The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Starbucks is shifting to ‘nugget ice.’ Why are Americans so obsessed?

Everyone seems to have a preference. Now even Starbucks is entering the fray.

Last week, Starbucks announced that it would start rolling out new “nugget ice” machines. (iStock)
5 min

When it came time to return to the office, Elle Cayabyab Gitlin didn’t really see the point. A 44-year-old technologist living in Southwest D.C., Cayabyab Gitlin felt that she had been doing just fine working from home, nor was she keen on schlepping all the way to Tysons Corner in Virginia once a week. That is, until she learned about the new pellet ice dispenser in the kitchen.

Soft, chewable ice. That “mind-blowing” ice she first had at a Sonic in South Texas as a teen, and which she has been obsessed with ever since. It was the kind of ice worth making an hour-long train commute for.

“I was like, I can make this work,” Cayabyab Gitlin said.

Our national obsession with iced beverages is nothing new, and we’re far from chill about it. Be it the pellet ice that extends the pleasure of a drive-through cherry limeade, the clear, twinkling globules sitting in a glass of whiskey, or the immaculately organized ice drawers on TikTok, Americans are always searching for better ways to cool our drinks.

Now Starbucks has entered the fray.

Last week, the world’s largest coffeehouse chain announced that it will start rolling out new ice machines to make its drinks. Bulky cubes will now be replaced with “nugget ice” that is softer and more compressed, the same pellet-shaped ice you can find in hospitals, Chick-fil-A or Sonic.

Starbucks said it will be introducing the ice over the next few years, starting with stores that have a high volume of cold drink orders. The new machines will also use less water. (Iced handcrafted drinks make up about 75 percent of all Starbucks sales and have propelled the coffee giant to record revenue in recent years.)

“Customers who have tried the nugget ice in our handcrafted iced beverages during testing had a resoundingly positive response,” the company said in a statement.

Cayabyab Gitlin, whose closest Starbucks is at the Wharf, was delighted by the news: “If it is available to me, I will avail myself of it.”

Other customers weren’t so enthusiastic. Some Reddit users worried that the new ice would melt faster than the current cubes. (Starbucks said its own tests confirmed that this is not true.) “Lemme eat it all day,” another responded, “But not in my coffee.”

Camper English, a cocktail and spirits writer, has been thinking seriously about ice for the last 14 years, when he began experimenting with ways to make bigger, clearer versions of it. When Starbucks announced its decision, “I knew that we were going to be victims of an insufferable period of commentary,” he said.

To English, the author of “The Ice Book: Cool Cubes, Clear Spheres and Other Chill Cocktail Crafts,” ice is both a tool and a garnish, capable of exacting different sensations.

Pebble ice and pellet ice, for example, are different — though they look similar, English notes. The latter is softer and more absorbent, made from flaky ice that is compressed into a pellet shape. When you pair it with a soda (or, perhaps, coffee), you’ll still be able to get more of the drink’s flavor from the ice itself.

Pebble ice, on the other hand, is cobblestone-sized pieces of ice broken off from a large ice block. It’s clearer than pellet ice, meaning it’s harder and melts slower. But once your drink is done, your ice will melt down into water. This kind of ice is ideal for certain cocktails, such as one of English’s favorites, a sherry cobbler.

Then, there’s crushed ice (ideal for mint juleps), shaved ice and those clinky, large, slow-melting cubes or spheres that open up the flavor of a high-proof spirit by teasing out its aromas.

For something so simple, it quickly gets complicated. But iced drinks are also a uniquely American obsession.

“It’s one of the most distinguishing features of American drinks,” English said.

For most of history, ice was used on the outside of the vessel to cool the drink, English explains. But that changed for Americans in the 1800s, when American entrepreneur Frederic “The Ice King” Tudor started cutting up clean lake ice from New England, eventually selling it domestically and abroad — as far as India and Martinique. It was around this time that Americans had the audacity to start putting ice inside our drinks and, as any European barista or bartender knows, we haven’t shut up about it since.

There may be no one who understands this better than Helen Rosner, a New Yorker staff writer who evangelized “the good ice,” before the masses of influencers on TikTok began flexing their G.E. Opal ice machines (which retail for about $400). Rosner purchased the countertop pellet ice appliance in 2020, and hasn’t looked back.

By her estimation, Rosner runs her ice machine at least a couple of times a week. The appliance itself is a fun party centerpiece, she said, but it also creates a special vibe for coffees and seltzers, especially when paired with a glass straw.

“You have the gentle, almost musical clink of the tiny little ice pellets in the glass and the straw itself,” she said.

In a way, to know your ice preferences — the soft and chewy, the globular and dramatic, the classic and cubic — is to know yourself, to know “the fastest route of happiness for you,” Rosner said.

“Maybe this is high-minded of me, but there’s something, I think, very human and very wonderful about having opinions and preferences and ways to derive joy from even the smallest parts in our lives.”