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Coffee Confession Number One

January 7, 2010

Before we talk about coffee, I need to make sure we are on the same page.  As a general rule of thumb, when I say “coffee” I am referring to brewed coffee.  Espresso and all of its cousins fall in their own categories.

True, coffee beans are at the heart of all these beverages.  But I have decided to focus the majority of my attention on the preparation of these drinks and not the cultivation and roasting of the beans.  This is primarily because most coffee sellers do not roast their own beans, and instead just brew beans procured from a central source.

That said, I think Starbucks coffee is vastly underrated.

In general I am no fan of Starbucks.  I think they have committed irrevocable crimes against espresso.  In some ways I think they are their own worst enemy when it comes to consumer perceptions of their brewed coffee.

Some perceptions may be true, like that their coffee tastes burnt.  It does.  But that seems to be their house roasting style, and not about how they make the coffee.  I’m not saying their coffee is perfect.  But living in the northeast I have a growing appreciation for it.

Out here, the dominant brewed coffee seller is Dunkin’ Donuts.  As far as I can tell, DD specializes in a business model that excels in selling things that are both awful and expensive.  I have no idea how they do that, but clearly they are geniuses.

That’s not true.  I do know how they do that.  Marketing.  They position themselves as “coffee for the rest of us.”

The problem is that regardless of the flaws in Starbucks coffee, Dunkin’s is far worse.  It’s thin, acidic and bitter.  To make it palatable, most people load it up with cream and sugar.  And when I say cream and sugar, I mean a ton of cream and an unholy amount of sugar.  Which I imagine makes a large coffee the fat and caloric equivalent of two of their never-fresh donuts.

There is also a surprising amount of coffee sold from multi-burner coffee pots in the region.  You know, the ones you probably have at work, or see at gas stations that haven’t moved to press pots.  The problem, of course, is that coffee that sits in glass carafes on burner plates scalds.  That’s what gives it that nasty gas-station-coffee taste.

I have also found coffee at a lot of the independent shops to be surprisingly light, as if they are not using sufficient grounds for the quantity of coffee being brewed.  Maybe those places are trying to produce a drink closer to what DD is serving.  This time, I truly just don’t know.

At the very least the coffee at Starbucks is freshly brewed, full bodied, stays hot without being scalded, and actually tastes like coffee.  Did I mention that it is cheaper than Dunkin’ Donuts too?

Espresso drinks at Starbucks are silly expensive for what you get.  Which is what gives people the impression that everything there is pricey.  And that is just not true.  Plus the clerks behind the counter don’t make you order coffee in their ridiculous sizes.  You can order by ounces, if you like.  Or do what I do, “I’d like the largest cup of your bold roast, no room.”

Is Starbucks the best brewed coffee you can buy? No.
But in some places it is the best you can get.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2010 9:37 am

    My favorite coffee is Starbucks. But as you mention, I think I’m a sucker for Marketing although they have cut down on that quite a bit.
    As for DD, I’ll settle for it but actually think McDonalds coffee is better. It’s the only thing consumable at McDonalds in my opinion.
    So from this coffee lover – thanks for a good java post!

  2. AddiesDad permalink
    January 7, 2010 9:57 am

    I have a confession: I kind of like Stewart’s coffee. NOT as my go-to coffee, but I recently had a cup of their dark roast (I was desperate), and it really was much better than I had expected. It wasn’t Uncommon Grounds/Starbucks good, but it was better than DD and any other gas station coffee. So now at least I can get a better than mediocre cup of joe when I’m on the road and needing a quick jolt.

  3. January 7, 2010 10:17 am

    Hmmm. I couldn’t disagree with you more. I’m a black coffee drinker. I drink a lot of black coffee and to my taste, Dunkin Donuts black coffee is hands down better than Starbucks. Who wants coffee whose house brewing style is burnt? Starbucks coffee tastes not only burnt, but oddly sour. Dunkin Donuts coffee may be weaker tasting than Starbucks but to me, considering that Starbucks’ version of strong coffee is so awful tasting, I will take the more mild tasting coffee any day.

