By: Victoria Dweck
To all my fellow coffee lovers out there, especially those who get particularly excited when pulling up to our favorite caffeine source, Starbucks.
It was back in August when I realized that this article would be necessary. You see, I am, admittedly, a caffeine addict. It’s only two shots of espresso each morning, but it’s my necessary first stop before each marathon day. If you also tend to frequent the shop on Route 35 in Oakhurst, whether during the summer or all year round, chances are you’ve bumped into me there. Throughout the years and hundreds of times, I’ve walked in to get my daily jolt, and I’ve seen all kinds of Jews ordering all kinds of drinks—kosher and non-kosher.
I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry if you were happily enjoying a favorite drink until now and I spoil that for you by telling you that it’s not kosher. But I’m sure you would rather know the truth.
When I’m in the store, I think very carefully before I speak up. I’d only say something if I was fairly certain that you did not want to drink something that wasn’t kosher. As it says in Mishle (9:8), “Al tochah less, pen yisna’eka—hochah lehacham veye’ehaveka – Don’t rebuke a scoffer, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.”
I have been off the mark sometimes.
One family friend told me, “My friend looked into it, it’s kosher,” after I expressed doubts about whether the ingredients in his non-kosher caramel macchiotto were supervised.
Then there were the trusting ones. One Gd-fearing person I know was sitting by the window on a hot summer day, about halfway through his icy blended drink. “Should I say anything?” I deliberated to myself. I did. He tossed it immediately, “I had enough. Thanks for warning me.”
Then there was my friend who was right in front of me on line ordering a frappuccino. “You might want to double check that,” I told her.
“But my friend checked it and she said it’s fine,” she answered.
“Are you sure you’re comfortable with that? Wouldn’t you want to see for yourself?”
At that moment, a barista behind the counter chimed in, “The frappuccino is not kosher.” Great timing. My friend ordered an iced latte instead.
If I didn’t see this over and over again, I would assume that the incidents of kashrut-observing Jews blindly drinking non-kosher were isolated. The frequency with which I encountered this phenomenon, though, in the five minutes a day I spent in a single store led me to believe that it’s rampant.
In truth, once upon a time, probably even six or seven years ago, the ingredients in a plain coffee frappuccino might have had a hechsher. The caramel did too, and I’m sure there were times when hot chocolate or other favorites also had a reliable kosher symbol. (That doesn’t mean that they were still kosher once they were blended or steamed.) But right now, none of these items are permissible.
Why are hechshers forever changing?
Rabbi Asher Zeilingold, the director United Mehadrin Kosher, clued me in a little bit. United Mehadrin supervises a factory in the Upper Midwest that produces soy milk used in Starbucks. The factory itself hires him—not Starbucks. All different brands come in to produce their soy milk there, and they are permitted to apply the United Mehadrin Kosher symbol on their packaging. If Starbucks decides to produce soy milk elsewhere, or if they are currently using another factory, as well, he wouldn’t know. The only thing that is verifiably kosher is the actual package that you see the symbol on—and seeing it one day doesn’t mean that the kosher status will be the same tomorrow. That’s why you’ll see different containers of hot chocolate in different Starbucks stores all across the country, and some on the retail shelves that are different from the one used behind the bar. They are produced in different factories. Some bear a hechsher; but many don’t. In many local Starbucks shops, the hot chocolate behind the bar is not kosher, while the one on the retail shelf bears a Chaf-K Dairy. Yes, it can be very confusing.
The Blinded Jew
What makes otherwise strictly observant Jews turn a blind eye and listen to unverified rumors that “such-and-such drink is okay” when stopping in for their favorite coffee drink? I don’t know, but one unnamed rabbi at the Chaf-K had a very clear and important message: “I wouldn’t advise anyone to go into an establishment that isn’t supervised.”
Not that there aren’t any kosher items there. Rather, “there are all kinds of problems in unsupervised establishments. People fall into a trap and get comfortable. Hechshers change all the time. Something could be supervised one week, and the next month it’s not. Everyone should always be vigilant and constantly check themselves for a hechsher on everything that goes into their body.”
