I don’t really remember when I first started drinking coffee. But I do know it was a long time ago.
For the past 12+ years, I’ve been relying on it daily. To help give me the get up and go I need to get started and through my day.
I started like most coffee newbies. By adding an absurd amount of cream and sugar to actually make it drinkable.
Then I graduated to buying primarily flavored coffee. The thought of which now makes me shudder.
Eventually I moved on to lattes. Which in all honesty, is probably the only way I get any milk into my diet on a regular basis. My dairy consumption comes mostly in the form of cheese. I am a Wisconsin girl after all.
Even my lattes were sweet and flavored. Many of which I find to be wayyy too sweet these days. As my tastes have now matured enough to appreciate a simple cup of strong black coffee.
Since my palate is a bit more refined now, I actually understand and can taste the difference between roasts. And for the most part, I know what body and acidity means on a coffee label.
Through years of drinking many different variations of coffee, I’ve discovered that I enjoy dark roasts the best. A medium-dark comes in a close second.
However, every now and then, I do love a good non-black coffee drink. As long as it’s not too sweet. And that the flavor of the syrup does not overpower the taste of the roast.
So after over a decade of drinking coffee in the Madison area, I’ve narrowed in on a list of my most favorite coffee drinks in town. To save you the pain and anguish of a bad cup of coffee, I’ve decided to share that wisdom with you.
Now, I try to shop local whenever possible. However, chains are also included in this list.
Best Non-Flavored Latte
Y’all Starbucks haters might want to slap me for this, but the Latte Macchiato at Starbucks is my go-to for a non-flavored latte. If you aren’t familiar, the Latte Macchiato is made with whole milk and a grande comes with three shots of espresso instead of two.
Something about that extra shot, or the whole milk, or the combination of the two, just really works. It’s a delicious roasty cup of perfection that allows the flavor of the coffee to shine through.
The use of whole milk gives it a weight and creaminess you just can’t get from a non-fat latte. If you enjoy the taste of espresso, you will also enjoy this drink.
Another good thing about this one is that Starbucks is super-consistent. So, even when I’m traveling , I know I can get a drink I love virtually anywhere in the country.
Best Flavored Latte
Okay, so I couldn’t narrow this category down to just one drink. Because there are actually several in town that I really enjoy.
1. I love Espresso Royale, which has been one of my go-to coffee shops for over a decade. And it’s not just because of $2.50 any size latte day (which is every Wednesday by the way). But also because they know me and what I like to drink. And they get it right. Every single time.
The regular lattes are great. But I very much enjoy the Spanish Latte.
They make this delicious drink with a tablespoon or two of sweetened condensed milk instead of flavored syrup.
It adds a subtle sweetness that isn’t all syrupy sweet. Even when you get to the bottom of the drink, like some others. Again, the taste of the coffee itself is not overpowered by the sweetness. But instead, complimented by it.
You can also get this on $2.50 latte day. You just pay $.60 more for the flavor.
2. Stone Creek Coffee is a Milwaukee staple, yet they just hit the Madison scene about a year ago. Not only is the atmosphere of the shop itself very cool, but the coffee drinks are spot on.
They actually gave away FREE COFFEE every Monday for the entire month of March. To introduce the Madison community to Stone Creek.
And let me tell you, it wasn’t just plain old drip coffee they were giving away. You could order ANY DRINK ON THE MENU. For free. That ish is bananas.
But, if you know me, you know I like free stuff. So, I made it in two out of those four Mondays. Which was a great way to try a few lattes I might not have otherwise ordered.
The first was the Cardamom Spice Latte, which has a unique flavor profile that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. The Cardamom Spice Latte is warm and spicy, as you might imagine. And makes me think of fall and winter with every sip. This drink makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And I picture myself under a cozy blanket, in front of a fireplace, with a good book each time I drink it.
Alternatively, their Lavender Latte, is bright and a bit herbaceous. And reminds me of spring in Wisconsin. Just picture yourself running through the beautiful lavender fields on Washington Island, just taking in the scent when you drink this.
All of these drinks are what I consider “treat drinks”. Meaning, I will only treat myself to one every once in awhile.
Because they are full of sugar after all.
A mocha, on the other hand, is a drink I crave on a weekly basis. This is a “treat drink” that I probably treat myself to at least once a week.
