Perfect typeface placement in relation to the sliding door.
I don’t care that they make money. That’s fine. The chief problem with Starbucks is of course the taste of the coffee itself.
Beans. Starbucks buys a bazillion tons of beans from all over the world. They don’t buy high-end stuff (despite what the labels claim), but rather middle to low grade high volume commodities. The real junk goes into the cheap pre-ground stuff in metal cans at the grocery store. They use higher-grade beans than that, but it isn’t worth it to spend a lot of extra money for the next reason.
Bulk Variance. Large bulk means wide variety. Wide variance in bean origin and quality means that Starbucks has to deal with coffee from all over the place. They may get a whole ship load of stuff from Brazil, followed by another boatload from Indonesia. There are good crops, bad crops, good batches, bad batches. It’s all over the place. They HAVE to homogenize everything as much as possible to keep a consistent product. They can’t have the quality of the coffee going up and down throughout the year or over the course of years. Customers expect it to be the same every time. They have to adjust their roasting and processing to a normalized middle. If they get a really good batch of coffee in, they can’t let it stay good! They HAVE to mix it in with all the other stuff or it will stand out as being different. For Starbucks, with over 10,000 locations, different is BAD. Really bad. Consistency and quality control are the name of the game.
Roast. How do you achieve consistency with a finicky agricultural product like coffee? The main answer is to roast it dark. Roasting the coffee dark burns away much of the nuance, eliminates offensive flavors from low grade beans, and brings the flavor down to an acceptable (depending on how you look at it) lowest-common-denominator. Trying to raise the bar would threaten consistency, making their thousands of espresso machines across the country require constant calibration. The seasonal changes would also confuse and annoy customers. Their business model demands that they keep the bar low. Not TOO low, but a very stable and well-defined level of mediocrity.
It’s the constraint they have put on themselves to grow big and it’s worked very well for them.
BUT, for all of you out there who are in love with the wonderful flavor of coffee and appreciate all the little nuances, you are going to eventually desire something high-grade roasted relatively light, and brewed carefully without a lot of additives. There are plenty of you today and so this side of the coffee/foodie business is booming as well. Starbucks can’t compete on this level and it doesn’t try to. Saying Starbucks sucks by comparing them with a high-end small-batch roaster is like saying McDonalds sucks because the don’t use Kobe beef in their burgers. The comparison isn’t meant to be made, though I think that Starbucks has sometimes hyped their own products a bit too much, inviting this kind of criticism. McDonalds doesn’t have that problem.
In the “if you can’t say anything nice don’t say it at all” department, I will add a few positive comments about Starbucks.
Their baked goods (scones, muffins, etc.) are generally very tasty. They suffer from being pre-frozen and they are definitely overpriced, but the recipes themselves really are top notch. The pumpkin muffins, the layered cranberry orange scones, the morning buns – are all pretty dang good. I have often had FAR worse at local joints across the country touting their allegedly wonderful fresh-baked fare. You can’t just throw any old cookie on the counter and assume you have a leg up on the big corporate cafe. They’ve done their homework.
OK, I’ll say one more nice thing. Their pumpkin spice syrup is a chemist’s masterpiece. Everyone else’s imitation products (even the once that contain real pumkin puree!) fail to strike the proper balance in my opinion. Every autumn they sell these things as fast as they can make ‘em and they deserve to.
(Click the image for a large version.)
A while back, I came up with this chart to display all the different variables that go into producing coffee. Using just the combinations listed here and assuming about 20 growing regions, you get 2 x 5 x 20 x 3 x 3 x 3 x 5 x 5, or 135,000 combinations! That’s a lot of variety in flavors. It really is just like wine. Maybe even more than wine.
Even if you are a veteran coffee drinker though, you may have never heard of some of the things on this list. Can you tell me what varietal is in the cup you are drinking right now? Typica? SL28? Do you know if it was dry processed? What grade of bean was used? OK. So you look on the package and see it’s called “House Blend”. What does that mean? Coffee nerds might know some of these terms. If you buy your beans from someone that charges $15 a pound or more (Stumptown for instance) some of these things might be printed on the label. At the grocery store or your local coffee shop though, what are you going to see? Most likely, the number one thing you are going to see on a label, even more than the roast, is the ORIGIN. Yes, the country of origin. Why? Well, because over the years, of all the things on the above list, this one has come to take on the most meaning. In fact, many of the other things on this list are actually implied from this one piece of information. There really aren’t 135,000 combinations. Not in the real world any way. Revealing the origin narrows things down the MOST.
Here are some examples (at least in the U.S.)
