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Why Does Burned Coffee Rule?
March 10, 2006 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Why does (what is the psychology of) Starbucks thrive(ing) selling coffee that, it would seem, most people find less than ideal?

From speaking with a friends, family, and collegues, I can't recall anyone saying that they actually love Starbucks' coffee. Perhaps I travel in an atypical "coffee circle," but I wonder.

Specifically, why does Starbucks insist on selling medium-to-dark roast coffee exclusively, when, I suspect, most Americans would prefer a good light roast brew (or, why not sell both; dark roast does make sense for frappuccinos, etc.).

Is it that Starbucks has concluded that, given that most people put milk in their coffee, that "burned coffee" (what many call it) is, overall the best compromise?

Is it that people don't really go to Starbucks for the coffee but the ambiance and/or pastry?

Is it that dark coffee, psychologically, has a status/appeal BECAUSE most people don't actually like it? Something else?
posted by ParisParamus to Food & Drink (80 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I think starbucks sells more then just plain coffee. It's also been shown that when a starbucks opens, it actually increases traffic at other local coffee shops.

I think it mostly has to do with convenience and consistency.
posted by delmoi at 9:10 PM on March 10, 2006


i don't go to starbucks for coffee, i go because its convenient. they're EVERYWHERE and all have the same exact items to select from (for the most part). i get a venti iced black tea lemonade sweetened these days or sometimes a peppermint mocha frappaccino in the summer.


.//chris
posted by hummercash at 9:16 PM on March 10, 2006


The over-roasted coffee is good for diluting with lots of milk in Venti Latte-sized drinks. If you diluted regular coffee with that much milk you'd hardly taste it. That's about it.
posted by unSane at 9:19 PM on March 10, 2006


Starbucks has some pretty bad coffee.

hummercash: It can't really be all that hard to order at other coffee shops.
posted by rob paxon at 9:20 PM on March 10, 2006


Delmoi, but what would they lose from having a coffee that wasn't so dark? No one can say they're not a phenominal success, but wouldn't they sell (even) more coffee with a lighter roast?
posted by ParisParamus at 9:22 PM on March 10, 2006


I think Starbucks was (and now is) most Americans first experience with Italian-style coffee drinks. Before Starbucks leveled a heretofore unknown economy of scale on the coffee world, most Americans had literally never heard of a latte. Now, it's a household word and there is huge brand loyalty and convenience factors.
posted by frogan at 9:22 PM on March 10, 2006


They don't have a dark roast at all, they just burn the shit out of ther regular beans and call it dark roast.

And I don't know about frogans theory, Starbucks is just as huge on the West Coast where local, good coffee houses have been around way longer than they have. You can get excellent coffee here in a convenient drive thru booth for less money and a lot of people still park and go to Starbucks. My theory is that it's become a see-and-be-seen hook up joint and that's why people go there.
posted by fshgrl at 9:32 PM on March 10, 2006


Doesn't it have twice the caffeine of regular coffee?
posted by bshort at 9:39 PM on March 10, 2006


My theory is that it's become a see-and-be-seen hook up joint and that's why people go there.

I'd say it's the Nordstrom's level of customer service, too. Whatever the merits of the coffee--and the cappuchino that's available but never listed is the best buy there, as we all know--one thing you almost never get at a Starbuck's is attitude. No one sneers at you, not matter how many tattoos or piercings they have. They are cosnsistently nice to you. And at the one at the Broadway Market QFC, you can't tip because they are QFC employees, and in a union, to boot, I believe, which is a kind of a cool and odd twist.
posted by y2karl at 9:44 PM on March 10, 2006


Its not only in the USA, but Starbucks has almost single-handedly established a place to relax, work, socialize, people-watch and be seen in countries all over the world. They've created quite a vibrant public gathering space that simply didn't exist before.

I remember when there was only one, at the Pike Place Market. Not so long ago....

Course, there is the inevitable backlash because Starbucks is so successful. The Coffee We Love To Hate.
posted by DickStock at 9:47 PM on March 10, 2006


I'm absolutely shocked that Starbucks is a place "to be seen".

I've been to a zillion of them, and had never considered them as anything other than a source of non-terrible caffeine.

The regular coffee roast is too burnt for my tastes, but the capuccino drinks are fine, IMO.
posted by I Love Tacos at 9:53 PM on March 10, 2006


Some of us like it. I've had what was supposed to be authentic Italian coffee before and.. well, I thought it sucked. I actually like Starbucks (or Caribou Coffee, but since California sucks we don't have any out here) better.

And a lot of our 'indie' coffee shops suck too. Example:

Me: "Excuse me, what kind of beans do you use?"
Clerk: "I don't know. That will be $5.25."
Me: "Uh, ok.. thanks."

*takes sip of overheated, burnt coffee*

At least Starbucks is consistent and gives good service. I got a drink at a Starbucks once and when I finally took a sip of it 15 minutes later, it tasted nasty. I got soy milk instead of regular. I pulled into a totally different Starbucks and told them the story and they cheerfully made me the correct drink, no questions asked.
Our local coffee joints can never manage to make the same drink twice. Or, the overpierced hipster working at the counter slops through it.

So to answer the question, not all of us think that Starbucks coffee is burnt, and a lot of us actually enjoy it. ;-)
posted by drstein at 9:54 PM on March 10, 2006


It's not Italian style at all; it truly is burnt, almost all carbon. My sister-in-law is a coffee educator, and Starbucks' roast is roundly vilified in the world of artisanal coffee tasting. It's considered a branded flavor profile that makes them distinct, and apparently the American northwest in general prefers a bitterer, more carbonized roast than other regions; but coffee aficionados do not rate it highly at all.

