Ever been chatting away with a bunch of friends when someone would say something like,
“Yea but Starbuck’s is terrible coffee, anyway.”
To which the whole group would nod in contemplative agreement. But no-one would ever explain why. It was just assumed that a coffee chain that had over ten million customers every day was actually kinda crappy.
After a while I began to do the same thing. I’d believe without thinking that Starbucks made terrible coffee. I’d visit there on occasion but always with a sense of ‘it’s only because it’s convenient’ or some such. I didn’t love the coffee by any means but I didn’t hate it and I certainly didn’t know how to back up an argument about its poor quality.
Well, they were right. Starbucks is bad. And I’m going to do my damn best to give a full and proper explanation.
Problem 1: The Taste
The major issue with Starbucks is that the coffee tastes bad. The processes used are seen as clearly inferior to anyone who knows the first thing about coffee. Or anyone who has tried a straight espresso from one of their branches. But at the same time it is an incredibly successful franchise. So, what’s the story?
Well, to summarize, Starbucks prioritizes a big hit of caffeine over the taste of the coffee. They use stale coffee beans that are burnt to a crisp and hide it all with a dazzling selection of drinks that are loaded with sugar, milk and other sweet and high-calorie embellishments.
The thing is, when people crave a tasty, sweet, big hit of caffeine and they know what they’re getting from any of the thousands of stores across the country then you have a recipe for success. Can you blame them?
The way I see it, the poor standard of their actual coffee is overlooked because people don’t have a great understanding of what good coffee tastes like. Let’s look at why.
They use stale coffee
Here’s the biggest problem with the taste of Starbuck’s coffee: it’s all stale. In other words, they are using beans that have been roasted ages ago.
It’s difficult to find much actual evidence for how fresh Starbuck’s coffee is because they don’t give any information on it – a bad sign in itself. For reference, coffee goes stale pretty fast. After the roast you want to be drinking your coffee beans within 30 days and ideally less than 15 or you will notice a serious drop in quality. I’ve known baristas at great coffee shops that only brew beans that are between a specific post-roast window of a few days. Any online or local roaster worth his salt will have the roasting date on the bag of coffee beans so you know its fresh.
Let’s look at the evidence we can find then. The first point is that there is no roasting date on the coffee beans they sell. This comes in useful when your priority is the mass production, commoditization and selling of coffee beans. Not the taste. Not giving a roast date means you can sell coffee beans without any time pressures. The logistics become easier and you don’t lose money when you have to throw out batches of old beans.
Here’s an online thread with a few people who give some insight. To save you a click, one guy was looking for fresh beans and had no other option so gave his local SB’s a call. They told him:
“the freshest beans that have are just over a month old”
“She said they get their deliveries but nothing is ever that fresh”
And from someone else:
“I used to work there and never saw anything come in fresher than 2 months.”
And probably the biggest piece of evidence is the taste of a Starbuck’s espresso. Try one with nothing else in it. It just doesn’t taste fresh. Do you know anyone who orders straight espresso when they go to SB’s? No, me neither.
Over roasting their beans
Dark roasting coffee produces a taste that in some ways is appealing. It’s burnt, charred, smoky. A taste many have come to associate with coffee. The problem is that this process of cooking the beans to within an inch of their life destroys the inherent flavors in the coffee.
No-one has walked away from a Starbuck’s commenting on the wonderful floral and blueberry notes in their latte but that’s what coffee is supposed to taste like. Lightly roasted coffee is a trip down the rabbit hole in terms of spicy, fruity, nutty and flowery notes that light up your senses and enrich your taste bugs. Dark roasted coffee removes the major regional and seasonal differences between coffee beans and leaves your coffee all tasting the same.
Why do they do this? Well, it’s very easy to scale. It’s simple to create a uniform taste by roasting the heck out of your coffee beans. It’s consistent, reliable and cheap.
This over-roasting of the beans is the reason why in some circles, the charred texture of their coffee has given them the moniker Charbuck’s.
Reliance on sugar and milk
So if the coffee beans that are used are stale and burnt, why do people still go there? It’s because the focus is on selling sugary coffee-flavored treats rather than high quality coffee.