    Starbucks is good for when you want something frozen and slushy that will give you a buzz (though, who can afford that many calories? I’d more likely opt for a milkshake. All the better to get the most out of my calorie indulgence) or when you want a cup of tea because all Dunkin Donuts has to offer in that category is Lipton, which is truly an abomination.

    All that being said, my favorite coffee is Uncommon Grounds house blend. Although right now I am enjoying a mild Costa Rican, I believe? Whatever it is, it’s good. Nothing beats home brewed.

  4. wendalicious permalink
    January 7, 2010 11:04 am

    When it comes to purchasing coffee at a shop, I have to agree that Starbucks is likely the best mass-market option around here. Dunkin Donuts coffee is a travesty (my taste buds call it sour), Stewart’s is ok in a pinch, and McDonald’s is tolerable (it is Green Mountain, after all). I happen to enjoy the Starbuck’s roast – I also enjoy burnt toast and overbrowned potato chips.

    I’m with Jennifer- home brewed is the very best. I purchase coffee from Dean’s Beans, which offers fair trade and organics, in more roasts and flavors than you can count. You can even customize your own blend. Right now, we are enjoying Marrakesh Express (Ethiopian Sidamo and Timor blend). Doesn’t get any better than that.

  5. mirdreams permalink
    January 7, 2010 12:07 pm

    And here I thought McD’s was Newman’s Own around here. I agree with Jennifer, for me Starbucks is all about tea. They have the only drinkable Chai lattes at any chain around here. The rest make their “tea” with powder.

  6. Chris permalink
    January 7, 2010 1:05 pm

    I usually order an Americano (iced or hot) at Starbucks. I find this to be better than either Starbucks or DD drip coffee. It’s just a few shots of espresso diluted with some water – about the same strength (flavor-wise) as regular drip coffee. It also happens to be the cheapest espresso drink on the menu, I believe. Add a tiny splash of heavy cream and maybe some stevia, and I’m good to go.

    Funny thing is, last time I went to DD and asked for an Americano and they had no clue what I was talking about! Funny, since it’s not a Starbucks thing… it’s a pretty common drink at any coffee house.

  7. wendalicious permalink
    January 7, 2010 9:26 pm

    @mirdreams – Newman’s Own IS Green Mountain – fair trade organic.

  8. January 8, 2010 10:34 am

    Embarrassingly, I was a Barista at the ‘bucks (Stuyvesant Plaza) back in the day. We had to go to this weird coffee boot camp out in Latham for a few days prior to starting work. It was weird. But as I remember, they brewed a rotating cast of about 8 or 10 different coffees (varying roasts, country of origin, type) . I think they brewed a lighter roast, a darker roast, and a decaf at any one time. This is why I was always perplexed when people would say they didn’t like Starbuck’s brewed coffee, I would always ask, which one? I think if your average drinker of most available drip coffee (DD, Folgers, etc…) got a hit of the Italian roast, they might be turned off by the stronger flavors. Anyhow, I am more of a tea drinker anyways and never really understood coffee obsessions.

  9. January 9, 2010 12:20 pm

    While I drank Starbucks for several years because it was between my home and my workplace, after I moved into the Lark Street neighborhood I discovered that I really like coffee because it gives me an excuse to hang out in cafes. Then I realized after comparing Starbucks to, say, Uncommon Grounds coffees, that it’s not only largely burnt flavor, it’s much stronger than I really like. So strong that I can feel the coffee coating on my tongue.

    Now I’ve grown to really appreciate the fresh roasted coffees of the Daily Grind and the Daily Grind Cafe [the Lark Street one in Albany, however I have to say I haven’t visited the Troy one in about 15 years]. Coffee is more of a social experience, but the Daily Grind provides delicious coffee as well.

  10. Afsal permalink
    January 11, 2010 2:00 pm

    My objection to starbucks is more philosophical rather than taste-wise, in that the rise of starbucks led to the fall of many local coffeeshops. I guess it’s happening to every kind of local shop & restaurant, but I love my coffee.

    These days, I’m more of a DIY coffee man. Once you start homeroasting, it’s hard to go back.. :)

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