Blonde isn’t always beautiful

Starbucks Blonde espressoToday, I received a lovely email message from Starbucks telling me that they’ve added a new kind of espresso: blonde espresso.  “Smooth without the roasty edge,” they claimed. “Wonderful!” was my reaction. I’ve waited a long time for the mass market to catch up with what local roasters have known for a long time: blonde is beautiful.

I’ve written before about how mass market coffee roasters consistently over-roast their beans. Most Americans think of good coffee beans–if they think about the beans at all–as dark, with an oily sheen. In fact, many retailers use “espresso roast” as a synonym for “really, really dark roast.” This is simply not true, as any European–certainly any Italian–would know.

So, today I visited my local Starbucks: freshly built in the last two months, having replaced another Starbucks about 100 yards away that didn’t have a drive-through. I used a reward to snag a Grande Blonde Flat White (the “Blonde” being the new bit), and sat down to see if I could tell the difference.

I was looking for extra acidity: the flavor notes that add fruity, tangy, chocolatey lusciousness to the drink, like a cocktail without the alcohol or candy without the sugar. That’s what I love about my home-roasted beans or the light or medium roasted beans from a retailer when you know they’re from good quality beans and were roasted recently. It takes a strong, hot, bitter drink and turns it into a strong, hot, twang-zing-zip-pow drink. That’s what happens when I brew coffee at home using Starbuck’s light-roasted beans (Veranda or Willow). I was hoping for something like that.

What I tasted was pretty disappointing. The “roasty edge” that usually covers up the origin flavors may not have been there (hard to tell, really), but it wasn’t clear that there was anything “uncovered” by its lack, either.

I’m not sure exactly what’s wrong. It’s definitely inferior to what I get when I brew coffee at home using Starbuck’s light roast beans. But there are several possible causes for results like these, and figuring out which is happening could tell us if there’s hope for improvement in the future. (Or not.)

  1. It could be that the beans being used in the store aren’t as fresh or as high-quality as the ones that are sold in bags as “light-roasted” beans. This seems unlikely, though, because coffee shops typically go through beans very quickly, so the beans they use in the store are almost always fresher than those sold in bags. And I can’t think of any good reason they wouldn’t use the same beans that they sell.
  2. It could be that the equipment they’re using for grinding or brewing isn’t adjusted for light roast espresso. This seems more likely, as the taste I got could easily have been caused by a misconfigured grinder (too coarse or too fine) or the wrong combination of water temperature and timing. Over brewing will destroy origin flavor and yield the same bitterness as over roasting. With a dark roast, mistakes in the grinding or brewing could easily be mistaken as the “roasty edge” from over roasting. With a light roast, though, you really need to get these things right or you’ll destroy the great flavors.
  3. It could be that their equipment hasn’t been cleaned since using dark roasted beans for espresso. (Yuck!)

If it’s reason #1, there’s no hope for improvement. A product that uses inferior beans is just bad and isn’t likely to improve over time.

If it’s reasons #2 or #3, though, there’s hope. Corporate HQ could send instructions and trainers who can fix issues with equipment settings and brewing technique. And unclean equipment can be fixed by training and local management.

I’d be willing to bet it’s the latter and that there’s hope for improvement. Time will tell.

What won’t change, of course, is their business model. It’s still far more economical to buy high-quality, unroasted beans and then roast them, grind them, and brew them at home.  (It’s a better deal for the growers, too.)  At Starbucks, what you’re really paying for are labor, branding, and market leverage (lower sale price for the growers). The coffee comes along for the ride.

Coffee Zen

I’ve recently been simplifying my coffee equipment at home, aiming for low-maintenance, inexpensive equipment without sacrificing the great coffee. Here’s my latest.

Lee's latest coffee setup1 – Cuisinart electric kettle. Add water, pick a temperature, and wait for the beep! Couldn’t be easier.

2 – Rancilio Rocky “doserless” burr grinder. This is the one essential–but expensive–component. (More important than a fancy brewer!) If you want great coffee, you need a fresh grind (ideally, right before you brew) and the grounds have to be consistently the right size, which means it must be a burr grinder.

3 – Aeropress. This is where the magic happens. Like a french press, but faster and with higher pressure. Add ground coffee (use a finer espresso grind, not the coarser french press grind), pour in water, and push the plunger. Voila!

4 – Scoop. For transferring ground coffee from the grinder to the Aeropress. (Comes with Aeropress.) For simplicity, I grind directly into the scoop.

5 – Milk frother. Warm the milk in a coffee mug in the microwave, then use this basic $10 frother for foam. It’s not quite the same as a steamer, but close enough for me and Kristin.

6 – Knock box. When finished with the Aeropress, dump the used grounds here. (This is leftover from when I used an espresso machine and had to actually knock the grounds out of the filter cup. Now it’s just a handy place to put the grounds.)

7 – Chocolate syrup and cinnamon. I always dust my lattés and flat whites with cinnamon. (Get the good stuff in bulk from Penzeys.) Everybody needs a mocha now and then, right?

Bonus: This setup is ridiculously easy to take and use while traveling! Grind some coffee before leaving, put it in a bag, and pack the rest. Most places these days have a microwave for heating water and milk.

What isn’t shown here, of course, is the coffee! I prefer to roast my own, starting with single origins from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Indonesia and sourced through Sweet Maria’s, but my roaster gave up the ghost recently. So I’ve temporarily fallen back to my favorite source of fairly traded coffee, Equal Exchange. Their espresso blends are terrific and usually quite fresh. I keep the cost down by buying the 5-pound wholesale bags.