Exclusive: We Got A Behind-The-Scenes Look At The Two NEW Starbucks Lattes

Over the course of the last few years, I've probably written about every new Starbucks drink, limited-edition Frappuccino, and PSL return to date. So when I got the opportunity to head to the mother ship (a.k.a. Starbucks HQ in Seattle) — to get an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at two new lattes hitting the menu on February 16 — I jumped at the chance to find out what it really takes to create the next PSL. My mission? To go behind the scenes of the creation of two new drinks: the Smoked Butterscotch Latte and the Citrus Green Tea Latte. The first features smoked butterscotch-flavored sauce and smoky butterscotch topping, while the latter is made with a new citrus-mint syrup and lemon essence topping.
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Photo: Courtesy of Starbucks.
Going in, I knew the names of the flavors — and that was it. I had no idea what was in store for me (other than a LOT of caffeine). Once I got to Seattle, I spent an entire day learning about how these two drinks went from being a glimmer of an idea within the Global Beverage Innovation Team to nationwide menu additions.

Are you ready for this? Here’s the inside scoop on how they make the magic happen.

Stage 1: Follow The Trends

Every new drink starts with the Global Beverage Innovation Team. That title sounds super-complicated, but it’s really a team of recipe developers who have the best jobs, EVER. Seriously, prepare to be jealous. The first part of what they do is all about staying on top of food and drink trends. They look at everything from what’s going on in the world to what’s on the Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer (People after our own hearts!) along with what chefs are doing in local culinary scenes. Then comes the actual recipe development.

Stage 2: The Roastery

In the case of the Smoked Butterscotch Latte and the Citrus Green Tea Latte, both started at the Roastery. If you’re wondering what the Roastery is, I got a chance to check it out before we went to headquarters. In a nutshell, the Roastery is Starbucks' Seattle mecca of all things coffee. Not only does it serve up a variety of artisanal drinks that you can't get at your neighborhood location, it's also home to an actual large-scale roasting operation (thus, the name). Ever tried one of those shmancy Reserve coffees? It was roasted at the Roastery.
Photo: Courtesy of Starbucks.
When it comes to developing drinks for the Roastery, the Global Beverage Innovation team really pushes the boundaries and tries to figure out what the next big coffee crazes are going to be. I tried a fizzy, mint-infused iced espresso drink and also its most popular beverage, the Shakerato Bianco, which is espresso shaken over ice (customers get to pick the bean they want and pour their choice of milk overtop). Essentially, they’re serving up a lot more than your average mocha lattes.

I was already feeling pretty caffeinated at this point. I'm typically a one-latte kind of girl — but no one turns down free coffee when it is being handed to you in beautiful cups topped off with foamy hearts — and I still had to try the drinks that started this journey.

The Smoked Butterscotch Latte was originally created because there are great chocolate and vanilla options on the menu, but Starbucks hadn’t tapped caramel yet. The Global Beverage Innovation team use browned butter to make a rich and creamy butterscotch sauce with local, smoked Demerara sugar. And if that wasn’t flavorful enough, there’s also a hint of peppery heat that I could only taste at the end of each sip. This was by far my favorite drink of the trip. In a perfect world, there would be a purchasable version of smoked butterscotch sauce that I can use to smother vanilla ice cream with in the very near future.

The Citrus Green Tea Latte — which was originally called the Matcha Basil Mint Latte when it debuted at the Roastery last fall — was created as a fun new way to experiment with the matcha latte trend. It featured house-made basil-mint syrup and a lemon rind garnish. Obviously, it was a hit.

Stage 3: To Starbucks HQ

Once Starbucks decided to bring a taste of the Roastery to locations nationwide — a first for the company — it set off a whole other chain of recipe testing. First, the Global Beverage Innovation team had to create the sauces, syrups, and toppings for the Starbucks location versions from scratch based on the above flavor profiles.

Amy Dilger and Debbie Antonio both worked on the lattes you’ll be able to try in stores starting February 16. Before my trip, I didn’t know them by name, but I definitely knew them by reputation. In their decades with the company, they helped to bring us the Chestnut Praline Latte and the Caramel Brulée Latte, among other fan favorites.

Between Smoked Butterscotch and Citrus Green Tea, there were approximately 60 variations before the Global Beverage Innovation team felt they had landed on the right combination. (The highest number of variations on a beverage to date is a whopping 87.) They had to get the smoky, buttery sauce just right without being able to use the local smoked sugar from the Roastery (they settled on a natural smoked flavor in the sauce) and figure out a way to get the mint, basil, and peppercorn flavors across for the green tea drink without making it too herbaceous.

I still preferred the Smoked Butterscotch Latte when trying the Starbucks versions — because smoked butterscotch sauce — but I’m also really into the lemon essence topping on the Citrus Green Tea Latte. Antonio explained that they ended up picking lemon essence instead of a citrus sugar so the zesty, lemony element is really the first thing to hit your tastebuds. I’m already thinking about putting it on a mocha or getting the matcha latte in Frappuccino form.

Stage 4: It’s All About The Lazy Susan Room

So after they’ve gotten a flavor variation down that recipe developers are happy with (sometimes the whole drink comes together at once and sometimes they have to make sauce or topping tweaks as they go) there’s my favorite part — the lazy Susan room. That’s not its official name, but that’s what I’m calling it, because the spinning beverage wheel is what makes me wish this room was part of my apartment.

Taste testers, usually Starbucks employees from across departments who sign up for tastings, sit in a room that has little booth-style desks. Sometimes, there are different colored lights shining down so you can’t see or be biased by the color of the drink you’re about to try. When they’re ready (It’s important that they’re ready!) they press a red button and the people on the other side of the room put the drink in question on a lazy Susan and spin it over to the taster, so they have no idea how it was made or what is going on behind the wall.

Then comes the actual tasting. After the testers try a few sips, they fill out a survey that helps the test kitchen know what they’re doing right or wrong. Sometimes, the results will mean a full-on flavor tweaking or it might be that the name of the beverage just isn’t giving the people who are about to drink it the right idea of what’s it’s going to taste like.

Once they’ve got it right in-house, there are other types of testing, too. For example, external testing is when certain areas of the country will get a specialty drink for a few months so Starbucks can see how it performs. Creating what very might be the next PSL takes a lot of work and it makes you understand why it can take up to year or more to actually bring a new flavor to market.

After all that, the Smoked Butterscotch Latte and the Citrus Green Tea Latte are finally making their way to us. And then for Starbucks, it’s right back to the mock-up phase so they can come up with what we’ll be drinking next. Whatever it is, I’ll be right here to tell you about it.
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