Most coffees are at their richest and most flavorful with what's called a Full City roast or a Vienna roast. Either of these stands up well to dilution with milk in a latte or cappucino. The 'burnt' flavor is unnecessary.
posted by Miko at 9:58 PM on March 10, 2006


I suspect for the same reason all chains thrive, the product is a known consistent quantity.
If you go to another coffee house and order a "peppermint mocha frappaccino" (whatever the hell that is, heh), it might come out too pepperminty, too mocha, or too frappaccino.

Also, and I'm really shooting in the dark here, since I'm not a Starbucks person, but Starbucks seems to offer a lot of drinks that other coffee houses really don't. Most people I know that go to Starbucks aren't actually drinking the coffee straight, they're drinking the flavored milkshakes, and Starbucks seems to have a ton of them (pumpkin in the fall, eggnog in the winter, etc).

Finally, there is the power of advertising and ubiquity, as evidenced by the fact that I haven't been in a Starbucks in a couple of years, but I always know exactly what the special drink is for that month. Branding is a powerful force.
posted by madajb at 10:05 PM on March 10, 2006


They do sell a lighter roast. I don't patronize Starbucks 'cause I can't handle caffeine any more, and they insist on brewing their decaf with light-roast beans. Yes, I know I could probably get a reasonable decaf latte there, but at Peets they use dark-roast coffee for their drip, and brew it strong enough to match my desire.

Like Schlitz or Bud Lite, once you've developed a taste for the more flavorful stuff, and gotten used to it, the familiar old brew tastes feeble, like dishwater.

I'm always amused when I hear folks call dark-roast coffee "burned" -- it's a giveaway that their taste for coffee is strictly American traditional -- brewed weak with light-roast beans so they can drink it 'black'. Whereas milk and sugar bring out the flavor of dark-roasted coffee, these condiments overwhelm American coffee.

As for why it's so popular, hummercash has nailed it -- they're simply the McDonalds of coffee.

(This "burned" business extends also to things like toast and cookies -- when baked enough to satisfy, looks golden brown to me, but many consider that "burned".)
posted by Rash at 10:23 PM on March 10, 2006


I would be surprised if 1 in 10 Starbucks customers drink their coffee black. It seems to me that most people drown the hell out of it with creme, sugar, milk, caramel, and whatever the hell else they shove in there these days. So in that respect the taste is so drowned out that it really doesn't matter the subtleties of the roast.

On top of that, Starbucks is like McDonalds in that it's a known quantity. People are used to it, they know what they like, they don't have to think about what they want when they go there, and they don't have to worry about not liking what they order. They just get whatever the heck they always get, and because there's a Starbucks on every block they can safely continue this practice whereever they happen to be.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:23 PM on March 10, 2006


I'm always amused when I hear folks call dark-roast coffee "burned" -- it's a giveaway that their taste for coffee is strictly American traditional -- brewed weak with light-roast beans so they can drink it 'black'.

That's really not correct. The very dark-roast coffee actually is burned; French roast is 90% carbon, very close to charcoal. With a Vienna roast, you get full-bodied real coffee flavor without the flat and flavorless charcoal taste. Most European coffees are actually not roasted that dark at all. The difference in taste comes from properly brewing the coffee (which Americans traditionally have not done well, and certainly many small-time coffeehouses don't do well).
posted by Miko at 10:26 PM on March 10, 2006


My sister-in-law is a coffee educator...

Wait...what?
posted by Ian A.T. at 10:31 PM on March 10, 2006


Why does (what is the psychology of) Starbucks thrive(ing) selling coffee that, it would seem, most people find less than ideal?

Because most people DO like starbucks. Your friends and our metafilter members who insist on telling us how they burn their coffee are in the minority (they're just loud).

Because most people I know don't get plain coffee from starbucks, they get mixed coffee drinks.

Because as y6 already pointed out their service, for the most part, is excellent. If my drink takes too long at the local starbucks I get a 'get one free' coupon almost every time.

Because, although I love new experiences and local flavor, sometimes I just want a taste of home. No matter if in new zealand, new york, or middle of no where alabama my starbucks venti mocha taste the same every time.

Lastly, sure they're are similarities between mcdonalds and starbucks, but one is not like the other. People go to mcdonalds because they perceive it to be cheap, and service is often awful. Neither apply to starbucks.
posted by justgary at 10:35 PM on March 10, 2006


Where I live there are three major chains: Starbucks, Peets, and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Of the three, it seems to me that Starbucks generally has the least "burned" coffee. I think the people who frequent these places just like their coffee relatively strong. Coffee drinkers that don't go to these places probably prefer lighter stuff.

I agree with some of the above posters that consistency and ubiquity are also reasons people like Starbucks. You can go basically anywhere and get a particular drink you know and like and it will be just like you expect it to be.
posted by shoos at 10:37 PM on March 10, 2006


Based on what I've seen, I'm in agreement that there's certainly a "see and be seen" element at play. Though I've nothing to back this up, I sense that many of the patrons are there because they feel that being a drinker of coffee that's "apparently" more sophisticated than Folgers elevates them to some perceived new level. Know what I mean? Just think: you could go to Starbucks wearing a fashionable turtleneck sweater (and maybe you could bring your laptop too!) and other people might think you're as cool as one of the characters on Will and Grace. Or some such.

It's almost like a number of years back, when cigars were popular.
posted by peewee at 11:01 PM on March 10, 2006


I live in Seattle, and have the choice of Tully's, Seattle's Best and Starbucks when I'm out and about. I prefer Starbucks. I go to University of Washington, and there are only Tully's (not really real Tully's but they sell Tully's coffee) on campus. So I go off campus to get Starbucks. Starbucks really sells their image, but the fact that they have an image to sell in the first place is thanks to the great (and of consistently high quality) coffee you can get there. I think the people who are talking about see-and-be-seen aspect have no idea what they're talking about, and at least one of them had the sense to admit it. "Starbucks patrons are snobs, and even though I have no reason to think so or not even the slightest piece of anecdotal evidence, allow me to talk about it some more". Whatever.

