The Best Iced Coffee Is Not Where You'd Expect

The enormous iced coffee of your (my) neurotic dreams is under $2. Here's where to find it.

I'll admit it: I was once fully suckered into the Starbucks hype, the famous Frappuccinos as much an accessory and status symbol as a dual sugar and calorie bomb. It was my gateway drink to "real" coffee beverages, and through these, I acquired a taste for America's favorite bitter bean, graduating to hot sweet lattes and then drip coffee. Starbucks' big, bold roasts became the bar for how deep the flavor of a good brew should be, and by drinking them I fancied myself part of the bougie elite, a yuppie of discerning taste and impeccable pretension. So of course I sneered at my dad for refusing to buy into the 'Bux. He remained a loyal 7-Eleven devotee instead.

How adorably provincial he was, deigning to drink 7-Eleven coffee! How (literally) pedestrian of him to walk across the street to assemble his own cup of coffee, boasting that it only cost a dollar and change! I would scoff, noting that he must get what he paid for, while sipping on my own $7.11 joe.

What I've since learned is that when you spend your twenties as an aspiring douchebag, you're often wrong. Because you know what? Iced coffee from 7-Eleven is perhaps the single most underrated coffee in the quick-service game.

It's become one of the things I look forward to most when visiting Long Island, a 7-Eleven stronghold, from my current home of Atlanta, where none exist. A cold brew from the 7-Eleven draft coffee bar is now my first stop every morning while in New York, and my last stop before setting off on the 1,000-mile drive back to Georgia. All these years later, it's still often a buck and change.

Let's review all the ways in which 7-Eleven is winning the convenience store coffee game.

I tapped that: Self-serve iced coffee is best

The first thing you should know about 7-Eleven coffee is that you get to use the taps.

As near as I can tell, 7-Eleven rolled out these taps in 2020 in Orlando, buried under the lede of some exciting new touchscreen-operated custom espresso drink machine. The majority of the hubbub was over the latter offering, which grinds the beans at the tap of a button and froths milk instantly, all at the fraction of what a coffee shop would charge. The high-tech appliance also makes iced espresso drinks, if such a fancy chill strikes your fancy.

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Personally, I was more intrigued by the quieter announcement, which was that 7-Eleven would install taps at the self-serve coffee bar. It was the convenience store giant's answer to the viral popularity of the undeniably awesome La Colombe nitro cold brew, the latest (at the time) evolution of the cold brew craze that migrated from New Orleans to the rest of the U.S. when it was ushered in by Starbucks (of course) in 2015. And with the laughably large, Parks and Recreation Paunch Burger–sized Big Gulp on promo for $1.29, I was thrilled to dangerously caffeinated levels of excitement that I could now have either iced coffee or cold brew in the portion size of my dreams. (Really, who drinks only one serving and calls it a day?)

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Which brings me to my next point.

Balancing act: Decaf vs. regular

As a person who's sensitive to chemicals, I play a mean game of chicken when it comes to caffeine. Will it be an "energy and focus" kind of day, or one riddled with heartburn, anxiety, and insomnia? Nobody knows. Let's find out!

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The McDonald's and Burger Kings of the world are missing something very important: iced decaf. Wendy's makes pretty good cold brew, but guess what? It doesn't come in decaf. Although major fast food brands are trying to get a toe grip on the highly lucrative coffee market, no one really expects them to have a wide range of options available.

There's no iced decaf anywhere. Not at Dunkin', not at Panera—even Starbucks doesn't offer it. The only way to get your brew sans jitters is if you order an espresso drink, which has a totally different flavor, body, and character than cold brew.

You know who does have smooth, bold, decaffeinated cold brew coffee? Seven-effing-Eleven.

This is an absolute game-changer not only for me, but for my partner's mom, whose atrial fibrillation makes her hesitant to consume as much coffee as she'd like. With decaf on tap, there's nothing stopping us.

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Making it my way: Customizing the coffee

Burger King says you can have it your way. Limp Bizkit said it's my way or the highway. And damn it if I haven't been conditioned to agree, especially when it comes to my coffee.

The leading coffee vendors seemingly exist to instill us with trust issues. At Dunkin', "a splash" is open to an individual employee's interpretation; at QuikTrip, cold brew is sweetened like sweet tea; and at McDonald's, the default creamer option is a whopping six light creams added to a watered-down mess of an iced coffee. (Honestly, it's so bad, it's not even worth the $0.99 price occasionally offered within the app.)

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Sure, Starbucks can handle uber-precise customizations—after all, we pay a premium to be able to specify "grande nonfat two-pump half-caff mocha extra hot"—but as wait times for mobile orders grow longer and coffee prices keep creeping higher, maybe there's a better way to get what you want. Maybe the hands you want crafting your handcrafted drink are your own.

Pure imagination: Getting weird with it

I will admit that on occasion, I do dither over my DIY. Yes, I have my perfect iced coffee order nailed down, but sometimes, I feel a little adventurous. Or festive. And 7-Eleven caters to my every whim.

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There are times where I might go for plant-based creamer, or all light cream, or full-fat half-and-half. Sporadically, FOMO compels me to try some cool new flavor Willy Wonka'd by the geniuses at International Delight Coffee Creamer. And if the 7-Eleven coffee bar runs out of something I want, someone will simply open a new container right out of the fridge case, easy peasy.

Whatever my motivations, the end result is the same: I get to experiment with more than 3,000 possible "ways to coffee" at no additional cost.

The refrigerated insert full of creamer isn't the only sandbox you get to play in as you self-barista. There are several flavor syrups at every location, typically some combination of vanilla, caramel, hazelnut, mocha, and honey, and they're all free. No one is watching you and counting your pumps for nickels and dimes. You can top off your drink with cinnamon or powdered chocolate. And that's in addition to your base iced coffee from the tap, which might be flavored already; vanilla, mocha, and "iced coffee" are the standard offerings before you get to the iced tea and lemonade handles (mazagran, anyone?).

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Sweeteners run the full gamut, with options that include 7-Eleven-branded Aspartame, Equal, stevia, raw sugar, cane sugar, and name-brand Splenda. You can go light or heavy on the ice, whether you choose traditional cubes or the trendy nugget ice, 7-Eleven's premium offering that beat Starbucks to the punch. The nuggets supposedly absorb the flavors of the drink in their flaky, compressed layers so that your beverage doesn't get watered down, and any ice chips remaining are infused with coffee flavor.

At 7-Eleven's iced coffee taps, you're only limited by your own imagination, which is pretty sweet. Or not. Because as the signage says, "You Brew You™." And for $0.99-$1.29 for any size on frequent promo on the app, plus every seventh drink free, why on earth wouldn't you?

 

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