The untold truth of McDonald's Frappe

For purists, McDonald's Frappe doesn't seem to belong in the fast-food giant's universe. For those who still don't accept the burger chain's Chicken McNuggets experiment of 1983 (via Time), the McDonald's line of coffee beverages, called McCafe, is a real head-scratcher. McDonald's franchisees started making space in 2008 for push-button espresso machines, so they could sell hot or cold espresso drinks, with or without flavored syrup (via Reuters). The McCafe line went national in 2009 (via McDonald's), and just one year after that, McDonald's added the Frappe into its coffee lineup (via Restaurant News). The Frappe is a thick, creamy blended-ice drink, initially offered in either mocha or caramel flavors, with whipped cream on top. McDonald's describes its Frappes as having "a hint of coffee."

This should sound familiar. McDonald's was departing from its burger tradition (OK, burger and McNugget tradition) not to compete with Burger King or Wendy's, but to go after Starbucks customers (via Seeking Alpha). If McDonald's seemed out of its depth – grease-and-salt slingers going after the sometimes snobby coffee lover – it turns out they weren't. Customers who started showing up under the Golden Arches for their java fix may not have experienced all the aromatic notes and flavor profiles of the world's best coffees. But McDonald's gave Starbucks a run for its money on two aspects of the coffee experience that matter most to customers: taste and price.

McDonald's Frappe was a direct assault on the Starbucks Frappuccino

To understand the Frappe, you need to know about Starbucks' Frappuccino. Starbucks bought the rights to the beverage in 1994 when it purchased a small Massachusetts chain called Coffee Connection (via Boston Magazine). The Frappuccino had gotten its name from "frappe," the New England word for "milkshake." The drink ended up changing Starbucks' brand identity. It no longer aspired to be a chain of chic European-style cafes. "The Frappuccino transformed it into a haven for moms and office workers," Taylor Clark wrote in Starbucked. With the Frappuccino, Starbucks became more like McDonald's. The fast-food restaurant decided it was willing to meet Starbucks halfway with the Frappe.

If the Frappe was a direct assault on Starbucks in the coffee wars, then by some accounts Starbucks had fired the first shot. The coffee chain's expanding food offerings were cutting into McDonald's breakfast business, according to Seeking Alpha. McDonald's response was McCafe, a Starbucks-like beverage line that soon offered a McDonald's version of the Frappuccino. With the Frappe, McDonald's was going after a Starbucks gold mine. The Frappuccino accounted for 20 percent of Starbucks' total sales by 2012. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, people were less willing to pay the high cost for their Starbucks fix (via Slate). The McDonald's McCafe drinks were in the $2.39 to $3.29 range, and a cash-strapped public responded well.

Frappe beats Frappuccino on taste and price

Estimates from  Fast Food Menu Prices indicate that the Frappe remains a better deal than the Frappuccino. A mocha, caramel, or chocolate chip Frappe ranges in price from $2.39 for a small to $3.39 for a large. Meanwhile, at Starbucks, a mocha, caramel, or strawberries-and-creme Frappuccino runs you anywhere from $3.75 to $4.95, depending on size. But to say McDonald's Frappe is like Starbucks' Frappuccino, only cheaper, then the Frappe needs to hold its own in taste tests. Perhaps surprisingly, the Frappe does just that. 

Even a devoted Starbucks loyalist at Gigi Reviews had to give McDonald's points for its Frappe in 2010. The consistency was smoother and better than the Starbucks version, although the Frappuccino packed more of a coffee flavor. Cafe Mom declared the Frappe to be more like a milkshake than a coffee drink, but the beverage's superior sweetness and richness relative to the Starbucks version won them over. Maybe it's no surprise, after all, that one of the world's foremost milkshake experts – OK, "shake" experts - got the Frappe right.

McDonald's Frappe is now available in grocery stores

Just as the Frappuccino is designed to be an indulgence, not a simple caffeine fix, it's probably best not to think of the McDonald's Frappe simply as a coffee drink. "Sugar bomb" would be more accurate. The Frappe does offer a good-sized dose of caffeine, at 125 mg for the 16-ounce mocha version (via Caffeine Informer), but the sugar load truly impresses. That medium mocha Frappe has 66 grams of sugar, 510 calories, and 13 grams of saturated fat (via McDonald's). The taste war, apparently, was won with an all-out blitz of sweetness and richness.

In 2017, McDonald's and longtime partner Coca-Cola went in on a bottled version of the Frappe, sold in stores. Originally only sold in 13.7-ounce bottles, they were later supersized with the addiction of a 40-ounce version (via Elite Daily). One serving of Mocha Frappe has 3.5 grams of saturated fat and 45 grams of sugar, adding up to 270 calories (via McDonald's). A reviewer on YouTube's Old Nerd Reviews found the store-bought version of the mocha Frappe to be exactly like the restaurant version, minus the frozen consistency and the whipped cream.

McDonald's has definitely found its market among coffee drinkers: those who don't like the taste of coffee. A reviewer on Walmart's McCafe Caramel Frappe product page put it this way: "I love [the] smell of coffee but hate the bitter taste. This drink is great."