Watery. Bitter. Bland. You don’t have to be a coffee snob to recognize that the dining hall coffee is OK at best. Northwestern’s food-service provider, Compass, is always assessing the dining halls’ food selection and may provide other coffee options in the future, ​​Compass Group District Marketing Manager Sophia Bamiatzis said in an email. But for now, students are stuck with the basic brew.

Tired underclassmen living in dorms can still use Keurigs, but the price of K-Cups can add up. With final exams approaching, even a non-coffee drinker may be looking for a pick-me-up. Or maybe you’re bored of the flavorless cup of joe and want a change. NBN is here to help.

The dining halls serve regular and decaf Starbucks coffee, as well as iced coffee at Sargent and Stiver’s Coffee at Foster-Walker, Bamiatzis said. The dining halls provide ​​sugar, sugar-free sweeteners, half-and-half, soy milk, rice milk, 2% milk and skim milk. Using these ingredients – and some less traditional ones also in the dining halls – three students share their hacks to elevate the coffee.

Iced coffee lemonade


1/2 cup of iced coffee

1/2 cup of lemonade

This one may sound strange, but McCormick second-year Marcos Rios describes his creation as simply an Arnold Palmer with coffee.

“It’s always taken with so much skepticism,” he said. “But generally, people are like, ‘Wait! It’s not that bad!’”

Rios takes a cup of ice, fills it halfway with coffee, and then fills the other half with lemonade. It’s very acidic, so he only enjoys coffee lemonade about once a month, he said. Inspired by an article about a restaurant serving lemon espresso, Rios invented this drink in the dining halls of Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia, during a summer program after his junior year of high school. For a sweeter version, Rios dissolves a sugar packet in hot coffee, then adds the ice and lemonade.  

Crunchy coffee


1 cup of iced coffee

1 tablespoon of honey

1 packet of Sugar In The Raw

As a fan of honey and iced coffee, SESP second-year Cammi Tirico created “Crunchy Coffee” for a tasty alternative to the bland hot coffee in the dining halls. She adds a spoonful of honey and a packet of Sugar In The Raw to a glass of iced coffee. When the hearty, less-refined sugar combines with the honey, it forms sweet, crunchy pieces at the bottom of the cup.

“You have to drink it with a straw so then you get [the] little bits of honey and sugar,” Tirico advised.

She created crunchy coffee last winter when she was dissatisfied with the hot coffee and tried different ways to improve it. First, Tirico switched from regular sugar to Sugar In The Raw. Then she added honey and “never looked back,” she said.

Make-do mocha


3/4 cup of hot coffee

1 packet of hot cocoa mix

1/4 cup of chocolate milk

Weinberg second-year Julia Lucas* is not a coffee drinker, but when classes went in-person this year, she struggled to find enough energy to make it through the day.

“I personally don’t like coffee, but I do like to stay awake in class,” she said. “For me, the best way to drink coffee is when it doesn’t taste very much like coffee.”

So, she concocted the make-do mocha by dissolving a packet of hot cocoa mix into hot coffee and topping it off with chocolate milk – a traditional mocha melts chocolate syrup into espresso. While coffee lemonade and crunchy coffee are rare creations, Lucas suspects that the make-do mocha is more common, as she’s heard of other students making this chocolatey, caffeinated drink. Thanks to her hack, Lucas can enjoy her coffee and stay awake in class.

*Editor’s Note: Lucas contributes to North by Northwestern.

Thumbnail courtesy of Jenna Anderson.