Call me confused . . .
August 7, 2006 5:58 AM   Subscribe

Is it my imagination, or is Starbucks espresso on a long road to suck?

Okay, I'll fess up. Chalk it up to bad habits, but for a long time, I've been into an occasional Starbucks espresso as a break from my preferred lighter roast, Italian style espresso brew. Somehow, the carbonated, burnt Starbucks blend scratches a primitive itch.

But lately, I've been dissatisfied. No, not with the burnt taste, still as vulgar and unauthentic as ever. With the thickness. I've sampled espressos (okay, espressi for you Italian speakers) at about six New York Starbucks, and for god sakes, this sh*t isn't *even espresso*. It's a watery brew that's about as viscous as drip coffee.

Is this an east coast, New York thang? Have the espresso machines at Starbucks gone kerfluy? Has the company cut back on workers with the right mojo to pull a good espresso? Is the watery blend all about less coffee grounds and lower costs?

Yes, yes, I know. Starbucks these days is about confectionary drinks and all of that jazz. But sometimes, when I'm jonesing for an espresso, they're my best fallback.

What's the deal here, guys?
posted by Gordion Knott to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The machines went from real espresso machines with ground coffee beans to automatic machines trying to make espresso from pre-ground packets. Look at a machine next time you go in; you'll see that there's no way to dismount the head; they just push a button and 'espresso' comes out.

So yes, they've automated the art and goodness out of it. There's no real way to get good espresso from starbucks anymore.
posted by SpecialK at 6:15 AM on August 7, 2006

Back in the early 2000's, as early as 2001 I believe, Starbucks changed espresso machines from the semi-automatic La Marzocco (considered by most to be the BEST commercial espresso brand in the world) to the fully automatic Verismo. They did this to cut down on wait time and simplify the beverage process. While the decision has made Starbucks far more efficient, their beverage quality has already suffered dramatically. La Marzocco was what made Starbucks great. (Of course, you have to appreciate their beans to make a statement like that) And this switch has utterly ruined their espresso, making it watery, under-extracted, and quite nasty.

This change first occurred in high volume stores. What they did was move the Marzoccos to the newly constructed stores and bought new Verismos for the money making stores. Later, as the Marzoccos aged, they replaced them with additional Verismos. If you want decent Starbucks espresso anymore, you must find the Marzocco, which is very rare (I forget how they depreciate the machines, but their life isn't that long because of the high volume of even the slowest Starbucks).
posted by SeizeTheDay at 6:20 AM on August 7, 2006 [3 favorites]

No you aren't imagining things, Starbucks wouldn't know a decent esspresso if it bit them in the ass. This isn't a recent trend, however, it's sucked from day one.
posted by doctor_negative at 6:23 AM on August 7, 2006

I occasionally cover shifts in an SBC cafe, which is parented by Starbucks Corp. I can't tell you if things are done the same way in Starbucks as in my cafe, but we just press buttons on a big hissy Verismo machine. I have control over the fineness of the espresso grind, but that is about it when it comes to pulling a good espresso shot. No control over tamp, temp, or anything really. And, to my knowledge, I'm the only one in the cafe who actually adjusts the grind. With regard to this, you might want to specifically ask for your shot to be pulled over a certain length of time (18-21 seconds, etc). I wouldn't be surprised if many Starbucks 'baristas' didn't concern themselves with the inner workings of their push-button espresso machines (or just don't have that mojo).
posted by carsonb at 6:26 AM on August 7, 2006

McDonald's now has better drip coffee than Starbucks. You can get a better espresso, in New York, at most corner bagel shops. For half the price.

And for what it's worth, the best straight ahead cup of coffee in NYC is at Samad's deli, 112th and Broadway.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:43 AM on August 7, 2006

As a former Starbucks barista from the days of the *real* espresso machines, I have to agree with the above. When I worked behind the bar, I was responsible for grinding the beans correctly, tamping them just right, timing the shots, etc. I took pride in being able to do it correctly. The result was a thick, dark espresso with that lovely bit of crema on the top. I could tell a good pull from a bad pull just by feel. Just like a barista at any coffee shop.

Soon enough I got a real job and moved on. But in my (rare) visits to Starbucks as a customer, in shops from Texas to Illinois, I noticed the new fangled machines and was horrified. Working behind the bar was the only fun thing about that job, and they took that away. The only possible thing that can result is bad product.

How they can still call the employees "baristas" I really don't know.
posted by misskaz at 7:16 AM on August 7, 2006

This thread is great for two reasons: I finally got an answer to my question on another coffee thread (that Starbucks really has moved to an all-automatic model), and I have a new reason to continue my somewhat irrational hatred of that place.

Whether or not fully automatic machines can do as well as the old semi-automatic ones is not an open question: fully automatic ruin the coffee. You know those machines in your office that make the single cup of coffee? Same thing. Only you're paying five bucks for it in this case.