As a result, I have tried many a mocha over the years and have determined, hands-down, that my most favorite is Cargo Coffee’s.
Some mochas taste like you are just drinking hot chocolate with maybe a teensy weensy hint of coffee in it.
This is not that.
This is mocha perfection in a cup.
Cargo’s mocha is not too sweet and just chocolaty enough. It’s more cocoa powder flavored than chocolate syrup flavored. Which to me, leads to a much richer flavor. Plus, you can still taste the espresso in addition to the chocolate.
Another plus with this particular drink is that you can obtain it via a drive-through.
Yep. Cargo Coffee is one of few coffee shops in Madison with a drive-up window. If you use the drive-through, you place and pay for your order at the window, and then pull up and someone walks it out to your car when it’s ready.
We need more of those in Madtown.
Best Seasonal Drink
Okay, so again, I couldn’t pick just one here, because there are four seasons in Wisconsin.
1. For a winter seasonal drink that isn’t available year round, I truly adore Caribou Coffee’s Spicy Mocha. Specifically made with dark chocolate. This used to be a regular menu item, so I enjoyed them on the regular as well.
I was sorry to see all of the Caribou’s around here close. But as you probably know, they joined forces with Einstein Bros. Bagels and reopened several Bagel + Coffee shops here in Madison.
When I got an email from Caribou recently saying they were bringing the Spicy Mocha back as a Holiday 2018 drink, I nearly cried tears of joy. Later that same day, I marched myself over to the nearest Caribou to order one. They are that good.
The Spicy Mocha can be ordered with white, milk or dark chocolate syrup. But please don’t ruin it with one of those other choices. Dark chocolate is for sure the way to go on this one. They use some extra special spice blend to make this, that I think must contain a little ancho chile pepper and perhaps some cayenne to give it a really nice and sweet heat. And they top it off with a little chocolate covered espresso bean on your lid, as an extra treat.
I’m pretty sure those are only here for a limited time, so get it while you can. Or you might have to wait until next year. And that would be sad.
2. For a summer seasonal coffee drink on the other had, the winner is for sure Magic Coffee at Graze. This is a Dane County Farmers Market staple, that you can order at the sidewalk cafe counter outside of Graze on Saturday mornings roughly May through August.
Magic Coffee is exactly that. Pure magic in a cup.
I am pretty sure it’s made with a shit ton of sugar, but it is somehow sweet without being cloying. It’s creamy and delicious, with hints of both brown sugar and cinnamon. I am also fairly certain it contains both whole milk and half and half to give it that creaminess.
It’s a calorie bomb, I’m sure. But it’s also, for sure, worth it.
They make Magic Coffee in these giant beverage dispensers and sell out every Saturday. It’s THAT GOOD.
Best Dark Roast
Okay, so this one I don’t actually think you can order in a coffee shop, but you can pick up a bag to brew at home.
Just Coffee is the bomb. Which is roasted right here on the east side of Madison.
My favorite roast from Just is called Wake the Dead. Which is their fall seasonal, available from September-ish through November-ish.
Our local Costco was selling 2-pound bags of this for only $15.99 recently. Which is a STEAL. I’m not at all ashamed to say that my husband and I plowed through 3 of those 2-pound bags in just a few short months.
I was super sad when I realized it was transitioning out for the season. So, unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until next fall to try this one. But they may still have bags available on their web site if you are lucky.
Best Medium Roast
Since Wake the Dead is no longer available near us, we went back to Just Coffee’s Bike Fuel as our every day roast.
Now, truth be told, I was never a big fan of medium roasts. I much prefer dark roasts. However, Bike Fuel is pretty darn good. It’s got the same rich, chocolaty flavor I like in my dark roasts. But it’s got a bit of a twinge, which I believe comes from some citrus and floral notes in the roast as well.
Regardless, it makes a darn good and very drinkable cup of coffee. So, if you haven’t tried this one yet, definitely give it a whirl. It’s available year round from Just and has quickly become part of our regular rotation.
I’ll admit that I don’t actually like light roasts, so this is where I’ll leave you.
I’m also still searching for the perfect Miel in Madison. If you have recommendations on where I should go to get one of those, please share in the comments below.
I’d also love to hear some of your favorite coffee drinks or shops in Madison! So, do tell.
Happy coffee drinking!