A few months ago, I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle. I was there to find out about two upcoming latte flavors, but I also learned about coffee tasting and latte-making in general. Possibly my favorite part of the trip, however, had nothing to do with lattes. It was all about Starbucks’ signature drink — the Frappuccino.
Not only did I get to sit in a room and grill Debbie Antonio and Maretta Delacruz, the women behind some of your all-time favorite Frapps (like the s’mores Frappuccino, which happens to be the best-selling limited edition flavor, ever), but I was also able to invent my very own drinks. When I first met my coffee drink gurus for the day, I already had a few flavor combos in mind. I figured fan-favorite hacks become real menu additions all the time; how hard could it actually be?
So hard. As it turns out, a lot more goes into creating a new Frappuccino flavor than I originally thought. Antonio and Delacruz took me through the process that Starbucks recipe developers actually use to create a new flavor, and it’s more comprehensive than I ever imagined.
First and foremost, you have to pick a theme. Maybe it’s summer and you’re going for nostalgia. In my case, Valentine's Day was coming up. Every Frappuccino flavor has its own underlying subject matter, even if it’s not as obvious as a holiday. So, before anyone ever sets foot in the kitchen, there has to be a bigger idea behind the next beverage. Then, you create a wordle.
If you’re not sure what a wordle is, that’s because you probably haven’t seen one since elementary school. It's simply a visual representation of a bunch of words that describe a common theme, and they are essential in the Frappuccino-making process. The team often comes up with several wordles per theme and then picks out flavor profiles that relate to each, so the consumer will experience specific feelings and memories with each taste. Antonio and Delacruz asked me to describe my idea of a romantic evening and also what I do to relax when I'm taking a break from a long day at the office — the point being to combine the those feelings into one perfect Frapp.
The Global Beverage Innovation Team also uses mood boards. They’ll pull images to go along with the wordle for inspiration. My Valentine's Day board included chocolates and flowers, while a summertime board might feature farmers' markets, s'mores, campfires, and so forth. The images and words that resonate the most within those brainstorm conversations end up informing the specific tastes and flavor profiles recipe testers will focus on.
Finally, it was time to turn on the blender and start experimenting. First, I had decided on coffee bases for both of my Frappuccinos. I knew both would include chocolate, based on my wordle and mood-board planning. In terms of secondary ingredients, I wanted one to include hazelnut (because Nutella) and the other to feature berries. After that, it was really just trial and error until we found a combination that worked.
When the real recipe testers do this, it can take upwards of 50 tries, depending on the flavor, its components, and how many changes get made throughout the process. Since I was only a "professional" Frapp developer for one day, we had to speed up the process a bit, and I tried a couple different variations on the same flavor instead of going for Frappuccino perfection. But, with the guidance of Antonio and Delacruz, my bevs still came out delicious EVERY time.
My first flavor ended up being a Frappucino base with chocolate chips, milk, and hazelnut syrup, topped with espresso whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and matcha powder. It sounds like a lot, and I got a few worried looks from the room when I announced that I would be topping it with the matcha, but it was mighty tasty, despite the matcha not quite fitting in with my theme. (I may have been a little ingredient-happy at that point, but cut me some slack, I was standing in a room with every Frapp flavoring known to man.)
Next up was the berry option. We started with a coffee base, and added more chocolaty chips and chocolate sauce (essential!), and then we had to figure out the berry part. Antonio and Delacruz had come up with a brand new blackberry sauce just for me (see above) that isn't currently featured in any drinks. There was also a Starbucks-brand strawberry syrup, and they brought freeze-dried berries, too. I added the berries and syrup to the blender, and saved the sauce for topping over the chocolate whipped cream. While everything sounded amazing going in, one sip later, I realized that the berries added a bunch of seeds to the beverage, forcing the drinker to sort of chew — not ideal. I decided to stick to the sauces and syrups, and ended up with a much better drink. I'm hoping that blackberry sauce makes it to menus one day soon!
At this point in the process, there would typically be more internal testing at Starbucks, involving the very scientific-looking lazy Susan room, testing in local markets, and any number of other trials before we would ever get our hands on an official new product. The name for a new concoction often changes during trial phases based on taster and customer perception. But, since I got to skip that part, I slurped up my new "Chocolate-Hazelnut" and "Berry Chocolaty" Frappuccinos as if I had just purchased them at my local Sbux.
All in all, my Frappuccino-making experience taught me that there's a lot more to the blended coffee drinks than I originally expected — but the extra legwork can have major payoff. If you like to go off-menu and create your own secret menu hacks, try picking a theme and testing it a few times with different flavors and sauce and syrup amounts. If you're feeling extra ambitious, maybe even do a wordle first. Who knows, your creation might even end up as a limited-edition beverage one day.