"Specifically, why does Starbucks insist on selling medium-to-dark roast coffee exclusively, when, I suspect, most Americans would prefer a good light roast brew (or, why not sell both; dark roast does make sense for frappuccinos, etc.)."

Why do you suspect that? I would think that the fact that the world's largest coffee chain sells dark roast indicates that people like it. Or that they've been conditioned to like it. Either way, they buy it, and that's what counts.
posted by apple scruff at 11:33 PM on March 10, 2006


It was my understanding that Starbucks intentionally had more caffinated drinks than you'd expect and intentionally encouraged customers to buy larger drinks than they'd normally drink. This, of course, would lead them to get addicted to caffine or addicted to more caffine, a degree to which they couldn't find anywhere else. In turn it addicted them to Starbucks.
posted by pwb503 at 12:25 AM on March 11, 2006


Starbucks has a premium brand, there's status and 'cool' motivating each purchase, whether the customer realizes it or not. Starbucks has also done a good job of making their stores a "third place" (after home and work) for its customers - allowing customers to feel comfortable there, to feel like its a place they 'belong'.

Does McDonalds make the best fast-food burger? No. Does it sell a community rallying point for teenagers, or a sense of comfort to parents? Yes. Does Nike sell the best fitting most comfortable, functional shoe? No. Does it sell as athleticism and coolness? Yes.

Companies with good marketing department can overwhelm the importance of the product with the importance of the brand. Starbucks has done a great job with that. (Also, as others have pointed out, their coffees were a lot of people's first exposure to espresso-based drinks; they've been able to define for customers what those drinks are 'supposed' to taste like.)

Incidentally, Starbucks does sell a light roast in Canada. (You specify 'mild' when you order.) We already had Second Cup here, people had already gotten used to their coffee and were more resistant to the Starbucks roast when they entered the market.
posted by Kololo at 12:27 AM on March 11, 2006


As a coffee drinker, I will only buy Starbucks coffee (which in the UK is horrendously expensive anyway) as a last resort, if I'm with someone who wants one of their milkshake things. I drink my coffee black, and theirs is virtually undrinkable - bitter, burnt, horrid. At home I use an Aerobie Aeropress, which makes coffee so good that Starbucks is even less palatable to my taste.

Other coffeeshop chains in the UK make better coffee (imo) - Costa, Caffe Nero - but Starbucks is now everywhere, sadly.
posted by essexjan at 1:12 AM on March 11, 2006


Wow, first look at all the fellow Seattleites in this thread! Guess we really are coffee snobs, and not just because of Starbucks! I'm a little surprised to find y2karl lives in Seattle too (or North Bend, from the looks of it- he's not Bob Rivers, is he?), yet I'm not on his close-Mefites list. :( Hello, my much-maligned MeFite radical comrade! :)

Anyway, I think in addition to the strong ritualizaton of coffee that Starbucks engenders- it normalizes and even glorifies what is an unhealthy addiction, and the "morning trip to Starbucks" becomes as necessary a part of the daily ritual as showering or shaving- Starbucks is so popular for the same reason that another Puget Sound export- Microsoft- is popular: it's ubiquitous, which in turn reinforces its own ubiquity.

When it comes to corporate branding, and caffeine addiction, you say "Starbucks" the same way you say "Windows". And when you want a fix, or an early morning pick me up, you naturally think of the only sure-thing place to get a latte, and that's starbucks. The corporate mess that is *$ has has responded by opening shops in so many locations and kiosks, that whenever you think "coffee" and free-associate it with "starbucks", you rarely fail to find a match. This naturally reinforces that, while superior coffee abounds in some niche shops (Espresso Vivace snobs in da house!), for a sure fire caffeine fix you can look for that familiar nipple-free mermaid logo and find it never too far away.

Also, while for those of us living here in Seattle Starbucks now represents a bastard child we aren't always proud of (especially not when their CEO is trying to extort the state to build him a new basketball arena), as frogan and others have noted Starbucks all but monopolizes the latte experience in less urbanized environments. Further, plenty of people have again ritualized the coffee moment, including teenagers who start off their school day with a starbucks trip with their teenage friends. What a horribly unhealthy habit to have at that age, but there it is. Corporations compete for early brand loyalty so fiercely precisely because it does, indeed, matter. People drink at Starbucks and not other indie places for the same reason they watch desperate housewives- because others do it, and it becomes a strand in the fabric of our communal lives.
posted by hincandenza at 1:51 AM on March 11, 2006


Adam Greenfield's rant defending Starbucks (and Ikea).
posted by russilwvong at 2:44 AM on March 11, 2006


As Rash notes, Starbucks *does* sell, um, less-vigorously-roasted coffees. If you prefer that kind of thing, ask for a cup of whatever "mild" coffee they have brewed up. They almost always have a freshly brewed dispenser of it made, and the worst-case scenario is that somebody will whip you up a serving in a French-press pot.

I routinely order the "mild" coffee and drink it black (after noon) or with a little milk (in the morning.)
posted by enrevanche at 3:02 AM on March 11, 2006


I'm a bit lost. Are you complaining that Starbucks' coffee is too strong? Because the three times I've had Starbucks I've had to ask them to add extra shots (three in one case) because I could barely taste the coffee. Blergh. I'm with essexjan on this one - Costa and Caffe Nero piss all over Starbucks in the UK.

I'm spoiled, though - I have my little stovetop espresso maker at home so most store-bought coffee is disappointing.
posted by goo at 3:05 AM on March 11, 2006


But to actually address the poster's question: as others have said, it's the McDonalds of coffee - bland, weak, appealing to the most people possible, and always the same no matter where you are.

At least they didn't charge for the extra shots.
posted by goo at 3:28 AM on March 11, 2006


People drink at Starbucks and not other indie places for the same reason they watch desperate housewives- because others do it, and it becomes a strand in the fabric of our communal lives.

