Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Friday, April 29, 2011
2444 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL
Every time I went to Galway Arms on Sunday nights for my weekly fix of live traditional Irish music, I would see Noble Tree Coffee and Tea next door and rue the fact that they weren't open. When I finally got a day off work and was hanging out in Lincoln Park, Ashley and I decided to stop in. And that's how this delightful café made its way into my Top Five Chicago coffee shops.
Noble Tree features some of the best caffee in the city and boasts three floors of some of the best atmosphere you'd ever want to spend your time in, whether you're there to study, conduct some business, or just to hang out with a few friends. I'm becoming more and more a fan of cafes with great atmosphere—especially after visiting Noble Tree. If I lived in Lincoln Park, there'd be a good chance that I would spend just about all of my free time there.
And the baristas there (one of whom I actually met once before at Kickstand Espresso Bar) really know what they're doing. The traditional cappuccino I ordered was made to perfection and, yes—they do have some serious pie.
178 N. Chicago Street, Joliet, IL
It is almost impossible to find even marginally good coffee in the suburbs. I think is about a million times truer in my hometown, Joliet, IL. When I was growing up, we didn't have any coffee shops save for a Starbuck's kiosk inside of the Dominick's grocery store and a Gloria Jean's inside the mall. In the eight years it's been since I moved away, Starbucks has at least opened a store on Jeffierson Street, but the Gloria Jean's is gone.
So one can imagine my surprise when I found Jitters Coffee House in the downtown area. A locally-owned coffee shop in The J?? Of course, I wasn't nearly as surprised to find that their coffee is awful. Neither Ashley nor I could even finish our drinks because they were so damn terrible.
I don't think Joliet will ever have a decent coffee shop, honestly. Which is unfortunate. I just don't think the blue collar Everyman cares about great coffee. For him, Folgers or Hill Brothers is just fine. For him, Jitters is probably world-class, gourmet coffee.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
2521 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL
I cannot sing my praises for Humboldt Park's Star Lounge loudly enough. I love everything about this bar-turned-coffee lounge; from their location, to their incredible coffee (which they roast themselves), to their very friendly, skilled, knowledgeable staff, to their spacious layout and backyard seating, to their (most importantly) incredible espresso drinks, Star Lounge really has it all going for them.
I'm just going to come right out and say it—Star Lounge is my favorite coffee shop in Chicago.
Currently, I am sitting at their bar with my laptop and journal, talking to a couple of the guys (former Peetniks like me, actually) about recipes and new concoctions. I just tried their Mayan mocha and was blown away. Now we're discussing possible ingredients for a "French toast latte"—we tasted one and it was good, but still missing a little something. Don't expect me to tell you what we put in there, though—I wouldn't dream of giving away a secret. A barista doesn't kiss and tell.
And, honestly, that's what I love most about this place—yeah, the coffee is fabulous, and, yeah, the location and the music they play are great; but what really sets this place apart for me is that their baristas are down to Earth, legitimately cool guys that really engage with their customers. It's one thing to "be engaging" from a corporate mindset ("Good afternoon, how are you? What can I get for you today? Would you like to add a pastry to that order? That'll be $10 please. Thank you, have a nice day."), but it's completely different to "be engaging" on a personal level. The guys that work here genuinely want you to have the best coffee they can make, so they ask you how your drink is. They'll talk to you about what they put in it, what their different roasts taste like, what new stuff they're working on...
Simply put: they have a genuine love and respect for coffee. And that is immediately apparent when you talk with them and taste their drinks.
For more information, please visit their website above to read about their commitment to great coffee, or stop in to talk with Jay and the rest of the team. They have a wonderful mission that every coffee enthusiast should get behind.
Come back to my table in the corner of the cafe often, because I'll be writing more reviews of their Dark Matter roasts in the future!
Come back to my table in the corner of the cafe often, because I'll be writing more reviews of their Dark Matter roasts in the future!
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
1750 W. Division, Chicago, IL
Caffé Streets is one of Wicker Park's newest cafes, having only been around for about three months now. I didn't even know of it until last night, while clicking around on Yelp.
I went this morning—a cold, rainy, miserable morning—on the way to work and I was very impressed. I ordered a medium cappuccino, and they informed me that they only make traditional cappuccinos, but they could make me a foamier version of a latter—color me "pleased." I was even more pleased when I sipped it; it had the same texture and mouthfeel as a Peet's latte (I really do think they're the best milk steamers around). The latte art (a rosetta) was a little wonky, but they scored points for even trying.