In short, always check. Don’t rely on what your friend says or what I say. Don’t rely on the hechsher that you checked last month. Let your eyes be a shield for your neshama.
Is Coffee and Espresso from a Non-Kosher Establishment Ever Ok?
As long as you make sure to use a paper cup and never china cups or mugs, plain, unflavored espresso can typically be ordered without a problem. Espresso, which is brewed in a special machine which forces hot water into finely ground coffee, producing thick intense coffee, does not present kashrut concerns when drank alone. Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, among the heads of the OU and a leading posek (halachic authority) in kashrut, explains, “The parts of the machine, which are inside, are not washed with anything; they are just part of the machine. Only water is flushed through the machine, so that’s not a problem.”
Starbucks never flavors their beans (this is not the case in 7-11 or Dunkin Donuts, where the beans themselves may be non-kosher), so their espresso machines would not cause any problem. Currently, the OU certifies Starbucks roasted beans. For a complete list of certified beans, you can visit the OU website at http://www.oukosher.org/index.php/faqs/single/starbucks1.
What about plain drip coffee? There are concerns that the brew basket, which is removed from the urn, may have been washed together with non-kosher utensils. (See Rabbi Fishbane’s instructions, below).
One should not purchase coffee in other establishments, which use flavored beans that don’t bear a hechsher, as the kosher and non-kosher beans are likely brewed with the same equipment. Many 7-11 establishments in the Jersey Shore and Brooklyn areas only use kosher beans and bear kosher certification, but elsewhere, unsupervised flavored beans may have been used in the urn, thus rendering the coffee non-kosher.
Milk and Two Sugars… and a Shot of Vanilla
Sugar itself may be used without a hechsher. Sugar substitutes should have a hechsher, although this is easy to check, as they are available in closed packets. Regular cold milk may also be used, but those who drink only halav Yisrael should use soy milk as a substitute. 
Creamers, such as half-and-half and heavy cream, require certification, as they may contain non-kosher stabilizers called dyglycerides. Always check the packaging of anything you order.
Your kosher cup of coffee doesn’t have to be boring. Most of the industrial-sized flavor syrups from the pumps – such as hazelnut, amaretto, or vanilla – are currently certified by the OU. Be advised, however, the OU only certifies the large pumps behind the bar, and they do not certify every flavor. The smaller containers of syrup sold on the retail shelves for purchase and home use are not kosher.
The Dishwasher Problem
This is the part of the article where you will really start to hate me.
Before we get to the non-kosher ingredients in frappuccinos or caramel macchiatos, lets go behind the scenes, when Starbucks is closed and it’s time to clean up. In the back of your favorite Starbucks shop is a sink filled with soapy water where all the used utensils are thrown, from the bucket used to foam up your milk, to the blender jar which whips up that frappuccino, to the knife used to cut the ham or turkey sandwich and the brew basket in the coffee urn. It all soaks in there, milk, ham and all, and is then rinsed. Finally, the utensils are placed in a commercial Hobart sanitizer, a heavy-duty dishwasher with coils on the bottom which make the water intensely hot and steamy.
That’s the official Starbucks procedure. While most utensils are washed this way, the baristas I have spoken to confirmed that a lazy or hurried employee might wash something using an alternative method; after all, this is an unsupervised establishment. So, even if the Shulhan Aruch says that the soap would neutralize the impact of the non-kosher food on the utensils, we cannot be certain that soap was always present when the non-kosher food came in contact with the utensils used to make your cappuccino. It is very possible that the utensils were together before soap was added, or after it was washed away.
“You can’t rely on the fact that soap is used in the dishwasher,” Rabbi Belsky noted, “Most establishments use a washing system that starts with a three-chamber sink, one where the dishes are in boiling water, and a second where the soap comes in. By then, everything is already treif. Soap can’t undo the kashrut status.”