For a certain percentage sure. You could say that about almost anything. Certain people come to metafilter because that's where the cool kids hang. But it's certainly not why I go there. I go to starbucks because I like the taste of their venti mocha. That's it. And I hate the crowds. I wish I was the only person there. It has nothing to do with other people liking starbucks.

If the only reason people went to starbucks was because others did people would eventually move on to something else. Desparate Housewives will be cancelled sooner or later. I don't see starbucks losing business anytime soon.

Don't get me wrong. People do go to starbucks because others do the same. But it's only one of many reasons. No way on earth its that simple. Coffee snobs just have trouble with the concept that some people simply enjoy and prefer starbucks coffee.

Bad habit? Like anything else there's two sides to that story (another topic).

And as someone living in a smaller community, starbucks created a coffee scene here where there wasn't one.
posted by justgary at 3:29 AM on March 11, 2006


This is speaking only from personal expereince, but there's something unique about the starbucks caffiene buzz that can't be explained by the drinks simply having more of it. It doesn't have the same jitters & crash I get when I have similar amounts from another source.

Also, people tend to be more vocal about criticizing industry leaders. People may have similar objections to other brands, but it will come up less in conversation & media since it's not as omnipresent as starbucks.
posted by yorick at 4:43 AM on March 11, 2006


my husband and first saw each other at starbucks...well, not the same starbucks...I was in one and he was in the one across the street.
posted by TheLibrarian at 6:11 AM on March 11, 2006


Was that possibly in Vancouver, Librarian? Corner of Robson and (I think) Thurlow? (Only place I've seen two, so close together -- so far.)
posted by Rash at 6:33 AM on March 11, 2006


"Based on what I've seen, I'm in agreement that there's certainly a "see and be seen" element at play."

I guess that's what it's like to not like in Brooklyn.


By the way, what Starbucks styles are "mild" still tastes burned to me. Also, darker roast coffee has less caffeine, not more. Also, I actually find their coffee to have significantly less caffeine to it than coffee I like. Also, I don't drink my coffee black, and theirs still tastes too much like espresso.

Oh well...
posted by ParisParamus at 6:40 AM on March 11, 2006


"I guess that's what it's like to not like in Brooklyn."

Meant to write: I guess that's what its like to not live in NYC (but I haven't had my coffee yet).
posted by ParisParamus at 6:41 AM on March 11, 2006


Was that possibly in Vancouver, Librarian? Corner of Robson and (I think) Thurlow? (Only place I've seen two, so close together -- so far.)

TheLibrarian was quoting the mockumentary Best in Show.
posted by defenestration at 6:46 AM on March 11, 2006


or North Bend, from the looks of it-

Broadway Market QFC should indicate Capitol Hill....
posted by y2karl at 7:15 AM on March 11, 2006


Given a choice, I prefer to patronize stores where the workers are knowledgeable, cheerful, clean-looking and skillful. I find all of that at Starbucks. It is also a point in their favor that their workers are paid decent wages.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:32 AM on March 11, 2006


I start rounds every morning at 0600. Most days it's hard to get on the ball right away, and a quad Americano en route to the hospital is the sort of thing that starts the day off really, really well. I agree the coffee is not 'as good' as some (Peets comes to mind), but it's a hell of a lot better than many of the indie shops I've tried here in OR.

It's consistent. There's no bullshit from the barristas. Frankly, if there were, I'd write them off as disgruntled twits and move on, but for a lot of people it's embarrassing and humiliating and they'd never return. The stores, in many towns where ambience isn't in the city planners vocabulary, are really pleasant places to spend a few minutes. People who ordinarily wouldn't know why are attracted to the calm and clean surroundings, and there's something nice about that if you live in a town that is o/w sort of a dump. I love taking my girls there on a Sunday morning for twenty minutes.

But there's no reason another entity couldn't sweep in and crush them if the coffee were a bit better - again, Peets, or Tully's, imo.

my husband and first saw each other at starbucks...well, not the same starbucks...I was in one and he was in the one across the street.
Thanks, now I need to go clean up the coffee I just sprayed all over my desk...
posted by docpops at 7:40 AM on March 11, 2006


Paris:

Interview with Anne Saunders, Starbucks marketing svp
*
Starbucks Culture (.pdf)
posted by matteo at 7:48 AM on March 11, 2006


Wow, first look at all the fellow Seattleites in this thread! Guess we really are coffee snobs

You're no more snobby than any other coffee lover anywhere, but there are distinct regional preferences in flavor profile. Both Peet's and Starbucks are known for their "Northwest" flavor profile. Other regions really prefer different profiles; the Northeast/NY Metro area goes for deep, rich, heavy-bodied brew.


Are you complaining that Starbucks' coffee is too strong?


I don't think that's what people mean. Starbucks' coffee isn't strong at all; in fact it's a pretty thin brew. It's light-bodied with sharp, acidic top notes.

I heartily endorse all those who say that Starbucks' success is due to marketing. Their main strategy is ubiquity; they make themselves the very easiest place to go to get consistent coffee, and they have conditioned us to associate "Coffee" and "Starbucks" very closely together. A large part of their business plan is to open stores very close to one another. That seemed counterintuitive in the company's early days, but it paid off. People began to say to themselves "Look! Starbucks is everywhere; it must be really good" or at least "Starbucks is everywhere, therefore by default it's always going to be the most convenient place to get a coffee."

w/r/t coffee educator: My sister-in-law works for a large importer and roaster of organic and sustainable coffees which supplies some major US markets. Her job is to know all there is to know about coffee, from growing to buying to brewing, and to lead seminars and instructional workshops nationwide on how to judge and prepare coffee. She attends conferences like the International Specialty Coffee Association and travels to plantations around the world to learn about sourcing and to taste new coffees and coffee blends. Everything I know about coffee comes from her, and she knows a whole lot. The more you learn about coffee, the more fascinating it becomes. It's every bit as complicated as wine, cheese, or any other food in which terroir and processing result in an array of different flavor possibilities.