People don’t walk out of Starbuck’s with americanos, espressos and ristrettos. They walk out with lattes, frappuccinos and mochas. They even invented a drink loaded with caramel and milk and stole the name from an Italian favorite. Yes, the macchiato is actually something completely different in Italy!
Such is the depths to which they have sank, these days Starbuck’s is known for atrocities like this.
(Annoyingly successful atrocities, I might add.)
I must mention a personal anecdote here. I’m a huge fan of iced coffee. A black cold brew or a pourover poured into a glass full of ice and guzzled down on a summer’s day is one of my all-time favorite little moments in life. I once wanted to get the experience at a Starbucks. I was in a foreign country and there was nowhere else nearby. Sorry.
So I ordered an iced americano with no milk. That’s a decent bet, right? Wrong! I have never had a more obnoxiously bitter coffee in my whole life. It was awful. I thought about taking it back until I realized that I got exactly what I asked for and exactly what I deserved. I drank it down anyway just for the caffeine, retching at every sip. A good lesson, in any case.
Problem 2: The Corporation
Starbuck’s has over 11,000 stores across the US, many more across the world and they do an absolute boatload of business. Starbuck’s moves in, local stores get put out of business. It’s the same story with any corporation that has a huge amount of success. That success translates to impact on local communities. It’s turned every high street up and down the country into a terminal procession of the same 5-10 mega-corporations.
A counterargument – and a pretty good one, I think – is that the existence of one mega-brand that dominated the espresso coffee landscape forced small business owners and entrepreneurs to innovate and carve out a niche where they could thrive. That niche became the ethically sourced, artisanal approach to coffee that resulted in the Third Wave of coffee and a lot of great cafes and roasters springing up and being able to compete. I bet there’s even a really good coffee roaster near you!
And this section is much more subjective. Is it really wrong to criticize success? My personal view is that you can’t be too upset about there being one or three big companies that have thousands of coffee stores across the country. If it wasn’t this one some other would fill the gap. It’s just a shame that a lot of good, local coffee houses and roasters closed their doors as a result of not being able to compete with the bulk buying, bulk processing and convenience and ubiquity of the Starbuck’s that moved in down the road.
Problem 3: It’s changed what is expected about coffee
Such is the ubiquity of the company, Starbuck’s has played a big role in changing what is expected of coffee. Here are a couple of the more pernicious examples.
Downplaying the skill of the barista
Making nice espresso is tough. The high-heat and high-pressure conditions that the very finely ground coffee is subjected to leaves no room for error. As such, the making of espresso became something of an art. The lattes and cappuccinos the canvas, the barista the artist.
Starbuck’s introduced and now use superautomatic espresso machines. Huge beasts with six groupheads capable of delivering hundreds of shots every hour. These superautomatics reduce the barista’s role from tamping, adjusting, tasting, checking, dialing the espresso in, to simply pressing a button. Any issues with the quality of espresso are masked with the mountains of milk and sugar applied by the milkshake maker. Sorry, Starbuck’s barista!
Caffeine > Taste
Walk into any SB’s and you know you can get a whopping 20oz monster filled with caffeine, sugar, milk and all that good stuff. It’ll have a nice coffee flavor and enough caffeine to make even the most miserable of cubicle monkeys awake and alert for a morning.
And to be honest, that’s enough for a lot of people. But it’s not good coffee and given their success it misrepresents what coffee is and how good it can be to a large number of people.
When people ask for coffee they’ll more likely say they like it ‘strong’ rather than ‘tasty’, ‘big’ rather than ‘bright’, ‘perky’ instead of ‘dripping with gorgeous notes of lemon and a delicate acidity that just shines on the tonge’. Bigger and more caffeinated is considered good coffee, it seems.
Go to Italy and cappuccinos don’t have a size. This idea of Tall, Grande, Venti (1,2,3 shots of espresso or 2,3,4 shots in an americano) – is totally artificial. It doesn’t matter because Starbuck’s coffee is simply a vehicle for a lightning bolt of caffeine that lessens the Tuesday morning hangover.
(Nothing wrong with being hungover on a Tuesday, of course.)
Great espresso doesn’t taste bitter. It doesn’t taste bad. It doesn’t need gallons of sugar and milk to make it taste nice. And I don’t think a lot of people realize this.
