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13 Drinks At Panera Bread, Ranked Worst To Best

May 11, 2023

We don't usually think of drinks when we think of Panera Bread. When the word "Bread" is in the title, well, it's excusable that our thoughts immediately go to the big, fluffy frosted cinnamon rolls or loaves of award-winning sourdough (at least award-winning in our book.) But if you're there to get that bread, you need something to wash it down with, and you might as well treat yourself.

If you consider yourself an avid coffee drinker, as we do, you can always go for a plain old cup of joe — or you can go for a Frozen Caramel Cold Brew. If you're more in need of something refreshing, you can always go and head towards the fountain machine for a Coke — or you can grab a Green Passion Smoothie. Clearly, for everyone's sake, we had to get to the bottom of these conundrums before we next visited for our usual bagel and cream cheese. So what drink is really going to shake things up? We tasted, tested, and ranked a lineup, ranging from lattes to lemonade, to find out.

If there was ever to be a foil to the zippy fruity drinks like the forthcoming Frozen Strawberry Lemonade, it would be this Caramel Latte. Every sip was decadent, indulgent, and syrupy-sweet — probably due to the thick caramel ribbon that infiltrates the whole beverage. There's no skimping here. We would like the overall drink a lot better, maybe, if there was some salt involved, but there's no claim that this is a salted caramel beverage that you're getting into. Still, we can't help but wish there was something to cut the sweetness.

The bitterness of the small (in volume, not in caffeine) amount of espresso just doesn't cut it. That's one of the main reasons we decree the cold brews superior: There's just more coffee per cup to balance out the added caramel (or chocolate or vanilla) flavoring. It's plausible that some sippers might want exactly this, a drinkable and caffeinated caramel shake, but even our highly tolerant sweet tooth are aching.

Like the Caramel Latte, this ice cream shake — pardon, we mean Chocolate Latte — was a drinkable dessert featuring some sneaky espresso underneath layer upon layer of sugary goodness. What are you going to do, customize your order and ask for it to be left off? Well, actually, it's a solid thought and exactly what we would do if we ever ordered this drink again. With the whipped cream, it seriously tastes like a melted ice cream sundae. Kids would eat this up if you got in decaf, but the sugar rush would probably be equivalent to the caffeine hit. It's delicious but still too gosh darn sweet.

The best thing it has going for it, which makes it higher in the rankings than its caramel cousin, is the chocolate. Even though chocolate is indubitably a dessert flavor, it's inherently a little more balanced, robust, and nuanced than caramel. Caramel is literally sugar taken up a notch, so you can see why basically anything else would clock in at a slightly less sugary timestamp. We prefer our chocolate on the bittersweet side, though, and there was nothing bitter about this drink. Salt might help here too, but again, if you want your coffee to bring pure Ice Cream Truck energy to your day, who are we to judge?

We were not blown away by any of the selection of Panera's Lattes we sampled, deeming all three overtly and overly sweet. The Madagascar Vanilla Latte, however, rose to the top of the stack and was absolutely acceptable. Like caramel, vanilla has an inherent sweetness, and this makes it crucial for flavoring many baked goods with an extra, yet sophisticated, depth of flavor. Your chocolate chip cookies wouldn't be the same without it, which is why we snuck a whole tablespoon into our favorite Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe.

Less aggressively sweet than caramel but less aggressively overpowering than chocolate, vanilla is the golden rule for coffee flavoring. You can't go wrong; even black coffee aficionados might be okay with some vanilla. This latte isn't for lovers of black coffee, though. It's still a big mouthful of dessert but in a more subtle way. The vanilla amplifies rather than dulls the beans' flavor, which was a nice surprise. Next time we're at Panera Bread ordering a bagel and cream cheese and really think that a latte would go nicely with our meal, the Madagascar Vanilla Latte would be our first choice.

"It's too green," one taste-tester announced upon her first sip. Then she took another and added, "It's still fine, I guess." And there you have it. We didn't feel much passion for this smoothie. When we go to Panera Bread for a smoothie, we want to taste some fruit: strawberries, bananas, mango, and all that good stuff. In this sleek and stylish Green Passion Smoothie, the predominant taste we got was spinach. We don't have anything against spinach in our smoothies, and we frequently enjoy it, but it has to have the proper balance of flavors.

Panera's website says that underneath the greens is a peach-mango base. We could taste a vague, indistinguishable fruit somewhere; maybe the peaches and mangos were underripe because they just didn't see the light of day. They may be contributing to the 50 grams of sugar per serving, though (and a serving is obviously a whole beverage.) It tastes healthy, but is it really? We leave that up to the individual. If you want to sneak in some extra greens, great! If you want to watch your daily sugar intake, not so great. If none of that matters to you, and you want a refreshing and invigorating smoothie that promises both fruits and veggies, you might like it.