The only thing I wasn't impressed with was the decor—very trendy, very urban-chic. Wood paneling covered the floors, the walls, and the ceiling, making it feel like a bit like the inside of a wooden box. It felt less like a "social coffee house" and more like a photo shoot from a fashion design magazine.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
3101 South Morgan Street, Chicago, IL
I've always had a prejudice against Chicago's South side—"if it's a numbered street, it's too far south." I've been of the opinion that the South side is full of gangsters, degenerates, and criminals. Low-lives, no-lives, and Sox fans.
But nestled in the heart of the Bridgeport neighborhood, on West 31st Street, is Bridgeport Coffeehouse—one of Chicago's best roasters. I'd been wanting to come here for ages, and I figured the day I got fired from Peet's Coffee and Tea would be the best day for it.
A gorgeous, sunny Spring Sunday—perfect for sipping a hot, perfectly made cappuccino and sitting at one of their sidewalk tables, watching all the locals walk their dogs.
And, of course, the best thing about Bridgeport is their amazing drip coffee, which they roast themselves.
2035 N. Western Avenue, Chicago, IL
Ipsento immediately entered into my top three favorite coffee shops in Chicago as soon as I sipped the traditional cappuccino I ordered.
The baristas are fantastic at their job and everyone there knows coffee really well. The atmosphere is really homey and they make good use of their relatively amount of space.
They also have a signature drink, which is appropriately called "The Ipsento": espresso, steamed milk, steam coconut milk, honey and cayenne pepper. An odd combination to think about, but incredible to sip on a crisp Spring morning.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Greetings, coffee (and tea) enthusiasts, and welcome to yet another edition of Drew's Reviews—the only coffee (and tea) review fully endorsed by both Hootie and the Blowfish!
This edition is a little different than usual for two reasons: 1) we're only going to be reviewing one beverage, and 2) it's not coffee! Today, we're taking a look at Peet's Coffee and Tea's newest black tea, Buddha Peak Ceylon Organic tea. Now, bear with me, because, despite my Irish blood, I've never been much of a tea connoisseur—I'm more of a coffee lover. Not only does this make me a bit of a black sheep in my family, but it also offsets me with a company that focuses just as much attention on their teas as they do their coffees. So in an effort to keep all of you informed of Peet's latest and greatest offerings, I'm also making a special effort to branch out and stay informed. Hopefully, by the end of this review, we'll both have learned something.
Last week, Peet's rolled out its brand new Buddha Peak Ceylon Tea Organic tea, a blended tea that is named after its place of origin—in Dimbula, Sri Lanka, near the holy mountain peaks of Sri Pada. Peet's has a longstanding history of sourcing tea from Sri Lanka, selling it as a single origin leaf and also incorporating it into other blends—most recently, it made an appearance in our Winter Solstice tea. With a combination of growing altitudes of up to 6,000 feet and traditional leaf-rolling methods, Sri Lankan teas are typically noted for their brisk, tangy, bold flavors, rich aromas, and good pungency. These characteristics make for outstanding single origin leaves, but also add unique elements to blended teas.
Not only is Sri Pada a rewarding pilgrimage for Eliot Jordan, Peet's Tea Buyer, it is also considered a holy mountain by Buddhists who, year after year, make pilgrimages there. At the very peak of the mountain, there is a shrine to Samanta, a figure that the Theravada Buddhists of Sri Lanka have designated the guardian of their land and their religion.
There are four basic elements to Buddhism, known as the Four Noble Truths—the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. Coincidentally, there are also four basic elements to tea tasting—flavor, aroma, mouthfeel, and finish. Now, if you've been following Drew's Reviews the past few weeks, you probably know well by now that I'm just the type of corny guy that will find a loose connection and write an entire review based on that weak affiliation.
This review is no different.
Buddha Peak Ceylon Organic tea has a soothing, flavorful aroma with notes of citrus that become even more evident upon first sip, and hints of a rich smokiness that give it a full body. The taste is even more rewarding—it has a light maltiness that barely coats the palate, but is still heavy enough to make for a bold, full flavor. The citrus notes, which are present in the tea's aroma, become even more dominant and provide a brisk tanginess. I also tried the tea with a little bit of half and half and, oddly enough, it didn't compromise the citrus notes in the least. In fact, the citrus shone through the cream and made the tea taste a bit like a dreamsicle—a flavor any child that was a product the 1980's can appreciate. Buddha Peak also has a crisp, clean finish that doesn't linger very long and a minimal astringency unlike a lot of other black teas (i.e., Earl Grey).