Ethiopia = Arabica species, Heirloom variety, wet processing, medium-dark roasting, single origin (loose), preferable brewed in a press pot, served black
Columbia = Arabica species, Typica variety, wet processing, dark roasting, blended with other stuff, drip, served with cream and sugar
Panama = Arabica, Geisha variety, wet processing, light roast, single origin (strict), pour-over brew, served black
India = Robusta, dry process, dark roast, blended 1/6, espresso (Italian style)
Sumatra = Arabica, Mandheling variety, wet processing, medium-dark roast, blended 1/3, espresso
These are generalizations of course, and there are plenty of exceptions. What I find fascinating is how much is rolled up into just ONE of these variables.
Naming the origin immediately introduces a bunch of constraints. Places with easy access to a lot of water will use wet process instead of wet. Places like Ethiopia that have been producing coffee for centuries have all kinds of crazy varieties growing there. Places that were only began to be cultivated in the 20th century (El Salvador for example) will have farms growing entirely high-yield varieties put together by agriculture engineers in the 1950s. The soil of Indonesia is so radically different from other regions, it largely determines the flavor of the coffee AND it’s use as the low end component in espresso blends. I could go on and on. The origin tells a story. The other variables do too, but the origin tells the longest tale.
It makes me think about the other words we pack full of meaning and implications. It’s what “stereotypes” are really. It’s too bad the word (and the idea itself) has so much stigma attached to it. It is just a natural outworking of our minds trying to categorize things in the most efficient way possible.
Last year when I was in Ethiopia to adopt my daughter (our fourth child, second adoption), I was astounded at how good the coffee was. I talked about some of my observations here. Ethiopia is one of the only coffee-producing areas in the world where all the indigenous people actually drink it. Columbia may be famous for coffee here in the States, but travel there and you won’t see many cafes. It all gets exported. In Ethiopia though, just about everyone drinks crazy amounts of it. While in the capital, I asked around to see what kind of local coffee was considered the best. A lot of people were not sure what I was talking about since I don’t think the same sort of regional distinctions are always made on the street, or if they are they use other names. A couple people though, including our driver, mentioned Limu as one of their favorites.
The trouble is, I’ve been following coffee in the states here for years and I have never seen anyone selling Limu. You see a lot of Yirgacheffe and Sidamo and occasionally some Harrar – all wonderful coffees in their own way, but not much if anything besides offerings from those three regions. The past six months at Bucer’s we have been using a Yirgacheffe that was rated as one of the best crops to come out of there in years. It’s really fantastic, but to be honest, it doesn’t really remind me that much of what I had to drink every day in Ethiopia itself.
A few days ago when I saw that our supplier in Seattle had gotten in a couple bags of Limu for the first time in ages, I jumped at the chance to try some out. I just roasted up a batch at the shop yesterday and took a sample home to try out. The smell of the grounds and the first sip absolutely confirmed it. THIS was the stuff! Something very much like this must have been behind the counter at the Kaldi’s Coffee locations and other shops. I’m going to need to talk to someone who knows the business over there, but I suspect that most of this varietal stays in-country and doesn’t get exported. (Bad for us!)
I’m rather elated with it. The taste is bringing back a lot of good memories. I will definitely put this in the whole bean bins at the shop next week.
Since I roast coffee at Bucer’s I usually just take home the fruit of my labor from there. Still, sometimes I run out unexpectedly and grab a bit from the grocery store. Also, I occasionally poke around and try other things just to see what they taste like. I still pick up a drink at one of the other local shops once in a while, just to see what people are used too.
This past month, I’ve happened to sample a few of the whole bean offerings from around town.
All of these I brought home, ground fresh and brewed in my wonderful Aeropress and topped with milk.
- Medium-dark Columbian from Safeway: Really awful. Couldn’t finish the cup. Ugg. Should have picked a different one.
- Light-roast Guatemala Antigua from WinCo: Had an offensive underlying flavor, but also some nutty middle notes. Not too terrible.
- Doma “Urth” blend, from Coeur d’alene: Heavy on the Indonesian, but still pretty good and balanced. Nice stuff.
- Landgrove Ethiopian from Troy. Found at the Food Co-op or One World: A perennial favorite. I’m pretty sure this comes from the exact same Yirgacheffe supplier that we use at Bucer’s. I usually go a bit on the lighter side to bring out the floral characteristics. Jon roasts his a bit darker, but that works really well too. Both are best in a French press in my opinion.