The duo of frozen cold brews is not to be mistaken for an iced latte, which we have also tasted and ranked. We just happen to be a team of people who enjoy iced coffee almost regardless of the season. Besides, it makes for a more authentic ranking when we can taste all the cold beverages back-to-back. Comparing a steaming hot latte to a frozen cold brew and trying to decide which is tastier takes some mental gymnastics! So, with solid confidence, we rank the Frozen Chocolate Cold Brew and the Frozen Caramel Cold Brew ahead of the lattes.

This little guy is sweet, sure, but the caffeine levels are even sweeter. Be careful with cold brew, people! After even just a few sips, we were all jolted wide awake, with plenty of both sugar and caffeine to keep us on our toes for at least the duration of this taste test (though we had to try the others, so let's just say we were bouncing off the walls by the end). The frozen treatment gives it a fun consistency, and you don't have to navigate annoying ice boulders. The caramel flavor, predictably, dims the cold brew flavor, but the ratio is dialed in enough to cause no harm if you love some good caramel in your cuppa. It's a fun Starbucks alternative that we wouldn't turn down on a warm-weather weekend.

Ever heard of making a non-caffeinated drink "dirty"? We love it when we want a chai but need some energy, fast. The Frozen Chocolate Cold Brew is essentially a dirty (and cold) hot chocolate. It's rich, it's dense, it's creamy, and it's like pouring your Christmas cocoa over crushed ice and topping it with the works — meaning whipped cream and chocolate syrup, of course.

Are Mocha Frappuccinos your jam? This Panera Bread remix likely gives you more of a buzz. It does leave us with a cloying sugary film over our teeth, however, which made us reach back for just another sip of those smoothies. Maybe next taste test, we'll bring our toothbrushes afterward. Want to play around with creating your own perfect cold brew with your unique flavorings, amounts of whipped cream, and special touches like dustings and drizzles? Start with our best cold brew coffee recipe, and you may kick your "coffee run" habit to the curb for good (but not your caffeine habit, sorry to say.)

Panera Bread's Strawberry Smoothie tastes like the classic smoothie that sparked a love of the genre in us when we were kids. At least for us, when we think of smoothie, it's always strawberry flavored. The nostalgia and comfort-drink elements are fair positives to keep in mind. As for negatives, it's pretty in pink but pretty plain. Strawberries alone mean you're getting a frosty drink that really hits the spot on the first sip but gets one note and a little dull after a while. We had to rank it lower than two other more dynamic ones. Also, for $6.29, it's on the pricey side for a fast-casual beverage sporting only a single flavor and texture.

We enjoyed the crowd-pleasing taste of berries and cream, the cream moderated by the use of Greek yogurt. When we read the ingredients list, it made sense because the smoothie was not too sweet and had a slight cheesecake-like tang to it, which we liked a lot. As an afterthought, one of us decided to see if the Greek yogurt was punchy enough to give the drink a little protein — and wham, we discovered 13 grams of the stuff! We certainly weren't expecting a Strawberry Smoothie from Panera Bread to have enough protein to fuel a full meal, especially when the Green Passion Smoothie has a measly 2 grams. Go figure.

Peanut butter and jelly, sour cream and salsa, strawberry and banana — no two fruits are as universally linked, at least in this team's minds and tastebuds. We have almost come to expect a strawberry-banana-flavored product wherever fruity goods are sold. So, while it may seem redundant that Panera Bread would offer a standalone Strawberry Smoothie and then a Strawberry Banana (as opposed to, say Raspberry or Pineapple), we'll give it a pass this time. It even gets a pat on the back because we deemed it superior to the regular Strawberry. Banana adds a creaminess that no simple milk can achieve — think about it, they become moist and delicious banana bread, after all (try this one; it also uses another of our favorite harmonizing flavors, brown butter). It also comes with a mellow, buttery taste that's the perfect undertone for bright, juicy strawberries.

The double layer of flavor propelled it closer to the top of this ranking because it's just more interesting to sip. With its mild, pleasant, and unproblematic flavor profile, we think that the Strawberry Banana Smoothie is a great choice for kids, too. If you, no matter how old you are, love anything strawberry banana, we have some more good things coming your way with this recipe. It provides you with plenty of nutrition to either start or cap off your day in a delicious, nourishing style.

Ahh, finally! After so many super-sweet coffee drinks slathered in whipped cream, showered in chocolate, or infused with caramel, we were psyched to get to try the Madagascar Vanilla Cream Cold Brew. Yes, it still involves an aspect of creaminess, but in a much more level-headed way that allows the cold brew coffee to sing. Even though we had already sampled two kinds of cold brew, the Frozen Chocolate Cold Brew and Frozen Caramel Cold Brew, this was the first time we really tasted the coffee itself. Thankfully, we liked it. Sure, it's not an artisan blend dreamed up by your favorite local haunt, but you can't expect that from Panera. For a destination not celebrated for its coffee (and after the oddly incredible smoothies, we can see why they would take the cake), Panera does a fine job.

