Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christmas coffees are coming to town

How can I tell the Christmas season is nearly upon us? Well, the first clue is my Instagram news feed - almost overnight, it has filled up with rosy-tinted photos of people's little red cups from Starbucks (and by people's, I mean mine).

I know, I know - it's not even December. But there is a silver lining to the season starting so early in London; all the more time to plough through the Christmas drinks of 2013.

Inspired by the seasonal aromas of cinammon, hazelnut, orange, toffee, ginger and... um, forest fruits, Christmas coffees are right up there with the John Lewis ad and scented candles for all-round festive feel-good factor. The season has turned, and the coffee gets us excited by setting the mood for the upcoming festivities.

The big three - Starbucks, Costa and Nero - have been peddling their Christmas offerings for several weeks now and, in that time, Starbucks' red cups have somehow taken on a celebrity cult status of their own. They even have their own hashtag (#redcups... obvs).

Heads literally turn as people strut past with their red cups, lapping up the coffee envy that is inevitably thrown their way by passers-by. 'I gotta get me one of those', I think, and before you can say Gingerbread Latte, I've made a quick detour and turned left into Starbucks.

But once I get the the counter, I hit a problem. Which to order?

Choosing your Christmas coffee is something of a Russian Roulette situation. With risky flavours in the mix like eggnog, orange and forest fruits (why?), you really don't want to get it wrong.

So, being the season of goodwill and all, I've roped in some help and between my friends and I, we've tried most of the coffees on offer...

Last Sunday, I received a text message from my housemate Katy, who seems to be taking this very seriously: "OK. So I had a Toffee Nut Latte yesterday and I really liked it! Clem didn't. And he had the Chocolate Orange Mocha and neither of us really liked that - faaaar too orangey I thought."

So there you go.

I've also had the Eggnog Latte which I suspect might be a bit of a grower. Topped with nutmeg, it was sweet, thick and creamy but, dare I say it, a bit eggy. Which isn't really what I look for in a coffee.

My advice is go for the classic sweet and spicy Gingerbread Latte and you can't go far wrong - especially if you ask them to use their Christmas Espresso blend, a smooth and subtly caramelly addition to even the blandest Americano. Delightful.


Faced with the task of competing with their rival's near iconic red cups, Costa have retaliated brilliantly by introducing their Santa Cups, which make you look like you've got a white beard. In your face, Starbucks!

What goes inside the cups is equally extravagant. The super-sweet flavours will probably make a true coffee-lover wince, but there are some interesting non-coffee options such as the glitter-topped White Hot Chocolate and a Hot Spiced Apple drink (complete with star anise and a cinammon stick).

Sadly my favourite from last year, the Peppermint Mocha, is nowhere to be seen at Costa (it seems to have hot-footed it over to the Starbucks menu, however). But fear not, the Salted Caramel & Cream Latte is quite excellent, and definitely my 3pm festive drink of choice at Costa, preferably with a mini stollen or a festive yule log on the side.

If Caffe Nero was a person, he'd be a suave Italian guy who is far too cool to be seen with a Santa-beard cup or a sparkly White Hot Chocolate.

The Nero Christmas experience is altogether much more tasteful than its brasher rivals. Even the gingerbread men are classy (Ginger Giovanni, anyone?).

There are only three Christmas coffees on offer at Nero and they are predictably grown-up - Roasted Chestnut Latte, Praline Latte and Amaretto Latte.

I ordered the latter and was a bit disappointed by the comparatively ordinary blue cup that I was presented with. But then, to my utter delight, a little gold foil-wrapped praline was placed on the counter next to my coffee - and Nero are so back in the game.

Oh and the coffee itself was, of course, delicious, with a distinctive marzipan flavour. But that is almost beside the point - it was never really about the coffee. It's about the experience.

A well-timed Christmas coffee just seems to make everything better, from cold Tuesday morning commutes to manic Oxford Street shopping excursions. It's hard not to feel comforted by the cosy refuge from the chilly city streets, and the feeling of warming your cold hands around that little red cup.

In a (toffee) nutshell? This craze is simply about the countdown to Christmas. Yes it's still November, but resistance is futile. Accept your fate and embrace the Christmas coffees.

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