- Organic Grade 1 Sumatra from Bucer’s: Holy smokes. The aroma of this stuff will blow your nose clean off. Very powerful. It has a strong cedar flavor that some folks will not enjoy, but in other ways, this coffee is really fantastic. Probably not going to have this one in again anytime soon. Still, this is in some ways in a class above everything previously mentioned.
Last week I visited the new Starbucks in the University of Idaho’s bookstore. Why? They have an unusually nice selection of baked goods and though overpriced and very small, the “morning buns” are really quite tasty. Nothing like what they used to have an Zume bakery before it became West of Paris before it become Bloom, but I digress.
Anyway, I saw that they were pushing a new “blonde” light roast coffee. I asked the guy behind the counter for a sample and was pleasantly surprised to see him use a pour-over funnel to brew it on demand! No old put of drip and no robo-espresso. That should give it a fighting chance!
How did it taste? Really not too shabby. I wasn’t exploding with flavor but I can say that it didn’t have anything particularly offensive going on – which is a huge improvement.
I remember when they tried to do this a few years ago with the “Pike’s Place” roast. It was advertised as a truly light roast, but as I blogged about back then, it may have been Starbucks lightest roast, but for the whole rest of the world, that still means DARK.
This blonde is a big step in the right direction. Here is a comparison image:
On the right is Starbucks usual stuff – the charcoal special. All the flavor was burned away long ago. It has excellent shelf-life though (!!!) and holds up well in a vat of sweet milk.
In the middle is the Pike’s place Roast. Notice the shiny surface oils though? Despite what the marketers say, this is NOT a light roast. Some coffees do taste really nice at about this level, but only a few. You have to be careful.
On the left is the new “blonde” roast. Now we’re talking. The almost matte-finish means that all kinds of interesting higher and brighter flavors could be lurking in there.
At Bucer’s, virtually everything looks like the beans on the far left, or even lighter. Occasionally we get a variety that might border on looking like the middle stuff when done properly.
Still, it’s nice to see Starbucks responding to this demand – it is aesthetically well founded. Better coffee for everyone!
Sometimes, while I am in the shop, but not roasting, I hear people comment about the machine as they walk past it.
Last week I heard it described as a “strange giant machine” and another girl told her friend it was “some sort of brewery thing”. Most accurate was a boy of eight who told me it looked like a steam engine.
Much funnier though was a comment my wife overheard while sitting near the coffee mural near the back of Bucer’s. Two girls were talking about the painting and discussing what the fruit was. One girl said, “They look like cherries, but I know they’re really grapes”.
Um, actually, they are coffee beans. No really. That’s what the whole painting is about. There are coffee beans on the tree, some being picked by a lady, then in bags, then roasting, and then in a steaming cup. It’s coffee. It’s a mural in a coffee shop. You’re drinking it right now.
I had originally posted this on my other blog (which is far more active) but then realized it should have gone here instead.
In which I wax scientific while reading Newton’s biography:
Blending coffee beans does not a homogeneous mixture make. Unlike much cooking and mixing, such as the incorporation of water into flour, the small dosages of coffee used when making espresso actually serve to highlight discrete nature of the mixture. Remember that “discrete” is the opposite of continuous. When you graph it, it moves in stair-steps instead of a smooth curve. The probability of the mixture being dramatically “heavy” on a certain variety of bean increases as the sample size decreases.
Say that your “espresso blend” is a combination of 4 different bean types, 25% of each: a deep dark Sumatra, a couple of medium-bodied central American batches, and one bright and floral African. Assume they are mixed as evenly as possible, but that nothing mechanical enforces this ratio. Say that a shot contains the grounds produced from 32 beans. Ideally, there will be 8 beans of each type in that shot (8+8+8+8=32).
What is the chance that the mixture will be off a bit? Ex:(8+6+10+8) Pretty high, but no big deal. What is the chance that it will be really screwed up? Ex:(15+0+1+16) Pretty unlikely but it’s got to happen every once in a while. Now say your blend is more complicated: (8+8+8+4+4). Now the chance that one of your types will be missing completely skyrockets. You can’t make subtle changes and have them “take” in the real world. The discrete nature of the mixture resists that subtlety. Sure, it will be there across the mean of 1000 doses, but the distribution will be all over the place. This kind of variation can be frequently blamed for inconsistently tasting shots, I am certain.
This is a quality control challenge that, as far as I can tell, nobody is dealing with directly. It seems to me that there are some relatively simple mechanical solutions that could be devised to keep the mixture stable across dosages. An array of single-bean dispensing hoppers feeding into a buffer would be the most obvious solution. This would be versus a traditional single conical hopper feeding directly into the grinder. Is anyone building these? Why not?