The smoothness of the cold brew is really pleasant and not at all bitter or sour. Maybe it's a little too mild for the serious coffee aficionados in your life, but again, it's completely acceptable given the circumstances (you're at a Panera Bread). What the company does do extremely well is the Madagascar Vanilla Cream flavor. We liked it in latte form, though less so since it was smothered in bells and whistles. Here, we taste two things: Fine cold brew and delicate vanilla cream. We'd certainly purchase this again.

There are plenty of factors that go into ranking just about anything, especially when they are complicated and full of layers of flavor and texture. It's a little harder to identify the particular factors involved in ranking a lemonade, even when it's dolled up a little bit with strawberry flavor and plunged into an ice bath. But all semantics aside, this is simply a delight. We had no idea that lemonade could taste so elite. It's not a smoothie, but thanks to the "frozen" consistency, it tastes a lot like one. It's still got that slushy consistency that gives it a great mouthfeel, and we could have sworn there was some creamy element in there. But nope, it's just a more substantial lemonade bursting with fresh, fun summer berry flavor.

Walking around on a hot day? Consider ducking into a Panera for this one. Sure, it's got 13 grams of sugar, but considering that there's roughly one gram of naturally occurring sugar per fresh, raw strawberry anyway, that's actually a very low total. We feel like a cliche when we say this, but the Frozen Strawberry Lemonade is summer in a cup — don't sleep on it!

Is it weird to call a smoothie custardy? That's how this one tasted to us, at least, and we liked it. You know, that frozen custard that's made with egg yolks to give it a velvety and extra-dense consistency. We think maybe the blended mango is doing the work of those egg yolks to bring this smoothie its delightful texture. Hey, they're even the same color!

Speaking of color, this Mango Smoothie looks like a cup of frothy butter. But don't worry; it doesn't taste anywhere near as rich or potentially life-threatening as drinking a vat of butter would. We detected a distinct yogurty tang that went beautifully with the sweet, tropical mango. Sure enough, it follows the Strawberry Smoothie's lead and incorporates Greek Yogurt for that commendable 13 grams of protein. We loved to see it, and overall, we absolutely loved this drink and tipped our hats to Panera for creating it. It's thick, sweet, and custardy but also revitalizing, light, and tangy. It's all one flavor, so it gets old a little fast. We wished we could order it in a half-size whenever the mango-smoothie mood strikes.

There are certain subjects in the world of food and beverages that make plenty of sense to us: The appeal of a perfect croissant, the way a little lemon juice can brighten up a heavy pasta dish, and the science behind pairing certain wines and cheeses. Then there are other things that stump us: jello salads, the Cheesecake Factory menu, and how the Chai Tea Latte from Panera Bread tastes great.

Now, don't get us wrong, this isn't authentic chai with its intensely piquant blend of freshly ground spices. Panera's comes from concentrate, but you know what? We wouldn't mind having a jug of that concentrate around in our own kitchens so we could make these lattes at home. Panera's is surprisingly delicious. It's definitely sweet, so if you dislike anything saccharine in your chai, this shall not pass. But we expected that. What we didn't expect was how the beverage actually tasted of those brilliant chai spices: Ginger, Cinnamon, Cardamom, Cloves, and maybe even some black pepper in there. We love our drinks on ice, and if you do too, we recommend asking your store worker to go light on ice so that those flavors don't get watered down. Who would have thought we'd find our favorite chain chai tea latte at Panera Bread? Watch your back, Starbucks. A Chai Tea Latte from Panera Bread has no right to be this good.

Why is this particular smoothie the very best one of the bunch? There are a few important reasons, which we generally agreed on even though certain team members had fair arguments to the contrary. There was a motion to place the Green Passion Smoothie at number one, but eventually, we decided that the Peach and Blueberry Almondmilk Smoothie was the winner.

First, we were glad to see a vegan smoothie on the menu. Many are made with full-fat dairy milk to maintain a lush consistency, which makes perfect sense. Accessibility aside, however, we consequently worried that the smoothie would taste thin and watery, far from it. It's almost as rich and substantial as the non-vegan smoothies, and we didn't miss that tiny touch of extra heft that cow's milk would have given it. A little lightness is great for a beverage that's supposed to be refreshing, anyway! You're getting some sweet nutritional benefits in this smoothie, which comes through in the peachy-clean flavor and bursts of blueberries. But you're also getting every bit, if not more, of the deliciousness that makes a smoothie almost akin to soft-serve ice cream. Peaches automatically deliver a peaches-and-cream vibe, and blueberries bring a textural contrast that many of the other smoothies lack. This smoothie is everything we were looking for in this taste test.