And failed, hard
EC: I Tried to Hack the Starbucks Menu Like a Barista
Credit: Illustration by Lauren Kolm

If you consider yourself an Instagram food person, there’s not a chance you’ve missed the Starbucks Medicine Ball in your feed. The supposed cold-busting, Venti-sized beverage comprises a bag of Jade Citrus Mint Tea, a bag of Peach Tranquility Tea, and equal parts hot water and steamed lemonade. Sounds gross, yes, but it’s surprisingly delicious. Unlike a lot of viral Starbucks drinks, the Medicine Ball didn’t gain its popularity through the dark Starbucks web. The Medicine Ball was just an odd compilation of ingredients hacked together around October of last year, and since then became so popular on Instagram that a manager reported customers were ordering the drink an average of 20 times a day. After about 40 other managers reported similar statistics, Starbucks added it to the official drink menu.

Although you can now ask a barista for the Medicine Ball by name, before recently, the drink was technically a Starbucks menu-hack—the kind of thing that would make a barista curse your misspelled name as she slid your cup of cobbled-together ingredients across the counter. I wondered what might be the next Medicine Ball—could I create it? I asked current and former Starbucks baristas from across the country to help me hack the Starbucks menu and make odd and, hopefully, delicious combinations. Forget the Pepto Pink Drink, the ombré drinks baristas hate, and the Puppucino for your favorite four-legged friend: here are four barista-inspired drinks.

(Also, I’m going to spoil this for you: they ended up mostly failing. Guys, making a Starbucks drink is hard.)

Superfund Splash

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Credit: Photo by Gabrielle Van Tassel

Now that spring is starting to, well, spring, and morning commutes are about to get sweaty again, iced coffee is about to return in a big way. But you can only hack a coffee so many ways until it’s flat-out gross, and Starbucks has basically covered all of the bases. (Including adding coconut to cold brew.) Less venerated for refreshment are, ironically, the Refreshers. In my limited experience, they tend to be a little boring and maybe a little unfulfilling, too. But that also makes them prime for experimentation.

Instead of just ordering a Cool Lime, Strawberry, or Berry Hibiscus Refresher,Amanda, who spent two years in an Alabama store, threw out the idea to order a Venti with all three refreshers, topped with three pumps of raspberry syrup. So I did. I should add my pre-sip hypothesis: As I loathe sweet drinks, I feared a drink that would be way too sweet, way too tart, and way too… big, I guess. After ordering, and peppering the staff with many apologies, I found that my hypothesis was pretty much spot on. It was way too much liquid, too sweet, and fairly tart. But it was also surprisingly refreshing, like an herbal, tropical mojito. It was just too sweet and just a bit too non-alcoholic for my taste.

Vanilla Avalanche

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I’m not sure how or when cereal milk became a social media craze, but as far as weirdly delicious Frappuccinos go, cereal flavors are the most popular on the Starbucks Secret Menu. Tara, who worked as a barista in a Massachusetts Starbucks for seven years, suggested this creme-based Frappucino for that en vogue eau de cereal aisle. Depending on what type of nostalgia you’re chasing, pick a creme-based Frappuccino, add praline syrup to taste, and also purchase a Petit Madeleine cookie from the snack case.

When I asked a staffer to whip up this one, there were a couple snafus: praline is only a winter holiday flavor, and the Starbucks manager wouldn’t let the barista put cookies in the blender. I ended up ordering a Vanilla Bean Frappuccino with Cinnamon Dolce and Toffee Nut syrups, plus lots of whip. I took it upon myself to do the cookie-crumbling, and sprinkled cinnamon to see if I could get that Cinnamon Toast Crunch taste. I was wary of cloying sweetness, and whether my flavor improvisations would nail it. Let’s say I understand why people train before they’re allowed behind the counter at Starbucks, lest they pour a sickeningly sweet, rich drink that might put someone into a sugar coma if served larger than a Tall. But it did taste like cereal milk of some sort, and did get a little tastier after I mixed in the cookie pieces.

Slush Puppy

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Surprisingly, apple juice has become an additive in many Secret Menu drinks. When Jessica, a veteran barista of three years at a Massachusetts Starbucks, suggested I try a hacked drink with equal parts apple juice and coconut milk, plus two pumps of mango syrup (an extra pump for every size increase), I wasn’t immediately turned off. I ordered a Grande (three pumps) and blended it with ice to hopefully achieve a slushy texture. I really had no expectations for this one; Jessica said that it would kind of taste like a Slurpee—how bad could that be, right?

It wasn’t bad, exactly, but it just tasted exactly like what it was: dairy-free “milk” and apple juice with a few pumps of sugary syrup. The mango added a nice flavor to what would have been totally bland otherwise. Jessica nailed the experience, though—it was light and refreshing, and would probably be pleasant on an oppressively hot day.

Green Monster

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With three drinks down guided by trained barista advice, I figured it was time to try my own hand at hacking the Starbucks menu. (Bad idea, I know.) I bounced a few ideas off of the barista, who wrinkled her nose at everything. The problem was that, although I have barista experience, I haven’t worked at Starbucks specifically, which actually does make a big difference in terms of knowing their ingredients. I asked the barista slogging through my ridiculous order what we could do with one of the bottled Evolution Superfruit Smoothies. We decided we liked the idea of using the new vanilla bean powder (logic used: “Why not?!”), and after checking the ingredients on the smoothie, settled on peach syrup... since it didn’t already contain peach? Again, a risky logical leap, I admit.

After blending—and watching her alarmingly disgusted expressions—what I ended up getting basically just tasted like a weird green smoothie. Mango or raspberry syrup would have worked better, and in addition to the vanilla bean powder, a banana and maybe some coconut milk would have gone a long way. If you try this one on for size, have the barista use only half of the bottle of Superfruit.

If you’ve learned nothing—which, fair if you haven’t—I will just say that it’s hard out there for a barista, or at least someone who has to come up with a new drink, like, every week. If you do decide to try and hack the Starbucks menu, though, always remember to tip your baristas! It’s one thing to be a crazy person ordering off menu… it’s another thing to be crazy and cheap.