If you're anything like me (an Irishman whose only experience with tea is Irish and English Breakfast and Earl Grey), this is a fantastic tea to start branching out with. It's not wildly different from other black teas, but is unique enough to provide you with an interesting taste experience you're not accustomed to. For avid tea enthusiasts, Buddha Peak Ceylon Organic is a wonderful tea to discover, and it is this writer's prediction that it will probably become one of your new favorites—particularly when had with breakfast or lunch.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
In this week's volume, we'll be taking a look at our three Sumatra coffees, plus a special sneak peek at our current special offering, Sumatra Blue Batak, which will be available Thursday, February 3. To celebrate this popular coffee's highly anticipated return, the Evanston Peetniks staged a comparative cupping to find the similarities and differences between the four different coffees. After a similar cupping last week, where we compared and contrasted all four of our African coffees, we all knew that there would be some noticeable differences between the four Sumatras; however, I don't think any of us realized just how vastly different from each other they actually are.
The appropriately titled Sumatra coffee is an Indonesian coffee that hails from the island of Sumatra (go figure). On this island, coffee is grown by small landholders who may only have but a few trees on their property. The coffee cherries are plucked from the vine and pulped by hand and spread in the sun to dry rather than being rinsed in water overnight. This manual dry-process yields coffees with very heavy body and very full flavor. This is particularly true of Sumatran coffees, which come from a region known for its full-bodied and flavors coffees to begin with.
The three Sumatran coffees that Peet's Coffee and Tea consistently offer are the Sumatra, Decaf Sumatra, and Aged Sumatra; annually, Peet's rolls out its Sumatra Blue Batak for a limited time. Not to be cheeky, but the main difference between these four is obvious (the hints are in their titles)—the Sumatra is our very basic bean from the Sumatra island; the Decaf Sumatra is simply the decaffeinated version of the Sumatra; the Aged Sumatra is, to put it simply, the basic Sumatra bean that has been left on the vine to age a bit longer than its “ripe point;” and the Sumatra Blue Batak, which takes its name from the ethnic Batak farmers that grow it, is a coffee that is grown and harvested in the Lintong Nihuta region of North Sumatra.
Besides their obvious title differences, the four Sumatran coffees have very obvious differences in texture and flavor as well:
Sumatra: We started the cupping with our standard Sumatra, figuring we would be more able to single out the nuances of the specialty Sumatras if we could first single out the nuances of the standard Sumatra. Peet's Sumatra has a fairly complex taste that takes a couple samplings to fully recognize. A lot like the Kenyan coffee that we tasted last week, after each sip of the Sumatra, most of us would place the cup back on the counter and stare into it, deeply concentrating on the flavors our tongues were experiencing, digging in the annals of our coffee-tasting lexicons to find the right terms to describe the taste. All of us, and most of you as well, agreed that the Sumatra has a medium to full-body flavor with a astringent tartness that lingered on the palate long after each slurp. It has a hint of some spices that play on the front of the tongue for a while, then mellow into a smoother nutty, woody flavor. It doesn't have the same sort of earthiness that a lot of its Indo-Pacific counterparts share, nor does it coat the palate the way other Indo-Pacific coffees do, but it still has that formidable body that Indo-Pacific coffee lovers will rejoice in.
Decaf Sumatra: Not surprisingly, the decaffeinated version of the Sumatra doesn't quite live up to the complexities that its caffeinated foundation has—the aroma isn't as present, it doesn't have the same intense sharpness, and it lacks the nuttiness found in the standard Sumatra. Don't hear me wrong—this isn't a complaint as much as it is an observation. In fact, this observation is to be expected from just about every decaffeinated version of any coffee one can think of. The way coffee becomes decaffeinated involves steaming the coffee beans while they are still green, then rinsing them with a solvent that extracts the caffeine while leaving other essential chemicals; the process is then repeated and repeated anywhere from eight to twelve times, until it meets the international caffeine removal standard of 97%. So, as one can imagine, this chemical process can do quite a bit to affect the amount of flavoring a coffee has. Ironically, however, Peet's Decaf Sumatra does taste more like a traditional Indo-Pacific with its more fully-bodied and darker complexion and its woody nuances.
