Why America Can't Get a Great Cup of Coffee

When it comes to ground coffee, blends of beans from two or more regions or countries are the most popular sellers in America. Sadly, this means most coffee buyers aren't getting a great cup of java, says Consumer Reports. In a test whose results were released this morning, none of the 37 caffeinated and decaffeinated varieties tasted by Consumer Reports experts rated as either "excellent" or "very good." The best of the "good," however, was a familiar (and often top-priced) name: Starbucks (SBUX) House Blend. Green Mountain Signature Nantucket Blend Medium Roast was equally good, and 12 other caffeinated blends scored lesser "good" ratings.Tasters looking for "smoothness and complexity, with no off-flavors" and beans "neither under-roasted nor charred" and, of all things, "subtle top notes" were left wanting -- unsurprisingly, to this coffee lover who has failed to find complexity, subtle top notes and a lack of off-flavors from any blends, even those from small, independent coffee roasters who produce what is considered the crème de la crème of those tropical beans. Only using single-estate or single-origin beans have I been able to brew a smooth, complex, subtle cup of coffee from the offerings on grocery store shelves.

And then there's the roasting: Most large roasters miss the perfect balance between under-roasted and "charred," (or, to use the term the rest of us do, "burnt"). Even for the great small-batch roasters, it's not a sure thing. I'm frequently left wishing a coffee roaster had turned off the heat on a batch a little sooner.

Starbucks critics won't be surprised to hear the tasting notes on its House Blend, "an earthy, woody taste" just like the Green Mountain Signature Nantucket Blend, but "fairly bitter to very bitter darker roast." Over the years that I have written about Starbucks, the accusation of "burnt taste" has been the most constant comment, and I continue to wonder why the chain has determined to make over-roasting its signature. According to the Food Geek, this is done for consistency (in other words, to hide the variations in beans' flavors), but I needed more information so I contacted a micro-roaster in Portland, Ore., Charlie Wicker of Trailhead Coffee Roasters.

When I told him about the results of Consumer Reports' tests, he laughed. "Starbucks is burnt into oblivion!" he said, and I asked him why coffee might be over-roasted. He described to me the way a coffee maker develops a "roasting profile," in which a roaster will change the temperature at certain points in the roasting process. Most small, independent coffee roasters will cook a batch for 12 to 16 minutes; he roasts his for right around 15 minutes. "Roasters can bring that down to seven or eight minutes, and save a significant amount of money [by] turning up the heat and roasting it fast," he said. "I'm guessing that's what Starbucks is doing." He isn't the only one who holds this opinion.

Roasting for Consistency and Cost Control

There is a significant bright spot, though, for the coffee giant. Last month, in the analyst conference call held following its first fiscal quarter 2010 results, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz mentioned that the "flavor profile" of its Seattle's Best brand was "more approachable," "a hidden treasure for the company in terms of its mass appeal." He's right, says Consumer Reports, describing Seattle's Best Blend Decaf Light Roast as the best for "decaf drinkers on a budget" at only 15 cents a cup; compared to 11 cents a cup for the best value of caffeinated coffee, Melitta Classic Blend Road, and the same price for the with-caf Seattle's Best Breakfast Blend.

Failing to make the grade were many of what Consumer Reports called "revered companies," including Kraft Foods Inc's (KFT) Maxwell House and the JM Smuckers Co.'s (SJM) stalwart brand Folgers. These "languish near the bottom of Consumer Reports Ratings."

I asked Wicker to tell me more about why blends might taste so awful. Was it something about blending itself, I asked? Were single-origin coffees superior by their very nature? Not really, he answered, and as I expected, the parallels to wines were many. In both wines and coffees, blends are intended to combine the positive components of two different batches of grapes or beans to "make something that's better." You might take one that's sweet and another that's spicy to create a "that particular flavor you're looking for." This allows roasters to maintain consistency despite the differences in harvests: One year's beans might be sweeter due to a particularly cold growing season, while another year's might be unusually tangy.

For big coffee companies selling millions of pounds of beans at an economical price point, however, blending achieves a different goal: decreasing costs. Wicker says it's sensible to assume most companies are using a "relatively cheap baseline" bean "and a small amount of more expensive coffee to add those high notes" to make their coffee interesting -- much as big wineries do with different sorts and vintages of grapes.

There's No Arguing With Taste

With Consumer Reports' goal of educating consumers about their best choices, the magazine's ratings make a big difference in sales for many products. In this market, we have a huge preponderance of companies and brands with products that are mediocre at best (and this is one of those rare times that cliché is statistically true). Will consumers, now enlightened, forgo buying these bad-tasting blends and switch to small independent roasters?

It's extremely unlikely. Ground bean coffee buyers are motivated far more by brand marketing than by experts' ratings. To bring another parallel from the wine industry, a recent study showed that inexperienced wine drinkers -- those who typically drank cheap wine -- actually prefer inexpensive wine in blind taste tests, while the experts, as one would expect, pooh-pooh the low-cost vintages. If a panel of Folgers faithful were to convene to test these 37 blends, I'd bet the results would be turned on their head.

The vast majority of Americans may be cursed with coffee that tops out at the middle-of-the-road. But they're drinking it up anyway, and the experts of Consumer Reports will hardly slow them down.
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