Wrecking the image of Italian coffee
Starbuck’s was was one of the key instruments in popularizing espresso and Italian-style coffee in the US. But along the way it misrepresented a few things.
1. Caffe Machiatto. Possibly the most egregious example is its invention of the macchiatto. An Italian macchiato is an espresso shot with a drop of milk to soften the taste. It’s a lovely, delicate tasting drink. Starbuck’s macchiato is little more than a caramel milkshake.
2. Espresso tastes bad. This is probably the third time I’ve mentioned this but I’ll say it again. Espresso can and should taste great. Strong, yes, but not bitter and not roasted to a crisp. Unfortunately that’s what people seem to expect from espresso these days.
So why is Starbucks so popular?
In many ways, Starbuck’s is a product of its time. It’s hard to imagine a similar company making such a splash in 2017. It began in the 70s as one of the first few chains to offer exotic Italian coffee in an economy that was booming. People loved the idea of getting custom made coffee in all these different styles rather than brown sludge they are used to from the diner down the road.
It grew and grew and as it became larger it happened on another benefit: convenience combined with ubiquity. Starbuck’s are everywhere. Anywhere in the US you’re never farther than a few miles from one and even abroad it’s hard to not run into them in any busy urban area. It’s the same with McDonald’s or with Subway. You want an easy burger, sandwich or coffee then you know where to go.
You can rely on seeing the green mermaid sign to guide you into a place with ambient music, nice seating, wifi, snacks and the same coffee you can get everywhere else. Who among us hasn’t been feeling weary on a trip and gone for the easy SB’s rather than the risk of a local coffee shop?
It is not popular without cause, and to stress the point a little more I’m going to take a few seconds to defend the company and show the other side of the argument…
Why Starbucks is good
1. A lot of people like it, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I mean, it is the most popular coffee chain in the world. They must be doing something right. Lots of people are happy with their sugary, milky morning treat so live and let live, as someone famous once said.
2. A lot of people prefer more caffeine rather than better taste
One of my frustrations with some third wave coffee houses is their insistence on taste over size. I appreciate a high quality espresso as much as anyone else but it gets a bit frustrating having to order espresso after espresso in order to feel any kind of caffeine buzz! Go to SB’s? One 20oz bucket of turbo-charged dark roast will do the trick!
3. You know what you’re getting
Starbuck’s offers the same coffee at thousands of easy-to-find places across the globe. It’s super convenient and is an easy place to go and know what you’re getting. That’s one of its greatest strengths and I wager is also the reason why many coffee making heavyweights still probably sneak a SB’s on occasion when no-one is looking and they just can’t be bothered to do anything than sip on a sugar filled frappe.
Hell, even in your hometown it’s nice to just pick up a massive cappuccino and get on with your day.
4. They have made great strides in ethical sourcing
Starbuck’s is pretty ethical as far as corporations of its size go. It’s done a lot of work in the ethical sourcing of coffee beans and when you consider the impact a company of its size will have, that’s commendable. The truth is, a lot of farmers are getting a lot more money for their produce because of them.
5. It’s way better than folgers et al
So I’m looking at things from the point of view of someone who has cared a lot (probably too much) about the quality of their coffee for a number of years. For your average mum who only has the time to chuck some Folger’s in a cup at home, Starbuck’s will seem pretty damn good. It’s freshly brewed, tastes decent and is a damn sight better than what most people drink.
At the end of the day, McDonald’s is criticized and ridiculed as poor food that’s unhealthy and unappetizing. But millions eat there every day. It fills a niche of cheap burgers that taste pretty decent. SB’s fills the same niche in the coffee world.
You’re not getting mindblowing coffee from there, but that’s ok, because there are some really, really, really helpful websites out there that can fill that gap. 🙂
– If there’s no other reason to hate it, then the use of ‘tall, grande and venti’ to mean ‘small, medium and large’ is a good one.
– Apparently things were much different 25+ years ago when the company trained their baristas well and used manual espresso machines. I’m sad to say I never experienced it. Such is life…
– Wanna make better coffee than Starbucks at home? Start here for the fundamentals or just go straight ot my 30-second 30-bucks kit guide to pretty guide coffee. [link]
– Starbuck’s became popular during the second wave of coffee. The third wave happened recently and it’s interesting to learn about.