Misskaz, you're exactly right. These robot machines are fine for home use by people who know nothing about coffee, but they are inexcusable in a coffee shop. I guess Starbucks doesn't even care about training their "partners" anymore.
posted by lackutrol at 8:07 AM on August 7, 2006

And to my mind the best commercial machines are the old Gaggias, before they started making them in Spain. They broke down, sure, but when they were working they were absolutely terrific.
posted by lackutrol at 8:12 AM on August 7, 2006

La Marzocco rocks thanks to a unique dual boiling process that I guess is proprietary -- their machines separate the production of steam from the coffee dispenser process. the coffee is way better but, as stated above, it takes longer to make, and they break more easily having a shorter life

a great compromise is La Spaziale -- awesome, sturdy machines that make fantastic coffee. if I had a cafè, I'd totally buy Spaziale
posted by matteo at 8:13 AM on August 7, 2006

There can be huge day-to-day variations in espresso quality that's put out by the all-automatic machines used in Starbucks. I often get two of the same espresso drink at Starbucks, one for me and one for my wife, and most of the time the drinks are made using different machines. It is pretty common that one of our drinks tastes just fine and the other tastes like it was made with a shot pulled through a clogged portafilter. I don't exactly know how the all-automatic models work, but I think the maintenance on them is probably not regular or consistent enough and that's why they sometimes make bad espresso.
posted by shoos at 8:26 AM on August 7, 2006

I work for *$ and can tell you that almost *all* stores have the Verisimo. They're supposed to support consistency, and if the baristas are calibrating the machines every hour (which they should be doing), the shot should take between 13-17 seconds to pull. I have coworkers who were trained on and used the La Marzocco machines for years, and agree that when the barista knows what they're doing, the drinks are exceptional. Unfortunately, as in most coffee shops (at least in my area), you have a fair amount of baristas who either don't have the competency for an authentic espresso machine or don't have the passion. I would love to be trained on a La Marzocco, but the only market around here that still has them is Charlotte (or at least they did a year ago). If the baristas are handling the Verisimos correctly, then your drink, while not the most amazing espresso you've ever had, should be consistent and smooth. FWIW, I generally drink drip coffee, and I'm a fan of the Asian/Pacific coffees; not so much the darker roasts.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 11:17 AM on August 7, 2006

La Marzocco rocks thanks to a unique dual boiling process that I guess is proprietary -- their machines separate the production of steam from the coffee dispenser process. the coffee is way better but, as stated above, it takes longer to make, and they break more easily having a shorter life

LM machines do rock, but I believe that every commercial espresso machine will have a separate boiler for each steam wand and brew head, or at least the reputable brands (LM, La Spaziale, Brasilia, Rancilio, Synesso, etc.). Brew temp and steam temp are close but not close enough to simultaneously use one boiler for both steaming and brewing. Only having one boiler is the main reason most home espresso machines suck.

As far Starbucks, the switch to full auto machines made them go from bad to worse, but they've always suffered from over-roasted and (probably) stale beans.
posted by turbodog at 1:16 PM on August 7, 2006

I trained on a La Marzocca, and it was the only thing that really made the job great fun. I could pull shots for frickin' hours, and when I got home, the coffee was ground into my palms from wiping the portafilters - smelled good, and felt like work dammit. Then I moved to a store with a big hissy coffeebox, and it got kind of boring. No shot glasses so you could see the consistency of the espresso, no tamping, no tapping, no BANG BANG BANG to get the pulled coffee out of the filter. Just push, hiss, click, whirr, spurt, straight into the coffee cup. My theory that most of the customers had no idea what a proper espresso was supposed to taste like was borne out when I served them this watery crap.

S'why I started drinking frappucinos. Can't mess up crushed ice and juice. Good for hangovers too.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:06 PM on August 7, 2006

I feel your plight- I always have to get a shot of espresso in SB fraps just so I can taste the coffee.

On topic, I second carsonb. If the barista lifts up the front portion, there is a little dial in front they can turn which shortens/lengthens the pull for desired viscosity. Pull times are supposed to be checked every 2 or 4 hours, but in my experience, it was rarely done except when a big-whig came on. And this is a problem because pulls usually lengthen in time if not calibrated causing a very weak brew. Kindly suggest to the barista that the espresso is watered-down...most the ones I've dealt with will take well to your suggestion and check it out right there.
posted by jmd82 at 3:42 PM on August 8, 2006

turbodog is right--and I'd never thought I'd be contradicting matteo at all--but anything that can be rightly called a professional machine has separate boilers for coffee and steam. My home machine certainly doesn't suck, but I can't quite get a perfect cappucino out of the thing.
posted by lackutrol at 8:07 PM on August 8, 2006

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