Starbucks is shifting to nugget ice — and an ice expert has thoughts

"Pardon the pun, but ice fandom is a slippery slope"

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published June 8, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

Starbucks Iced Coffee (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Starbucks Iced Coffee (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Camper English wouldn't consider himself an iced coffee obsessive, by any means. "But," he tells me when we spoke on Wednesday, "I do have opinions on the right ice for the drink!" 

I had a feeling he might. 

English is a world-renowned ice expert. He is the author of "The Ice Book: Cool Cubes, Clear Spheres, and Other Chill Cocktail Crafts" and, after spending more than decade experimenting with all the different ways one can freeze water, he pioneered the "clear ice" technique that most professional bartenders now use to make ice. 

And that's why, when Starbucks announced in late May that they would slowly be shifting from ice cubes to "nugget" or pellet ice in their iced drinks — a decision that prompted both joy and outrage from some of its customers — I knew I needed to speak with him about whether it was the right move. 

By way of disclosure, like the New Yorker's Helen Rosner, I fully believe that "pellet ice is the good ice." The happiest week of my summer, thus far, was actually last week when my neighborhood Dunkin' went rogue and swapped in pellet ice for cubes in their drinks. I assumed they were keeping in step with Starbucks, but when I went back on Monday, the cubes had returned. 

"What happened to the other ice?" I asked the cashier. 

"I don't know," they said, impatiently tapping the tip of a capped Sharpie on the counter. "Does it matter?" 

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According to English, pellet ice already has an enthusiastic fanbase, so it makes sense to him that Starbucks would give people more of what they like. 

"A lot of people absolutely love the soft, chewy ice like you get at Sonic and in the hospital. It seems to absorb some of the liquid poured over it, so even after you first finish your drink you can wait a couple minutes and get another few sips of your beverage as the ice melts," he said. "And then in a few more minutes you basically have a glass of water to drink. Many people will keep sucking on the ice until it's completely gone and that's much less common with solid ice. I think some people love it to chew and others love it for the extra hydration it encourages." 

Some other coffee chains have recognized the appeal of pellet ice. For instance, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf uses chewable nugget ice in their drinks, which Rosner describes as making her drink from there feel somehow "more right than any of its counterparts at trendier cafes nearby." 

In 2019, The Coffee Bean posted an April Fool's joke announcing that they were discontinuing their pellet ice. 

Perhaps the recent announcement from Starbucks made some people realize that they have a favorite ice shape or two, even if they hadn't thought about it before.

"Pellet ice, which is proven to chill drinks quicker, allow drinks to blend well, and eliminate the worry about choking hazards, is being replaced with new ice," they wrote. "While the pellet ice was incredibly popular, we figured your average, run of the mill tray could work as well, maybe. The verdict is still out on that, but we're rolling it out internationally tomorrow and can't wait for you to try it!" 

Fans of the shop rioted in the comments section before it was revealed to be a prank, prompting the food blog SoYummy to describe the incident as "the Coffee Bean ice prank that almost destroyed customers." 

According to English, pellet ice does have some drawbacks, especially when being used in coffee beverages. 

"I also understand the detractors' argument, that the ice will water down the coffee too quickly. I think there are ways around it — use a more concentrated coffee — but even still the last sips might be pretty diluted," he said. 

For what it's worth, English does have preferences when it comes to making his own iced coffee. 

"I like iced coffee to be chilled to fridge temperature and then poured over medium-sized solid cubes," he said. "But I'll give the new Starbucks ice a try; chances are pretty good they've tested it out and dialed it in." 

Perhaps the recent announcement from Starbucks made some people realize that they have a favorite ice shape or two, even if they hadn't thought about it before. And that's great, said English. As someone who got into experimenting with ice — and its variables, ranging from shape and size, to hardness and temperature — about 14 years ago, he's still coming up with new formats for it. 

"You want the right ice to optimize your drinking experience for slow sipping or quick cooling. You realize that ice is not a one-size-fits-all material," he said. "Pardon the pun, but ice fandom is a slippery slope." 

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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