Rabbi Sholem Fishbane is the Kashrut Administrator of the cRc (Chicago Rabbinical Council), and an authority on kashrut, having done extensive research on this topic in particular. He explained, “In order to kasher something, it must have either not been used for 24 hours (“eno ben yomo”) or gone through a process of pegima – fouling of the taste. The utensil must then be immersed in boiling water. The Hazon Ish (Rabbi Yeshaya Karelitz, 1879-1954) says that to create this pegima, the soapy water or other foul-tasting liquid must be cooked in the utensil at a temperature which is hot enough for kashering, which is assumed to be 212 degrees, or at least 190 degrees. At Starbucks, the soap cycle in the dishwashers reaches only the 100-160 degree range. Worse yet, the tongs, ceramic plates, and oven racks, that are all used to cook and serve the ham and cheese sandwiches, are being hot washed together the brew baskets, latte pitchers, espresso shot glasses, and everything else in a dishwasher. “Beliyot,” the flavor transferred from food to the walls of the utensils and back into food, are transferred already at 120 degrees, while according to the Hazon Ish, the treif status is not neutralized by the soap, and remains in all the utensils that are washed together.”
While utensils used for only cold products – such as self-service milk pitchers – generally do not pose problems, any utensils used to prepare hot drinks are definitely problematic according to kashrut experts.
On the Home Front
Is it possible that this same dishwasher problem is occurring in your own home?
Some Sepharadim use the same dishwasher for both meat and dairy utensils, in alternating cycles.
“People use the heter that soap makes food pagum, or invalidates it,” Rabbi Moshe Bussi explains. “Meat with soap on it isn’t considered meat anymore. But—there is the same problem here as we encountered with Starbucks. What if the meat is present without the soap? In some systems, the dishwasher starts circulating water before the soap is applied. The meat on those dishes isn’t pagum before the heat arrives. This can be a problem.” It is therefore recommended to pour some soap on the dishes before running the wash cycle.
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Here’s the Twist
When I first started asking the baristas at my local Starbucks to see the packaging of every product to determine its kashrut status, one of them piped in, “Oh, just go to kosherstarbucks.com.” Excited, I visited the site, but was taken aback when I saw the list of items the site said were permissible to drink. It raised many questions.
I got in touch with the co-founder of the site. He and his brother said that they speak to rabbinical authorities before recommending anything listed there—but they can’t mention the names of these authorities – and understandably so. What rabbinical authority would stand behind an establishment which is not supervised? When I questioned the claims the site made, he began spinning halachot off the tip of his tongue, citing different reasons why this or that was ok.
When I checked further into the sources they used, a number of inconsistencies arose. “We’re talking kashrut, but they’re talking Starbucks, trying to mold the halacha to fit their needs,” said a known local kashrut authority whom I asked to review the site. “They’re not poskim and they’re not in the kashrut world.”
For one thing, the website dismisses the dishwashing issue, based on the “official Starbucks policy.” But unlike the kashrut policies at strictly supervised establishments, the Starbucks official policy lacks any serious consequences for workers who take shortcuts. In the reality of the unsupervised foodservice world, rarely does any two locations consistently follow precisely the same procedures.
Second, the site lists as kosher a number of items that do not bear a hechsher, claiming that they either don’t need a hechsher, or are produced in supervised factories which do not print the hechsher on the packaging. Kashrut authorities found this troubling, because while some items, like plain cinnamon or cocoa, indeed do not require a hechsher, some of the listed items – including many which contain a more complex list of ingredients and chemicals – need certification. Responding to the question of whether it’s possible for some items to be certified without bearing a hechsher on the packaging, Rabbi Fishbane said, “Though this is rare in the United States (it is common in Europe, where there is a higher rate of outward anti-Semitism), it is possible. However, the status of such items is always subject to change. Without a marking on the package to verify, there is no way of knowing whether the certification was discontinued at some point.” It is not advisable to consume such products without constantly rechecking their status.