Aged Sumatra: As I mentioned earlier, the Aged Sumatra is the same as the standard Sumatra, but with a longer vine life. Much like whiskeys or fine wines, great aged coffees are very difficult to find, largely due to the lengthy aging process. Matter-of-factly speaking, most coffee exporters are prone to converting their coffee to cash as soon as possible, and don't particularly want to bother with waiting around on the aging process, even while knowing that a finely aged coffee is worth quite a bit more. According to Peet's:
Aging must take place in a tropical environment, where beans take on moisture at the height of the monsoon season, and give it back during drier seasons, without every drying out completely. This process deepens the flavor and makes it mellower, while accentuating certain taste components over others. The result is a very rich coffee with a slight hint of a tropical wood flavor, a concentrated dried fruit sweetness, herbal notes, and ample body.I marveled at the faces of each participant in our cupping when we followed the Sumatra and Decaf Sumatra with the Aged Sumatra—they slurped the coffee, then their eyes widened and, as they pulled the cup away from their lips, their jaws dropped and each one of them exclaimed, “Wow! That is... Wow.” And, each time, I simply replied, “Right?” Peet's was bang-on in explaining that aged coffees accentuate certain taste components—the Aged Sumatra was noticeably more full-bodied upon first sip and it coated the entire palate with its heaviness. It had the same basic elements of the standard Sumatra, but far and away more pronounced—it was very nutty, very woody, and even took on a soily earthiness that the standard Sumatra lacked.
Sumatra Blue Batak: Once a year, Peet's Coffee and Tea rolls out its famous Sumatra Blue Batak, and Peet's enthusiasts the country over await its arrival with breath abated. I wasn't an employee here the last time Blue Batak made its grand appearance, but since I started in the Fall, I have heard rave review after review of it from customers and fellow Peetniks; so, needless to say, even as a relative newbie, I was eagerly anticipating its return. When I finally got the opportunity to taste it, when that long wait was over, I can honestly admit that I have very seldom been more satisfied. A real customer even went so far as to state (and I quote directly), “This is unquestionably the finest coffee I have ever had.” Before we even tasted the coffee, all of the participants of the cupping knew the Batak was something special just by smelling the aroma of the beans when I opened the bag—there was something almost undefinable in the aroma, but could only be compared to tobacco leaves or, like Tyler said, “au jus.” The Sumatra Blue Batak is such a smooth coffee with a clean, crisp finish. It has a medium body, but is certainly lighter than the standard Sumatra, so it doesn't have the same bitter, lingering aftertaste. The taste, like the aroma, was so formidable and so incredibly unique—unlike anything any of the participants had ever come across. It had the richness of a dessert wine, like a Merlot, and the same sweet, cured tobacco that was in the aroma made an appearance in the taste.
I suppose, to sum all of this up, if I have but one piece of advice for those of you who are thinking “a Sumatra is a Sumatra is a Sumatra,” is don't for a minute, not even a second, assume that. This writer is still amazed at the remarkable differences between each of the four Sumatra coffees Peet's has to offer, and I know you will be too.
If I have but two pieces of advice to offer, it's what I just said, and, also, take every opportunity to explore each of Peet's unique coffees. If there's one thing that last week's African Safari and this week's tour of Sumatra has taught me, it's that no two of our coffees are similar enough to each other to bypass or take for granted. If there's any bean at all that you want to try, ignore whatever we have on tap and request us to make a custom French press for you—this is a tremendous way to explore what we have to offer.
And, finally, if I have but three pieces of advices to offer, it's all the stuff I just wrote, and, also, stop by and pick up some Sumatra Blue Batak while you can! This coffee is a special offer from Peet's Coffee and Tea and, much like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, April 15th, and the day Drew doesn't fantasize about being the fifth Ghostbuster, only comes but once a year. I promise you that you will never taste a more rewarding, more unique coffee than this one.
Until next time, cheers.
Monday, January 31, 2011
African-American History Month is just around the corner and we here at Peet's Coffee and Tea are celebrating the occasion. As a global community, we owe a lot to the appropriately dubbed “Motherland,” or “Birthplace of Humanity.” It is Africa, after all, that gave us the basic fundamentals of jazz, the soul of blues and gospel, and the rhythms, the backbone, of modern music; that provided us with thousands of years of art and sculpture that still influences artists today; that has produced some of the richest literature in the world; that has provided scientists with groundbreaking discoveries that was the central hub of Pangaea; that, scientifically speaking, is the origin of all mankind. And we Peetniks are especially thankful to Africa for being the original birthplace of coffee.