Hey, if you like Starbucks, you like it -- no problem. They offer a strong brew of convenience, ubiquity, sugary drinks, a unique flavor, the 'third place' thing, service, cleanliness, and appealing marketing. BUt people who say "Their coffee sucks" are not crazy or snobby. They're in agreement with a majority of coffee evaluators worldwide. Still, there's a reason that profile exists, since it pleases at least a certain percentage of drinkers. And I do agree that most people aren't drinking it straight. The Dolce di Caramel-Hazelnut FrappaMocchiatoCinno preparation really takes the edge off the flavor anyway, and that's what most people are buying.

Ian AT -- I saw a NO reference in your profile. My SIL started her coffee career at CC's Community Coffees.
posted by Miko at 7:56 AM on March 11, 2006


Great Talk of the Town piece from the NYer on a historian writing about Starbucks and ubiquity.
posted by Miko at 7:57 AM on March 11, 2006


docpops: There's no bullshit from the barristas.

I've found that lately I'm getting less BS when I refuse to use their idiotic size rebranding than in the past. Perhaps differences is training? My two primary irritants in regards to Starbucks are their aggressive use of neologisms, and their even more aggressive brand-driven interior design. Most of the alternatives here use the wall space to promote local artists, and one cafe is a shrine to the owner's obsession with Frank Zappa. I don't feeling like I'm sitting inside an advertising supplement.

On the other hand, Starbucks is everywhere, and when I'm traveling it's a safe bet to get a drinkable cup of coffee when I just want coffee and don't want a meal with it. I am also hooked on iced coffee and americanos in the summer months, which is sometimes hard to find outside of a Starbucks.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:43 AM on March 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


right-o defenstration...and for the record we don't spend our time browsing through the latest jcrew catalog
posted by TheLibrarian at 8:53 AM on March 11, 2006


"Still, there's a reason that profile exists, since it pleases at least a certain percentage of drinkers."

Has anyone yet coined the term highest common denominator (=highest price, etc., highest aethetics that don't turn off/threaten too many people)? I guess that's what Starbucks does. And it is true that their strategy of ubiquity pays off (and if only I had the capital in 1984 to match my idea!), and for a while I lived in a village in which the train station was a Starbucks, and drank their coffee, all the while not liking it much...ok, the world has bigger problems than this...
posted by ParisParamus at 9:18 AM on March 11, 2006


This article from Slate states that a 16-ounce Starbucks house blend coffee contains 223 milligrams of caffeine, compared with 174 and 141 milligrams in comparable amounts of Dunkin' Donuts and 7-Eleven coffee, respectively. It then speculates that if Starbucks delivers more caffeine per cup than its competitors, and if people buy coffee primarily because it is an efficient caffeine delivery, then many Starbucks' customers literally need Starbucks high level of caffeine to get through the day.
posted by Staggering Jack at 9:37 AM on March 11, 2006


Personally I miss the take-out coffee I got in Baltimore from Dunkin Donuts in the 1970s and 7-Eleven in the '80s, but I don't recall how dark those roasts were; they probably were light-to-medium and from what today we'd consider crappy inferior beans. And if I recall right the best espresso I had was at the Cafe Med in Berkeley in 1983, though what a Lebanese Christian guy named Masoud used to make at the Chatanuga [sic] on Haight in '82 was pretty good (but he had to use the beans the stingy owner supplied). I think "the coffeehouse experience" is a sentimental thing for most people, more "right brained". But then I'll admit I've never taste-tasted the coffees from different establishments side-by-side, nor have I bothered to take notes on whatever I'm currently drinking (or learn the coffee-snob lingo to convey my judgments in).

Since I quit smoking and grew back some olfactories I have that "french roast" is overdone; I prefer places that offer a lighter-roasted brew as well.

I know more about bourbon, however.
posted by davy at 10:11 AM on March 11, 2006


starbucks coffee, straight up, is generally disgusting. Except the Tanzanian Peaberry, which is heavenly.

Fuck the coffee, have the Chantico drinking chocolate. Or, as I've heard it described elsewhere, "liquid Denzel."
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:28 AM on March 11, 2006


yk2arl: Broadway Market QFC should indicate Capitol Hill....
See, that's why I was confused- I'm only blocks from that QFC, yet your user profile lat./long. lists you as being in Northbend, and we're not listed as "mefi users near each other", even though if you shop at the BWMQFC you can't be even a mile from my location...
posted by hincandenza at 10:41 AM on March 11, 2006


I've always considered a trip to starbucks to be a second rate experience, but when I worked downtown in Lincoln, Nebraska it was my only option. I spent about 4 dollars a day for lattes, 'cause I still couldn't stomach the regular coffee.

All the donut shops served weak coffee flavored water with powdered creamer. The independent espresso place used beans that tasted like cardboard. I became a frequent customer at a place I'd never resort to on the east coast.

Now that I'm not in Nebraska, I've never had to go back.
posted by sophie at 10:47 AM on March 11, 2006


One selling point for starbucks is that they treat their employee's pretty well, compared to other food joints. Their employees are more likely to have health insurance and sick/vacation days.
posted by sophie at 10:52 AM on March 11, 2006


I can't be bothered reading 53 comments, and I don't need to, because I'm siure there's the usual complement of Starbucks-haters that show up in every goddam coffee thread. I'll just make two points:

1) I like Starbucks. I like it a lot. I'll go out of my way to find a Starbucks when I want an espresso, because their espresso is better than 99% of the espresso I've had even at "Italian" coffee houses in Little Italy and the like. I'll never forget my first taste of a Starbucks espresso; I'd had a chip on my shoulder about the place for all the usual reasons (corporate behemoth, dis is Noo Yawk an' we don' need no fuckin' Seattle cawfee, etc.), but it instantly disappeared. And I'm a discriminating coffee drinker who grinds his own coffee and all that jazz. You don't agree with me? Fine, we have different tastes. I'm just one person? True, but:

2) Lots of people like Starbucks. That's why they're thriving.

