Tom's Rant on Starbucks Coffee

A friend of mine wanted to get some coffee and suggested a nearby Starbucks but my other friend said, "I don't go to Starbucks because my brother-in-law told me their secret. They just use 'green' beans and burn them to hide the fact that they're cheap beans."

This sounded like a bit of an Urban Legend, so I thought I'd look into it. Now there are plenty of reasons not to like Starbucks. But 'green beans' isn't them, because the fact is ALL coffee comes from 'green beans'.

Coffee fruit (called a 'cherry') is ripened on the plant until it is red but underneath the red skin is a greenish-beige bean (seed) called a 'green bean'; the industry term for unroasted coffee.

Does Starbucks buy cheap beans? Of course, that's just good business to buy low and sell high. But are they low quality? Not necessesarily. Because Starbucks beans are certainly higher quality than the mass market crap (ie. Tasters Choice, Folgers, etc.). How do I know this? Because Starbucks uses 100% Arabica beans to make their coffee while mass market coffee is made mostly from Robusta beans.

Much like there are different varieties of apples (ie. Red Delicious, Macintosh, etc.) there are two main varieties of commercially grown coffee plants: Arabica and Robusta

Arabica makes up 70% of the exported coffee to the US but Arabica doesn't grow in as wide variety of climates. It grows best above 1800ft and is therefore often grown on mountainous tropical areas (ie. Kona, Java, Sumatra, the Columbian mountains, etc.). Being harder to produce, it's therefore more expensive.

Robusta grows in a much wider variety of climates and can grows best in lowlands below 1800 feet and is therefore cheaper to produce. Brazil is the largest coffee producing country, almost all of it is Robusta and most of it sold to, yes you guessed it, mass market coffee companies.

Robusta beans unfortunately don't have the same rich flavor as Arabica beans. You can tell you've been drinking Robusta coffee because it has a woody after-taste. Brew a pot of mass market coffee, even their so-called "gourmet" or "dark roast" blends and you'll find that it tastes like they've been brewed with a pinch of sawdust. Look at the ingredients listing and you'll see that mass market coffee is made from an Arabica/Robusta blend (and from the obvious taste, more Robusta than Arabica): pages/coffee/tech/10-15-03TechnicalReleaseSheetFolgersFlavorFilterPack.pdf

Personally, I try to avoid Starbucks and support independent 'gourmet' coffee shops. But if it wasn't for Starbucks, it would be that much harder to find good coffee anywhere. I'm old enough to remember when coffee was the black, paint-thinner, tasting crap you'd get at 7-eleven, Burger King, or Denny's. And you'd drink it, often throwing in lots of milk and sugar to try and make it palatable, because you thought this is what coffee was supposed to taste like.

Sure a lucky 1% of the country that lived in Northern California or the Pacific Northwest, had coffee shops with great coffee (Starbucks and Pete's started in Seattle and Berkeley.) But even in New York and L.A. up until the late 80's you really search out a good cafe' that served espresso/cappuccino. Now you can find one in every neighborhood. And now you can get a good coffee in just about any city in the country.

Granted, Starbucks may have hurt the business of a few small independent coffee houses, but in the long-run they've given them more customers by educating the rest of the country about quality coffee. Loyal coffee customers stay loyal, so if a small coffee house went belly-up during the 90's it's more likely because their rent went up or mismanagement.

Starbucks does tend to roast their beans darker than most, more closely resembling a an Italian/French style roast, which is darker than a Vienna roast which is again darker than the average 'City Roast'. Is this burnt coffee? No, burnt coffee is coffee that's been left on a heating element for over 30 minutes. You know, the coffee that's in the urn on the 'warming' pad at most deli's or at the 7-eleven. That's burnt. All you taste is the harsh bitterness left because all the rich coffee oils have been evaporated away (which is what gives fresh coffee it's richer flavor).

Is darker roasting better? Yes and no. I love espresso roast as a rule, but some beans such as those grown in Java or Sumatra have a rich buttery flavor that can be lost if roasted too dark, so in those cases I would go with a medium roast. And to the coffee purist, the best flavor comes from the freshest roasted coffee (ie. you roast them just before you brew it). Super coffee snobs buy green beans and roast their coffee at home. I can't be bothered, my mornings are busy enough.

If you think Starbucks tastes burnt, well than that's your fair opinion. I don't think it's burnt but do find it's a bit too acidic/dry, I prefer slightly mellower blends like medium-dark roasted Kona that I get from Hawaii. If you prefer the woody taste of mass market Robusta beans and love truck stop coffee, then more power to you. Just please, don't pass on that stupid rumor about Starubucks burning their coffee.

Now remember my friend who didn't like Starbucks? Well it turns out her Brother-in-Law from whom she got this 'secret' info works for–surprise–a corporation that owns a mass market coffee brand. Very likely this "secret" was company disinformation started by the mass market coffee manufacturers to try and hurt their biggest competitor: Starbucks. Because if it wasn't for Starbucks, they rest of the country wouldn't have realized that Folgers and Maxwell House, et all are pretty mediocre.