While coffee is grown and harvested all over the world (most notably in South and Latin America, Africa, and the Pacific), all coffees can actually trace their heritage all the way back, centuries ago, to Ethiopia. There is a legend that chronicles the story of coffee and credits its discovery to Kaldi, an Ethiopian goatherder. It is said that while in the Ethiopian highlands, he discovered coffee after his goats ate the red berries of a certain bush and were so spirited by the berries, that they started dancing and jumping and wouldn't sleep. He decided to eat the berries himself to test their effect on him and he became so exhilarated by them that he felt obligated to bring them to a holy man at a local monastery. The monk disapproved of their use and threw them into a fire to destroy them, but when they roasted, they created a very pleasant aroma. They attempted to save the beans and raked them out, ground them, and dissolved the grounds in hot water, thus producing the world's first cup of coffee.
Today, at Peet's Coffee and Tea, we still enjoy one of Africa's most beloved exports with our Kenya Auction Lot, Ehtiopian Fancy, Arabian Mocha Sanani, and Uzuri African Blend coffees.
It is true that all coffees owe their individual tastes and nuances, not so much to the way they are roasted (though that does make a big difference), but to the region that they're grown in. It is also true that certain regions create tastes that are generally accepted as widely characteristic of that region. For example, coffees of the Americas are generally bright and light-bodied and have hints of spice and citrus; Indo-Pacific coffees are typically full-bodied with earthy, woody, and nutty tones. African coffees are described by Peet's Coffee and Tea as “distinctively aromatic, [with] hints of flowers and fruits.” While this writer puts a lot of stock in the descriptions Peet's writes of their own coffees, I wanted to try the African coffees for myself.
I set up a comparative tasting last week that my fellow Peetniks (and even some of you) participated in. I made four press pots of the four African coffees we sell, and we systematically tasted them over the course of the week, writing down our observations of each. While Peet's was bang-on in their overall description of African coffees, we found a few more nuances in each that are definitely worth mentioning.
Kenya Auction Lot: The Kenyan coffee, of the four, had the most interesting taste. Most of us, after each sip, would wrinkle our noses, squint our eyes, and stare off into space, pondering what sort of descriptors we could employ to summarize our feelings of it. There were so many different subtleties going on that it was difficult to accurately describe it, so a good many of those who tasted it went back for second and third samples to, again, ponder. In the end, the most common sentiment was that the Kenyan had a full-body flavor with a smooth, dry finish. It had a slightly earthy taste with an understated chocolaty tone (which we found to be the case with all of the African coffees); but what made the coffee so “interesting” was its tangy tartness. Each sip of the Kenya left a very distinct aftertaste that none of us were able to quite define until Kelly quipped, “It's almost like a tangerine!”
Ethiopian Fancy: This coffee, as aforementioned, is the original coffee. So, needless to say, we were all pretty excited to taste the bean that gave birth, so many centuries ago, to the worldwide phenomenon known as coffee. Like the Kenya Auction Lot, Ethiopian Fancy had a rich earthy texture; however, it wasn't just a soily texture we were tasting—it was a thick, heavy, muddy texture that coated the palate. It was a fairly heavy coffee, heavier than the rest of the coffees we tasted at least, but had such a smooth, sweet berry flavor. Mixed with the dark chocolate taste we got from it, Ethiopian Fancy was a bittersweet coffee that I think would make for a perfect dessert coffee.
Arabian Mocha Sanani: Rich, bittersweet, smooth, full-bodied Arabian Mocha Sanani provided the most satisfying tasting of the day. Every slurp of this complex coffee felt like someone had just given us a wonderful gift. As the name “mocha” suggests, the Sanani had very distinct dark chocolate overtones that gave the coffee a certain bittersweetness; this, coupled with its mellower red-winy nuances made for an exceptionally delicious cup of coffee. Drinking this coffee was a lot like taking small bites of Godiva dark chocolate and washing it down with a dry Merlot.