This question is parallel to saying "I hate fish. Why are there so many fish-and-chips places and seafood joints? Do people just like eating in a place where they can see mounted fish on the wall, or is it the water views?" In other words, it's a stupid question, and only someone who's blissfully convinced that their own taste represents the considered judgment of humanity as a whole would dream of asking it.

Is it that people don't really go to Starbucks for the coffee but the ambiance and/or pastry?

No. The ambience is neutral-to-corporate and the pastry is terrible.

Is it that dark coffee, psychologically, has a status/appeal BECAUSE most people don't actually like it? Something else?

Jesus, that's stupid.

All you Starbucks haters: you have a perfect right to hate Starbucks and/or its coffee. I would never dream of arguing with your taste. But your penchant for smugly assuming your taste ROOLZ and everyone else is lying or deluded is supremely annoying. Cut it out.
posted by languagehat at 11:29 AM on March 11, 2006


On glancing over the thread: Miko, I love you dearly, but "coffee aficionados do not rate it highly at all" is just a fancy way of saying "me and my friends don't like it."

Why
is there this need to universalize one's own taste? I wouldn't ever say "You don't like it? You have terrible taste!" Extend me the same courtesy, please.
posted by languagehat at 11:33 AM on March 11, 2006


I just got back from my city's very first freestanding Starbuck's (we have several connected to places like Target, Barnes & Noble, and Harris Teeter.)

I don't think the independents here have a thing to worry about. The interior atmosphere was boring and blech-it was obvious this was a place to grab your drink and go elsewhere, even tho there were chairs and tables. On the good side I got more whipped cream on my grande frappucino, but for real coffee believe it or not I prefer Dunkin Doughnuts. If I need a place to sit, chill and sip there are lots of other places here locally which are perfect for such.

But hey, this Starbuck's has a drivethru so it's all good.
posted by konolia at 11:39 AM on March 11, 2006


Languagehat, can you come to my house the next time my wife gets mad at me for something?
posted by docpops at 11:48 AM on March 11, 2006


[I]f people buy coffee primarily because it is an efficient caffeine delivery, they drink drip. That's where the caffeine is.
posted by y2karl at 12:11 PM on March 11, 2006


addictive product + ubiquitous marketing = bitter customers.

also, Starbucks is just another carpetbagger in Athens, Georgia. Our local brewer sells to many locally owned restaurants, supporting them and the local beer brewers, and sponsors an athens' bike racing team. They also fill the air with a delicious aroma some afternoons.

Starbucks moving into downtown was part of the reason that another popular coffee shop went out of business. And now it's a bourgie bar, just like so many others. screw starbucks.
posted by eustatic at 12:25 PM on March 11, 2006


Language hat said it better than I.
posted by justgary at 12:57 PM on March 11, 2006


"coffee aficionados do not rate it highly at all" is just a fancy way of saying "me and my friends don't like it."

That would be true if I were referring to me and my friends, but I'm referring to the coffee tasters who do comparitive 'cuppings' or samplings at annual tastings and write about the results in their trade publications.

Like I said, it's fine to like Starbucks, but the highest-rated coffees don't taste like Starbucks.
posted by Miko at 1:06 PM on March 11, 2006


Fair enough, but coffee tasters are (obviously) an unrepresentative sample. There are all sorts of reasons they prefer particular kinds of coffee, including the need not to be like the average coffee drinker. It's like wine tastings: those huge overripe California reds routinely win tastings even though they go badly with food and most people would prefer something less aggressive, because those guys taste so much wine they need something aggressive to wake up their taste buds, and of course they're not drinking it with food, they're tasting it in a completely unnatural environment (often before a normal person would even consider it ready to drink).

I'm not saying the coffee they prefer is bad coffee, just that their reasons for preferring it to Starbucks don't necessarily have anything to do with the quality of Starbucks or why so many non-experts like it.
posted by languagehat at 1:22 PM on March 11, 2006


Great explanation I just found of how Sumatra-style coffees made their way to Peet's and Starbucks, creating that "Northwestern" preference.

General things for learning more about coffee:

Cupping (the coffee evalution process, akin to wine tasting)

GreatCoffee.com's highest rated coffees (note all are medium, medium-light, or light roast) by Kenneth Davids

More coffee reviews

Coffee Reference articles - some really good stuff here

Tea & Coffee trade journal

...Just so you know I'm not making it all up.

Again, I have no problem with anyone liking Starbucks. It's interesting that for a lot of people this seems to be quite a shibboleth. I'm just in agreement with who don't enjoy their blends, and want to say that there are perfectly good objective reasons for that, since what Starbucks is doing with their coffee is pronouncedly different from what others do. They're aiming for a particular result, and as it happens, the result has characteristics that are not what's usually scored as highly rated brewed coffee. But as with wine, drink what you like.
posted by Miko at 1:28 PM on March 11, 2006


True, languagehat; I'm the first to question arbitrary standards. But I have find when I drink the good coffee, I notice and agree with the differences. I've been able to taste a wide range of world coffees thanks to my SIL, and some of the greats are just unbelievably...satisfying. And the reasons so many people prefer Starbucks may have equally little to do with the actual taste of the coffee, as well, as has been pointed out.
posted by Miko at 1:31 PM on March 11, 2006


"Its not only in the USA, but Starbucks has almost single-handedly established a place to relax, work, socialize, people-watch and be seen in countries all over the world. They've created quite a vibrant public gathering space that simply didn't exist before."

