In 2023, you have a lot of options for drive-thru coffee spots, from Starbucks to Dunkin’ to Coffee Bean, to Dutch Bros. And while we’re of the mind that the best coffee is going to come from a small local coffee shop that is willing to get nerdy about both its beans and brewing process, it’s hard to beat the price and convenience of the big chains. Among these behemoths, nobody is faster or cheaper than McDonald’s. There is a whole crowd of people who ride hard for McDonald’s McCafe line of coffee drinks and the brand is always looking for ways to expand that menu — which brings us to the Chicago chain’s latest newest product, the new Cold Brew and Marbled Cold Brew coffee.
Available for a limited time at just 600 company-owned and franchise restaurants in Southern California, the Cold Brew and Marbled Cold Brew join a menu that includes roast coffee, hot chocolate, hot tea, and flavored iced coffee drinks like caramel, hazelnut, and French vanilla. Since cold drinks are by far the most popular coffee chain menu options, a successful cold brew would push McDonald’s even more into direct competition with places like Starbucks (which has a jaw-dropping 23 different iced coffee drinks, we ranked ’em all) and Dunkin,’ two brands that are arguably the kings of fast food cold brew.
So how do these McD’s entries stack up? We found out by tracking down the new drinks and tasting them. I have intimate knowledge of both Starbucks and Dunkin’s iced coffee menus, so I’ll be comparing the new McDonald’s drinks to their proper counterparts on the ‘Bucks and DD menus. Let’s sip!
McDonald’s Cold Brew and Marbled Cold Brew Coffee
Decent cold brew can land anywhere between being supremely mellow, fruity, a bit chocolatey, nutty, and full of roasted character. It’s much sweeter than typical brewed coffee and way less bitter, this sounds great but can sometimes come across as tasting sour to some people. Unfortunately, McDonald’s Cold Brew has none of these qualities. The plain black cold brew is mellow to the point of almost tasting watery. It has no bitter bite to it, which is nice, but at times made me feel like I wasn’t really drinking coffee.
I’m getting hints of roasted coffee notes, but I’m really straining to taste them, the mouthfeel is soft but nothing jumps out on my palate as particularly enjoyable.
Luckily, the Marbled Cold Brew comes across a lot better. Now, granted, it’s pumped full of some sort of sweet creamy vanilla-esque syrup with ribbons of even more cream to give it its marbled color (which is only really present before you mix the drink together), but the soft and mellow flavor keeps this drinking sweet leaning but without the bitter aftertaste that overstays its welcome found in McDonald’s typical iced coffee. Because of that, I think this is a much better experience than what the iced coffee offers, it focuses on sweetness and keeps things mellow and dialed in on the creamy notes.
How Does It Compare to Starbucks?
Starbucks has a few drinks that compare, let’s first talk about the Cold Brew and Nitro Cold Brew. Starbucks’ Cold Brew is awful, it’s bitter, sour, and highly acidic. I don’t like it, and I think McDonald’s weak-tasting Cold Brew is much better. Starbucks’ Nitro cold brew on the other hand, has McDonald’s beat. The Nitro Cold Brew is smooth and has a bitter character similar to good dark chocolate with a hint of dark cherry fruitiness. It’s so much more complex than McDonald’s Cold Brew.
When it comes to the Marbled Cold Brew and Starbucks’ equivalent drinks, it’s not even close. At Starbucks, you can get Salted Caramel Cream Cold Brew and Vanilla Sweet Cream, both of which are way more complex than McDonald’s Marbled Cold Brew and offer flavors that take your tastebuds on a journey. Comparing them feels cruel, but if you want that added complexity you’ll have to pay nearly double the price of what McDonald’s is selling, and the McDonald’s drive-thru moves much faster than Starbucks — so its a bit of a time differential as well.
How Does It Compare To Dunkin’?
Dunkin’ secretly has some of the best cold brew coffee in the fast food coffee universe. It’s nutty, with notes of dark chocolate, a smooth character, and a slightly sweet aftertaste. I think it’s vastly superior to both McDonald’s and Dunkin’. Dunkin’, unfortunately, doesn’t have a sweetened variety (on the permanent menu at least) that directly competes with what McDonald’s or Starbucks offers.
You can sweeten your Cold Brew with cream and sugar, which will get you in the ballpark of McDonald’s Marbled Cold Brew, but the Marbled does sweetness better, Dunkin’s falls flat and ends up muddying a great product.
The Bottom Line:
If sweet cold brew coffee is your thing, McDonald’s Marbled Cold Brew is definitely worth the pickup and puts up a good fight against both Starbucks and Dunkin’. Starbucks wins on complexity, but McDonald’s gets points for price and convenience.