For years, Dunkin' Donuts reigned supreme as the king of fast-food coffee, towering over a field of lesser brews. Then, one day, Starbucks (SBUX) came along with pricier gourmet options, and the the war was on.
Recently, as the two waged their bitter battle to become the country's caffeine champion, McDonald's (MCD) entered the fray with McCafé, a brave attempt to muscle in on America's growing taste for premium coffee. Proclaiming the delicious flavor of its McCafé specialty coffee blend, a brew that "comes from Brazil and the mountains of Sumatra, Guatemala and Costa Rica," the clown and his cohorts have transformed a coffee field that was once easy to navigate into a desperately complicated mix of flavors and prices.
To get a better idea about which coffee is best -- and which offers the best bang for the buck -- we decided to conduct a semi-scientific survey of the big three: Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's and Starbucks. Posing as normal customers, we picked up a few cups of large coffee at each restaurant and served them to 10 tasters that we randomly chose from The Huffington Post/AOL newsroom. To make things even more interesting, we also tested out our own office coffee. Consider it a sort of control group.
In terms of price per ounce, the three competitors were fairly close: Dunkin' Donuts, the cheapest, cost $0.103 per ounce, while McDonald's weighed in at a slightly more expensive $0.105 per ounce. Starbucks was the most expensive, priced slightly more than $0.12 per ounce.
And the Winner Is...
But that extra 2 cents per ounce went a long way. Our tasters described top scorer Starbucks as "Nutty and smooth," "A solid cup of coffee," and "Delish!" Some felt that it was slightly weak, but it was far and away the most popular brand, easily eclipsing AOL's (AOL) house coffee, which took second place.
McDonald's came in for far harsher treatment: the more positive reviews noted that it was "slightly nutty," "not too bitter" and had a "sour start, but decent aftertaste," but the majority of commenters were more critical. The most consistent complaint was its lack of flavor. One reviewer asked, "Was that actually coffee?" Another opined: "It might just be water."
But even McDonalds' tough treatment paled in comparison to the torrent of abuse that faced Dunkin' Donuts. The most positive comments merely noted that it was "acidic" and didn't have "much punch." Two other reviewers independently described it as "gross," while another complained that it was "sour and smells strange." It was also attacked as being "super bitter" and "too watery."
Factoring in both cost and flavor, Starbucks still retained its top position: it scored almost twice as high as Dunkin' Donuts and easily outpaced McDonald's. However, for those who are pinching pennies, McCafé appears to be an acceptable option. As for Dunkin' Donuts, the former leader clearly needs to reconsider its recipe if it wants to stay in the game.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.