Simply untrue in my country, where they were preceded by an explosion of independent cafes, arrived late to the party, and as yet are failing to make much of an impact in the market.

Were you joking when you wrote that? It reads so slickly it sounds like a quote from marketing material.

Personally I noticed dark over-roasted coffee not just in Starbucks but all over New York when I was in the US recently. I assumed it was a local taste , so I tried not to bitch about it too much. Since almost everyone I met seemed to drink it milky (I don't), probably a bitter thin roast is a good foil for the milk. In my neck of the woods we stop the roast several shades short of black, but make the actual liquor strong. I don't know if that's good or bad but it's how I like it.

One thing I will say is that when I do get Starbucks, I go for a quadruple shot, which makes it far more like what I think of as decent coffee. Another thing in the US (not true at home) is that the service was very, very good at Starbucks, whereas the "independent" coffeehouses were a bit too bloody independent. I like politeness with my coffee.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:35 PM on March 11, 2006


I don't know a great deal about coffee but I at least know enough to a) not state "facts" about coffee which I can not support and b) recognize a great number of posts in this thread which should heed point "a".

One thing strikes me as particular germain to the question: that people go to Starbucks for the familiarity. That is exactly why I go elsewhere. Starbucks is not worth hating or loving but I want an adventure in each place I eat or drink. I can say I at least enjoy my coffee and the place when in Cambridge which is completely different from my coffee shop in Shepherdstown or my coffee shop café in Paris. (Notes: 1. I don't know why I've taken to coffee shops with tea. 2. Excuse the self-link on the Paris café. It was the first hit for brasserie des banques.
posted by Dick Paris at 1:48 PM on March 11, 2006


It's interesting that for a lot of people this seems to be quite a shibboleth.

Yes, it is. Frankly, I hate being in the position of defending Starbucks; it is, after all, a ubiquitous corporate giant and it feels kind of like defending Microsoft or Verizon. But damn, it pisses me off that so many people feel compelled to beat their chest and proclaim how much they hate Starbucks and how bad the coffee is and how the people who drink it are sheep, and then I sigh and have to say my piece.
posted by languagehat at 2:29 PM on March 11, 2006


FWIW, I don't hate Starbucks. I go there; the competition isn't uniformly better; I don't find Starbucks offensive the way I find fast food joints; the founder should be admired for seeing a market and conquering it.

By the way, what has the reception been to Starbucks in Europe? If memory serves, the comfy place beacon aspect should have gone over at least as well there, no?
posted by ParisParamus at 2:54 PM on March 11, 2006


One possible answer to the original questions is simply that most people do not care that much about the finer points of the beverage. If you just want a damned coffee, and Starbucks is just across the road, perhaps it isn't worth it to seek out something better.

Furthermore in virtually every field, the average product is mediocre compared to the expert's ideal. It's silly to expect that middle-brow taste and high-brow taste should be the same, or that the average joe should agree with the connoisseur.

The most likely answers to the question "why does Starbucks insist on selling medium-to-dark roast coffee exclusively, when, I suspect, most Americans would prefer a good light roast brew" are:

a) your suspicion is wrong, and/or
b) Starbucks have determined they will make more profit doing what they currently do.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:02 PM on March 11, 2006


I'm a former Starbucks barista and have worked in a small local place as well. I wouldn't call myself a coffee snob these days, exactly, but I do have a very costly espresso machine and look around for good beans and such, so I'm more of a geek than the average person, but I'm not super-obsessed anymore.

languagehat, I get your eminently well-put point, and I don't really go in for the hipster corporate-bashing of Starbucks either, but I can't stand the place, personally.

This doesn't mean I can't stand people who like the place. Starbucks is exactly what you would expect were any environmentally-aware, sensitive local coffee shop to expand hugely.

To wit: they have wonderful benefits, which do not translate into much of a gain for the average part-timer who works there for a few months or years. They have a standardized, modern roasting process, involving huge amounts of beans being roasted in a huge electric vat for standardized amounts of time at a standard temperature. They tell you that an espresso shot should take a precise amount of time (to the second). They strenuously emphasize good customer service and will discipline you if you don't meet their standards.

What this all means is that they successfully produce a near-identical experience, including a near-identical cup of coffee, in each one of their locations. There are advantages to this: the customer knows what to expect, namely a reasonably decent coffee that's fresh, a polite attitude from employees, and a degree of comfort.

There are also drawbacks: they can't experiment much, especially with new providers of beans or new roasting processes. Even if there is a better way to roast their beans, they can't do it, because they have invested so hugely in their existing equipment. Store-level employees can't innovate with new drinks or different beans or any sort of personal touch.

I think people bitch about the place because they want to associate their coffee experience with something that's more local and personal. This would be a valid complaint if we were to overlook the important point that that's not what Starbucks is about (!). If you're looking for something local or personal there, you're looking in the wrong place.

I hated the uniformity and sort of left-wing version of corporate double-speak ("Yeah, we care about you, but we're concerned that you're not calling the order in the correct code") of it, but I recognize now that it's really just the price of being so big.

Oh, and the coffee is burned.
posted by lackutrol at 4:05 PM on March 11, 2006


Starbucks moving into downtown was part of the reason that another popular coffee shop went out of business.

Eh, BlueSky was sucking it up business-wise before SB came into town. Most the clientel at BS wasn't the usual fratistic crowd I saw inside of SB so I don't buy the argument that SB stole their business, though I do miss that smoking room. Also, it's not like SB drove out the coffee business- it is still thriving quite well d/t, with additions such as Hot Corner to take BS's spot.
posted by jmd82 at 4:08 PM on March 11, 2006


It's silly to expect that middle-brow taste and high-brow taste should be the same, or that the average joe should agree with the connoisseur.

