Starbucks does the Unthinkable: Blonde Roast

Blonde Coffee Moment

Starbucks has happily shocked a lot of us by introducing a new light roast. Like anything they do, it is accompanied by media hype. Frankly, I’m happy to see them benefit from doing the right thing. I’m happy that the coffee will taste better, which I think it will because they are capable. I wanted to get my genuine positive points out first, both because it is appropriate and because it’s the right decision and it will taste better. What it is not is good marketing, which may surprise a lot of people.

This was heightened for me reading a sound byte by Robert Passikoff of Brand Keys, a New York City (marketing?) consulting firm. He said, “”It’s just good marketing. If virtually half the people say that the more European, heavier-tasting coffee is not to their liking, why not (do it)?” I could take Mr Passikoff to task for calling it more European – not, the Starbucks roast originated in San Francisco (and Alfred Peet). But, what makes me bristle more is calling it marketing. It might be paying attention to consumer trends but that is not marketing.

Good marketing is leading. Roasters such as George Howell, Oren’s Daily Roast, Counter Culture and Intelligentsia are light roast’s marketing champs. They forged ahead when angel investment groups would have looked cross-eyed that any small-time coffee guys were bucking the Starbucks “secret sauce”, the black roasted product with umami (savoriness). Starbucks marketing was so good so early and it convinced people that overroasted coffee was a virtue, that the only reason it was light roasted was to save weight loss during roasting. Still, sometimes people unchurched in the nomenclature of the coffee industry would simply say Starbucks was too strong, and this was even true among some specialty coffee folks.

Coffee strength alone was never the real problem with Starbucks, although it might seem like it at first glance. Many years ago, after Starbucks first came to rule the Evil Empire of consumer coffee, they attempted briefly to follow the Specialty Coffee Association’s hefty brewing formulas. Consumers collectively gagged and, again in a response to consumers, Starbucks hastily backed off in the brew basket. They made it less strong, but it might be argued that consumers were less in angst about the strength than that they were really tasting the stuff for the first time under the full-strength taste spotlight. The reality and the the real problem was roast. Starbucks came out a while back with a Pikes Roast, which attempted to bring their roast up a few notches lighter. It goes to show just how dark was Starbucks roasting that some, including me, were unable to appreciate Pikes as anything approaching a light roast.

The coffee business likes to pat itself on the back for marketing. It’s as if it doesn’t really believe in its product and are privately saying, “Can you believe people actually like this stuff”? There are two areas where the market (not to say “marketing”) has gone and in both these directions, Starbucks is a follower. So-called slow brew methods, such as Chemex, Hario and other drip techniques have replaced espresso with coffee aficionados. Truthfully, Starbucks never sold espresso anyway but café lattes. Slow brew means filtered coffee, which is really the specialty coffee world’s “special sauce”. Not only is Starbucks burning off the most prized flavors in their roast. They finish it off using an espresso machine. Espresso was invented as a socialist experiment to shorten the Italian coffee break and to bring forth flavors from some of the world’s least costly coffees, not exactly in lock step with the flavor seduction a Chemex can achieve with high-end beans.

Lately, espresso has become the proletariat drink and single-origin slow-brew drip the beverage choice of the literati. Witness Oliver Strand’s precious New York Times columns. Slow brew drip using some single family farm’s beans is cool. This movement was started by high-end consumers, independent farmers who learned to market their coffees using direct trade and, lastly, those high-end coffee guys previously named who stuck it out after Starbucks had attacked them and taken a good portion of their market share. Now consumers flock to them and places like Grumpys, Blue Bottle, Stumptown, all delivering a much lighter roast, and most highlighting the virtues of a small personal pot of coffee brewed per guest or couple.

Meanwhile, Starbucks has done a great job creating community centers. They are modern suburbia’s equivalent of Target, with the same uniformity. They can rightfully claim to have invented or at least won in this competition. The new roast is different. It will allow consumers to have it their way, which is a lighter way. I wish Starbucks well in joining them with the Blonde roast. It might be considered flexible and a smart response. But, it was not a marketing coup.

©2011 Kevin Sinnott All rights reserved.

Making My Best Cup: Coffee Fest 2011

I spoke of my best cup of the Coffee Fest 2011 Show as a Sumatra coffee slow brewed for me at the Counter Culture exhibit. My best coffee from Coffee Fest was the Backpacker’s Blend given me in the hall by a small-batch roaster, Kalamazoo Coffee Company from, where else, Kalamazoo, Michigan. He appeared to have just two packages of it, so it seemed all the more precious when he offered one of them to me. I came home and opened the sack to take a whiff – too dark roast, I thought. I didn’t even brew any that day. Kalamazoo Coffee, My best cup of coffee, coffeeThe next day lunchtime rolled around. I often brew something slightly darker roasted for my afternoon coffee. I chose to use the Sowden SoftBrew, which steeps the coffee. For reasons thus far unexplained by science, there’s a significant difference between steep method brewers and highly agitated drip or vacuum methods. I’ve heard plenty of conjecture, but no solid facts. Let’s just say they’re different.

To brew using this method, I decided to emulate the formula used by Peet’s Jim Reynolds in his French press tutorial in my Coffee Brewing Secrets DVD. Jim used a rather robust grounds-to-water ratio: 57grams for four six-ounce cups. Of course, I ground coarse, as coarse as my Preciso grinder would allow. I preheated the SoftBrew inside and out so that when the water was poured in to mix with the grounds it would not be suddenly cooled by unheated porcelain or the filter’s cold steel. I heated the water to a full boil, and started a stopwatch. One minute from the boil, I poured enough water over the grounds, just as Jim did. After another minute, I poured the rest of the water into the SoftBrew. I covered it and timed the entire time from the first water was place in contact with the grounds until I poured the coffee, four minutes.

kalamazoo Coffee, Sowden Softbrew, brewing coffeeOften I find steeped methods have paradoxically harsh flavor, which I believe comes from people pouring still-boiling water over the grounds. I say paradoxically because the brew often tastes underdone, indicating the water has cooled too rapidly. All steep methods are going to experience heat-loss during brewing, but the act of pre-warming the pot would seem to circumvent at least some of the initial temperature drop.

Just before I poured the coffee brewed in the SoftBrew I gave the whole mixture inside a stir. I did this because the grounds can’t help but move towards the top of the brewer during soaking. This means the coffee towards the top is going to be stronger than that at the bottom. I want everyone to enjoy the same brew strength in their cup. The stirring does increase the likelihood of fine grounds in the coffee, but I think it’s a small price to pay as well as a small increase in fines.

The coffee was perfect. The roast was definitely towards the dark side, but minus any perception of bitterness or burnt caramel that dominates so many darker roast coffees. There was still a healthy brightness of acidity in each taste. This was a coffee that would stand up to cream nicely, but I enjoyed it just as it was.

My thanks and compliments to Kalamazoo Coffee Company. It was indeed my best cup after the show.

Pin It on Pinterest