Uzuri African Blend: The Uzuri African Blend is the latest, greatest (arguably, anyway) coffee to join the ranks of Peet's signature blends. There is no arguing, however, that Uzuri is one of the most exciting coffees at Peet's, not only because of its taste, but because of its inception and the cause behind it. From the Peet's Coffee and Tea website:
Uzuri African Blend represents a journey of small scale farmers improving their lives through coffee quality, culminating in a malty sweet East African blend with a medley of dark berry notes. Peet’s newest blend began with our partnership with Technoserve and farmers who did not have “Peet’s quality” beans to sell. Now, working together, we're helping farmers grow higher quality coffee that garner higher prices, delivering more into the farmers’ pockets. Their lives begin to improve almost overnight as they rise from overwhelming poverty to stable incomes. Uzuri African Blend features coffee from the producers of Rwanda Lake Kivu and Tanzania Peaberry. The farmers also provided the name; Uzuri is a Swahili word for excellent, or beautiful.Of all the African coffees we tasted, it is this writer's opinion that, if one were to ask me what the most characteristic coffee of Africa is, “the Uzuri African Blend” would be my reply. For one thing, the Uzuri has a wider scope. Being a blend, it combines the elements of three separate African regions and combines them all. The single origin Kenyan, Ethiopian, and Sanani coffees, obviously, only provide one what their region of origin provide. Furthermore, while all three of the single origin coffees certainly shared some traits, the Uzuri African Blend is the only one that is all-encompassing. Each of the other coffees were similar, but had that one particular trait that offset it from its peers: for Kenya, it was the tanginess; for Ethiopia, it was its muddiness; and for Sanani, it was winy-ness. The Uzuri African Blend, on the other hand, is a light-bodied coffee that has a smooth, dry finish. Whereas the Kenyan was earthy and the Ethiopian was muddy, the Uzuri was “dusty” (one customer's description that I absolutely adored). It also shared its African counterparts' florally, fruity, chocolaty flavors that are exceptionally pleasing to the palate. Since the first time I tried it, nearly four months ago, I have always quipped that this coffee is a lot like drinking a chocolate-covered berry.
If I may, I urge all of you to celebrate African-American History Month (albeit in the most trite and cliché way) by coming in to Peet's Coffee and Tea and trying any one of our four African coffees. If you're a coffee enthusiast, you owe to it yourself to broaden your horizons, and you owe it to “the Motherland,” as a token of your gratitude, for providing you with the very thing you love: good coffee.
Saturday, January 1, 2011
Greetings, coffee enthusiasts, and welcome to 2011!
It's a new year and for billions of people all around the world, that calls for new plans, new goals, new resolutions, new lives. People are committing themselves to spending their money more wisely, watching less television, reading more books, losing weight, consuming healthier foods and drinks--all for the sake of improving their personal lives. One thing that coffee drinkers do to follow through on their resolutions is to make the switch from whole milk to skim milk, or from flavored syrups to sugar-free flavored syrups, and some even make both switches at the same time.
On the other hand, there are those who are nervous about the transition to sugar-free syrups. It's understandable--the sugar, after all, is what gives those drinks that sweet vanilla goodness. Without the sugar, the drink would just taste bland, boring, or, at best, artificial.
It is with this question in mind that we at Peet's Evanston decided to find out for ourselves just how different our vanilla lattes is from our sugar-free vanilla latte.
Ironically enough, all of our participants in our comparative tasting unanimously concluded that the sugar-free vanilla latte actually had a sweeter taste than the regular vanilla latte. The vanilla latte, despite its sugary base, was very subtle and, if one didn't know that vanilla was in their latte, one might not even recognize it immediately. Although the sweetness was definitely still there, the beverage didn't have an overwhelming vanilla taste to it--the syrup mixed with the espresso and milk so well that, as Mal pointed out, it actually tasted like real vanilla beans had been infused with the drink, rather than a syrup added as an extra element.
The sugar-free vanilla, on the other hand, didn't have that same subtlety--upon first sip, the syrup made a grand appearance on the palate, dominating the steamed milk and espresso. This was especially true when we went one step further and made the latte with skim milk rather than the traditional whole. The sugar-free was so sweet, in fact, that we could still taste it lingering in our mouths after we had finished the cupping. Of course, this is not so much a complaint as it is an observation of sugar-free syrups; whereas most sugar-free options (like hazelnut, caramel, raspberry, et al) in the coffee market leave a formidable aftertaste that even a glass of water can't shake, the vanilla syrup that we use, though it did leave an aftertaste, had minimal lingering. This writer believes this was mostly because the syrup didn't really blend as well with espresso and milk--not the same way that regular vanilla did. Another factor contributing to this was the artificial sweetener (Splenda) in the sugar-free syrup--it was almost as though Splenda overcompensated for being artificial by attempting to "out-sweeten" regular sugar. If that's the case, mission accomplished.
However, despite these differences, the regular and the sugar-free vanilla were surprisingly similar to each other. Like Halle remarked, "...the taste is not so different that sugar-free vanilla cannot provide an alternative to people looking for a healthier option." Both beverages were sweet, bother beverages were creamy, and, despite one of them being artificially flavored, the final word is that both beverages tasted like vanilla. So if you're one of those who made the resolution to consume more healthily, but are wary of sugar-free syrups, fret not! Peet's can help you meet your goals.