While the founders of the site are well-meaning, they are not – by their own admission – kashrut authorities. A listing on the site hardly qualifies as a hechsher. All the experts we spoke to agreed that one cannot rely on something that no verifiable posek or rabbinical authority would put his name on. They advise against blindly following the site’s lists or claims without checking a drink’s contents.
What’s a Coffee Lover to Do?
Rabbi Fishbane offered the following guidelines for kosher Starbucks customers:
“In a full-blown Starbucks store, if you are getting anything from the bar, like espresso with cold milk or cold soy milk, or an iced latte—those are not a problem. They all come straight from the machine and the machine has no parts which are ever washed in the hot sink or in the dishwasher. Therefore, there is no she’elah (question) on anything coming out of the espresso machine as long as you make sure that they do not use shot glasses (which are regularly washed with the non-kosher dishes) to make your espresso. The drip coffee is not as good, as there is the problem of the brew basket being washed with the other utensils. There are reasons, according to halachah, that it can be permitted, as the brew basket is only used as a keli sheni (secondary vessel). If you want to be careful and avoid the she’elah of the brew basket, order an ‘Espresso Americana,’ which is espresso brewed in the bar and then diluted down to the strength of regular coffee.
“A hot latte is more problematic, as the metal pitcher used to heat and foam the milk is a keli rishon (primary vessel). In a full service Starbucks that sells sandwiches, it would be hard to say that the treif is batel (nullified). However, in an airport or supermarket Starbucks kiosk, where there are no ovens to heat the meat sandwiches, there would be less questions, so regular coffee and possibly other drinks would be less problematic.”
Rabbi Fishbane concluded, “There are different ways to look at something, and one has to decide on his own level. What’s more important to you, your love of lattes or kashrus observance?”
Confessions of a Starbucks Aficionado
As someone who follows every possibly stringency regarding kashrut, I always thought I was safe. When I saw all those Jews ordering non-kosher drinks, I never dreamed there was something wrong with mine –two shots of espresso, over ice, topped with foamed soy milk, which I ordered six days a week, for twelve years. When I learned that my foamed milk was problematic—there was no question. My Starbucks addiction was over.
Working on this article has been life-altering, in a small way. That daily pleasure I’ve enjoyed my entire adult life isn’t the same anymore. I haven’t yet discovered something I like as much. I’ve been much more mellow—I sorely miss the caffeinated me. I’ve learned a bigger lesson, though: when we see others making mistakes, and find fault in them, maybe it’s a sign that there’s something to examine and discover in ourselves.
The Cold Story
“If one orders a crème-based frappuccino, which bears a hechsher, and ensures that only kosher ingredients are used, such as milk, ice, and a flavor syrup from the pump, is there a problem with the blender? Even though it’s cold, what if there are drops of non-kosher frappuccino in there?” I asked.
“You can ask to see the blender first, to make sure that it’s been thoroughly cleaned before your drink is blended,” Rabbi Fishbane answered.
The poskim I spoke to have agreed that utensils used only for cold, such as the whipped cream container and the milk pitchers at the self-serve counter, pose no halachic problem.
Is There Something to Eat?
Any food products in sealed packaging bearing a reliable hechsher are fine. These may include some nut mixes, cookies, and health bars. Certifications are not in effect once a package is open. While OU might certify some random baking mixes or muffins that Starbucks uses, once that box is opened and the mix is prepared, or the lovely pastry is displayed next to other food products, including turkey, ham and bacon sandwiches, those items are no longer reliably kosher.
 Rabbi Moshe Bussu provided the following clarification to dispel a common misconception relevant to this point: “According to Hacham Ovadia Yosef, halav Yisrael is not a humra (stringency); it’s halacha (law). It’s assur mid’Rabanan (forbidden according to rabbinical law) to drink halav stam (milk products produced without a Jew watching), except for the sick, elderly and babies when halav Yisrael is not available. Dishes used with hot halav stam food are also a problem. In regards to powdered milk and butter, there are leniencies. See Yalkut Yosef – Issur Veheter, vol. 2, chapter 90.”