Cafés on thin ice with consumers over quantity of coffee in a cup

Lu Feiran
The price of ice is cheaper than coffee beans, diluting the taste that caffeine lovers crave in a chilled brew.
Lu Feiran
Cafés on thin ice with consumers over quantity of coffee in a cup
Imaginechina

How much ice is too much in a cup of chilled coffee? Consumers complain the caffeine content falls short of what high prices require.

You order a cup of iced latte. It feels heavy on your hand at first, but after three sips, the coffee is gone and you're left with a cup of ice cubes.

Many consumers are complaining about the preponderance of ice in chilled drinks, suspecting cafés of cost cutting.

"When I order a cold coffee with no ice, most baristas tell me there isn't a 'no ice' option," said white collar worker Louisa Wang. "I don't know why you can order milk tea with no ice but can't do the same with coffee."

I did a little investigation of the matter.

At the T-One café, I ordered a cold latte with no ice. The barista told me that was impossible.

"The coffee concentrate is so hot that if you want a cold drink, I have to put at least some ice in the cup," he said. "But I promise to put in as little as possible."

The latte I received did have several ice cubes in the bottom of the cup, but to be fair, the concentration of the drink was okay from my perspective.

Next, I tried an online order from the domestic Luckin Coffee chain. The menu offered only "hot" or "iced" options, but no choices of "no ice" or "less ice."

I ordered a cup of iced mocha. While the quantity of coffee was definitely more than three sips, ice cubes filled at least a third of the cup. And the drink tasted horrible after a few minutes – more like mocha-flavored water.

Who's to blame?

"Technically, it's the barista's fault if he or she puts ice cubes in an order that specifies no ice," said the manager at MQCoffeelab. "Baristas could use cold water to cool down the coffee concentrate. But I have to say that the more ice in drinks, the lower the cost. It's inevitable that the taste of the coffee will be diluted once the ice melts."

There is no national standard on the concentration of coffee in a cup. Some chains might have their own standards, but they are not universal.

"In the West, a trade organization called Specialty Coffee Association has promulgated standards on coffee drinks, but every café doesn't necessarily follow the criteria," Chen Zeyu, who trains baristas, told Shanghai Daily. "There are no mandatory regulations on the issue."

So it's really up to cafés. Jiangsu Consumers' Council in the province neighboring Shanghai has urged café operators to be fair to consumers.

"Consumers have the right to say yes or no to ice," a recent council statement said. "Coffee, milk teas and kindred drinks are not inexpensive, and their qualities should be commensurate with prices."

Fair enough.

Tasteless coffee is not a topic confined to China. In 2016, a customer named Stacey Pincus in Chicago filed a lawsuit against Starbucks for allegedly serving her too much ice and too little caffeine in its cold beverages.

"A Starbucks customer who orders a Venti cold drink receives only 14 fluid ounces of that drink – just over half the advertised amount and just over half the amount for which they are paying," said her 29-page complaint.

She sued for US$5 million, but the lawsuit was ultimately thrown out by a federal judge. Starbucks responded that customers could always choose "light ice."

The issue still bubbles away on social media.

On the forum Reddit, a self-described barista said, "Just blame it all on corporate policy and not us baristas."

It seems the dispute will never be resolved unless mandatory standards are adopted. The question is: Will they ever come to pass?

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