We don’t control whom — or what — we fall in love with. That’s what I’ve learned since accidentally inciting a craze built up over 70 consecutive weeks surrounding a very particular coffee drink: Starbucks’s iced cold foam cappuccino. We also don’t control the outpouring of emotions when something you love is unexpectedly taken from you. In early September, after fevered DMs, back-and-forths with corporate representatives, and over a year of repeat orders, Starbucks PR confirmed it was removing the iced cold foam cappuccino from its register terminals, rendering it nearly impossible to purchase. The news hit hard, to both me and hundreds of my closest internet friends, an online community that unexpectedly, delightfully grew over the past year around a shared love and loss of this drink. Though I’m still deep in the middle stages of blender-whipped grief, I’m only now realizing it wasn’t all about the chilled frothy milk — it was about the people willing to yell right back into their phones about their love for it, too.
I first tried an iced cappuccino topped with cold foam, now offered in multiple iterations as a drink topping, while it was deep in the throes of its massive marketing push last April. Instantly, I was hooked. By whipping skim milk in what I can only gather is a proprietary blender (try it at home and it won’t be as dense), Starbucks ingeniously figured out how to make the worst milk on the market fun. Opt for the standard version of cold foam and there’s no sugar, no syrups, no nothin’: just a nutritious meringue lickable off a sippy-cup lid or, though socially frowned upon, lapped up out of the cup like a baby kitten slurping milk. That cloud of cold foam elevated the iced cappuccino to a perfect drink with just enough coffee and just enough milk, topped with a glorious heaping of novelty. The espresso should be the star, but foam is really what completes it, encapsulating the magic of whirring frozen bananas into fake ice cream or pulling Easy-Bake brownies out as a kid. Somehow this became that and is immediately better for it.
Never a big Starbucks obsessive prior, I joked about becoming a cold foam influencer, getting my friends, a handful of followers, and surprisingly some strangers into the so-called #foamfluenced movement. Now, over a year later, my Instagram inbox is full of hundreds if not thousands of “foamy friends” (as I call ’em) dishing about their coffee that day, tagging me in Starbucks selfies and feeding our mutual milky compulsion.
Still, that’s not the most ludicrous part. While the drink was seemingly simple — espresso, milk, milk — no two Starbucks seemed capable of crafting the iced cold foam cappuccino the same way. The company established its brand of ubiquity by brewing and blending the exact same beloved drinks from coast to coast in strip malls and scenic highways, drive-thrus and Disneyland, but I stumbled upon the iced cold foam cappuccino as Starbucks’s Achilles heel, the one drink that’s never prepared correctly. The drink’s perfection and often lack thereof only fueled the conversations within my Instagram stories feed. My direct-message inbox served as a digital water cooler for us all to check in and discuss that day’s foam, like a support group for how well your crapshoot of a coffee order went. The multitude of possibilities was perfect morning fodder, the ideal distraction to a busy workday that necessitates caffeine.
We formed a legitimate digital clubhouse, a non-gendered Starbucks sorority, one might say, trying to finally nail this order. We celebrated with glee when someone got an extra-dense foam or when pumpkin spice foam appeared (which yes, of course I tried); we reeled en masse upon early reports (in my DMs, natch) that the iced cold foam cappuccino was being removed. Now that it’s officially gone — cold foam remains, but the iced cappuccino has disappeared from menus — I feel adrift with my internet besties as we try to fill the void, our bond over this inescapably delicious drink tested by the company that invented it.
I now enter a Starbucks filled with anxiety about not knowing what to order, unaware of how much this drink meant to me until I felt the crushing blow of its deletion across a community I’ve accidentally found myself at the helm of. I’ve fallen into the nexus of a trend I make absolutely no money for — world’s worst influencer! — and (happily!) continue to receive so many foam-related mentions that I’ve had to relegate Starbucks posts to Foamy Fridays, a concept originated by foam fans themselves. (I’ve even started a Facebook group so we can all share foams with each other without having me serve as the omniscient reposter. True foam friendship!)
As we work as a group to crowdsource a replacement for our beloved beverage — grande iced cold foam latte in a venti cup or just an espresso over ice with a buttload of cold foam are frontrunners — it blows my mind that so many people are joined together by a mutual love of floofy skim milk. I have iPhone penpals I’ve never met messaging me about whipped cream foam, food editors tagging me in posts about ramen foam, and strangers explaining the virtues of at-home foam with blenders and canned foams and doo-dads. The internet can be somewhat of an abyss, and while Instagram fans of Disney Parks, my usual journalism beat, comprise what’s easily one of the cozier corners of the platform, there’s a sense of teamwork among the cold foam crowd from our ceaseless attempts to get something done. Something about those feel-good ties feels warmly communal.
I never felt so tapped into a group of like-minded people until I began covering theme parks five years ago. Still, even with a fellowship of Mickey fans, nothing in my career has compared to the camaraderie from fellow foamers that’s now enveloped my daily existence. A car drove past me while I was leaving Disney’s D23 Expo convention in August and a passenger screamed, “WE LOVE FOAM!”; last month, while in the Haunted Mansion’s “stretching room,” I was spooked not by the ride’s ghoulish frights, but by another rider exclaiming over how much he loves the dairy topping.
This enigmatic journey through the skim-milk fog grew into a digital gang of iced espresso obsessives that I feel at home within both digitally and in real life, even if it’s now met its demise. I may never again receive the exact drink I want at Starbucks, but I’ve gotten an entirely new community of friends — and hey, that’s better than a glass of espresso and perfectly frothed nonfat milk.
Carlye Wisel is a writer and video host who went to Walt Disney World on a whim and basically never left.