bottles of a sugary flavored syrup, your barista would add a flavor extract and then you can customize how much sugar you want in your drink. The syrup extracts look like this:

2 -1 - 20170311_162455 syrup extract
2 -1 - 20170311_162455 syrup extract
2 - 1 - 20170311_162503 Syrup extract
2 - 1 - 20170311_162503 Syrup extract

You can have your drink, your way: The amount of sweetness you like:

2 - 1 - 20170311_162012 your coffee your way sign syrup extracts
2 - 1 - 20170311_162012 your coffee your way sign syrup extracts

I asked to smell both the classic vanilla syrup (with sugar) and the vanilla extract, and I can say that the extract is much more aromatic. With this new system, the barista adds a certain number of shakes of an extract and then separately pumps in a simple syrup for the sweetener. It's possible to order your drink with just flavor and no sugar. I tried this with a Cinnamon Dolce Syrup Crème Frappuccino. What I got was a beverage with very subtle flavor. You would think that it would be very cinnamon-y but it was plain and subtle. I would say that sugar seems to enhance the flavors like vanilla, hazelnut, caramel, or whatever you choose.

While this idea sounds like a great idea on paper - separate the sugar from the flavor - I can see both some big pros and cons.

On the plus side:

  • Diabetics or others who are trying to control sugar in their lives can get a healthier drink option.

On the down side:

  • It might frustrate customers that they have to re-learn how to order a drink. Now it's not a "Tall Vanilla Flat White" rather, a "Tall 2 Shakes Vanilla 3 Pump Sugar Flat White." (I'm not saying those are standard amounts of extract and sugar, just giving an example that ordering could become more confusing.)
  • It might be frustrating for baristas to have to explain this to every customer, especially in the drive-through. It could have a steep learning curve as customers try to figure out how they like their beverage.
  • It seems like you get a much more inconsistent drink. When baristas pump syrups, the mechanism does a really great job of control how much syrup you get. Turning a bottle upside down and giving it a "shake" is going to give you a more inconsistent amount of extract. If the bottle is full, you'll get more than when the bottle is nearing empty. A stronger shake might give you more extract than a gentle shake.
  • Whether or not we like it, Americans love sugar. It's not just Starbucks. If Americans really wanted to eat healthy, the candy aisle at a typical grocery store wouldn't exist, and Girl Scouts would stop selling Girl Scout cookies. If someone wants a 20 pump caramel Latte, so be it. No drink judgment here. I can think of a million more damaging things that people do to their bodies on a regular basis. However, this entire system may just end up being very unappealing to the customers who want a very sweet beverage. They might be discouraged from coming back. And truthfully, most Americans are in love with carbohydrates, especially sugar.

This kind of idea has been suggested on MyStarbucksIdea.com before. (Did you know there's a website where you can submit an idea for Starbucks?). Here's one idea called "Using Flavor Extracts" and another here.

In case you don't know what the old system of bottles of syrups and pumps looks like, here's an example. (Image borrowed from StarbucksStore.com)

Caramel syrup
Caramel syrup

Edit: Just want to add, if I think Starbucks can get through a steep learning curve phase and figure out a way to have a more consistent dose of extract, this could be brilliant. It's a great idea with some operational challenges.

Cocoa & Honey Cold Brew and a Totes Adorable Tote.

Cocoa & Honey Cold Brew and a Totes Adorable Tote.

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