True in general. But Starbucks is selling the idea that you're getting high-end coffee; that's why the drinks are a bit pricier than Dunkin Donuts. The whole brand appeal is based on being a little more upscale than your local cup o'Joe. So it is a little extra-disappointing that the coffee fails to measure up. If it's middlebrow, why does it cost $3.50?

It's also way too easy for me to critique Starbucks, because I enjoy other choices. There's only one Sbux in my city, and it does no better than the 3 other locally owned places in terms of business volume. The beverages themselves are better tasting at the other places, IMO, and in addition, the other places do a better job of being a "third place", with community bulletin boards, events, and settings convenient for lingering and talking. If Starbucks were the only place in town I could get a latte, I'd probably visit one more often myself.
posted by Miko at 4:15 PM on March 11, 2006


I actually like their coffee. The other salient point to me is that whilst some independent coffee places are a lot better than Starbucks, on average they are a lot worse. Maybe not so in some parts of some big cities, but that's mostly irrelevant to me. I'd rather be guaranteed a good cup than risk an undrinkable one for the chance of a great one. Coffee is too expensive and too central to my day to want to make that gamble. I'm also rarely in the same place each day, so I can't keep trying until I find a great local place, like I might if I were a New Yorker with a regular commute.

When I lived in London though, there was a wider choice of chains, and I'd choose Costa, Nero, or (that one in train stations that sells soft pretzels) over Starbucks. I'm surprised at the lack of competing chain coffee shops in the US. Don't try to tell me that Dunkin' Donuts comes close, their coffee is like dishwater.
posted by crabintheocean at 4:30 PM on March 11, 2006


FWIW, the local independent places, Tea Lounge and Ozzy's don't do much better. The best coffee I've had, consistently has been from Au Bon Pain.
posted by ParisParamus at 5:10 PM on March 11, 2006


Doesn't it have twice the caffeine of regular coffee?

No one seems to have answered this so: dark roasts actually have less caffeine than light roasts -- the darker, the less it has. Espresso does have more caffeine than drip-brewed coffee made with the same beans, but that's not what this question is about.

It's like wine tastings: those huge overripe California reds routinely win tastings even though they go badly with food and most people would prefer something less aggressive, because those guys taste so much wine they need something aggressive to wake up their taste buds [...]

This is actually quite an interesting comparison, given how much more "aggressive" over-roasted coffee seems in comparison to a good medium-light roast brewed in a way conducive to non-bitterness. I personally don't think that extremely dark roasts go well with much of anything except lots of sugar.
posted by advil at 5:17 PM on March 11, 2006


Another variable is smoking: as I said, since I quit smoking a few years ago I got into lighter subtler roasts because now I can taste them. Smoking kills your tastebuds and dulls your sense of smell. And lately some places around Louisville are burning their beans too to compete with Starbucks; I might have to start hanging at donut shops again, seeing that there are no 7-Elevens here.

Not that I don't still like some dark-roasted coffee: in the middle of winter I need to be hit over the head to get my attention, and I also switch to whole milk for my coffee.
posted by davy at 6:05 PM on March 11, 2006


OMFG, branding causes consumers to buy inferior product at inflated prices. Film at fucking 11 lolz.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:44 PM on March 11, 2006


Starbucks' coffee is no more expensive than Denny's, but most people don't buy coffee, they buy milkshakes of one form or another.

As to the taste, once you get used to it, regular coffee tastes like warm water.

I don't drink coffee anywhere else and go to Starbucks because we have a huge store in the little burg I live in. There is lots of room to sit and read for hours and no one would ever ask you to leave except at closing. I think that what I like most about Starbucks is that it is a no rules kind of place. You can bring you sandwich in from Subway, or sit there all day and order nothing at all. I can't think of another restaurant in California where you can stay all day without being made to feel uncomfortable and they get downright hostile if you dare bring in food from anywhere else.

The kids at Starbucks are very nice but they are not treated nearly as well as Starbucks likes to claim. In fact, the management system at Starbucks is down right anal, so be nice to the kids when you are in there!
posted by phewbertie at 4:20 AM on March 12, 2006


This thread is far too long, so apologies if this has already been mentioned. When you dark roast coffee the flavor is much more consistent than a light roast. You are tasting the roast not the bean. When you drink a mild roast there are all sorts of subtle flavors that make the coffee taste how it does, but that means you have to have high quality beans to get decent coffee and because many of those flavors are highly volatile you need to make the coffee within 3-4 days of the roasting. Not only that, but the flavor tends to vary between harvests and even between roasts and Starbucks wants coffee that tastes the same every time, so they tend to stick to darker roasts.
posted by aspo at 1:27 PM on March 12, 2006


Great point, aspo. A related piece of trivia is that supermarket coffee dark roasts and French roasts are routinely made from the most inferior and cheapest beans, for exactly the same reasons -- the beans' flavor has been roasted right out and you wouldn't know the difference anyway. All the volatile oils that create flavor and fragrance are gone.
posted by Miko at 2:33 PM on March 12, 2006


I don't think the independents here have a thing to worry about. The interior atmosphere was boring and blech-it was obvious this was a place to grab your drink and go elsewhere, even tho there were chairs and tables.

You'd be wrong. Sure, I've been to starbucks in manhattan where they're tiny and trying to push you out the door. But the big one in my area looks more like grand central. It's always packed with people holding meetings, doing homework. I can't think of a place more used for community.

IMO, and in addition, the other places do a better job of being a "third place", with community bulletin boards, events, and settings convenient for lingering and talking.

Again, maybe it has to do with the part of the country, or the city. Our starbucks does the community thing pretty well, and I WISH people would leave instead of lingering.

Don't try to tell me that Dunkin' Donuts comes close, their coffee is like dishwater.

I was recently reading where dunkin donuts is going to change their coffee to a more starbucks like style. Mcdonalds is also going to try for some of starbucks business. And starbucks is going to get into the morning breakfast sandwhich market.
posted by justgary at 7:48 PM on March 14, 2006


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