With the proliferation of single brew coffee bars dedicated solely to the art of making coffee and espresso you might ask how a self-proclaimed coffee lover like myself could make Starbucks my go to coffee shop. It’s a good question. I will answer it.
I once owned a coffee bar, albeit for a short while, but during that time I was very entrenched in the coffee industry. I was passionate about brewing correctly and most importantly using good beans that were sourced properly. We had a pour over coffee bar and a $15k La Marzocco espresso machine. We bought outstanding coffee from one of the roasters I’ll mention below and never used beans that were more than 10-14 days after roast (except for our cold brew). We did everything right, or at least we tried. Well, actually we made a lot of mistakes, but point is I have a great deal of respect and love for good coffee and what it takes to get it to the customer.
Many of the single brew coffee shops are doing it right. It isn’t the niche market it was 10 years ago. These shops are quite common these days, whether they make coffee using the pour over method (most likely a Hario V60 or comparable device), Chemex, AeroPress, Filtron, Infusion, Vacuum Pot, or any other method. The general rule of thumb is that it be single brew coffee, meaning every cup is made individually for each customer. Of course some shops are now using these methods to brew larger quantities and then store in a carafe that doesn’t burn the coffee. That can also work and makes sense in terms of customer wait time. There can be a decrease in quality though.
There are bigger companies like Intelligentsia and Stumptown who have multiple locations in major cities, and then there are smaller outfits like Coava and Verve. These smaller shops still sell and ship their beans all over the country, either wholesale to be served at coffee shops or direct to consumer. All four of these shops do it well and roast/brew outstanding coffee and espresso. These are just a few of the good ones as there are dozens of great coffee roasters out there, but to avoid listing companies I will just use these four as good representations of the “boutique single brew” coffee scene.
These four all source their beans direct from the farmers and pay a fair rate instead of buying bulk off some trading floor in the U.S. without any real knowledge of how or where the beans were obtained. These companies have green coffee (bean before roasted) buyers and sometimes a team of people who go to these countries and meticulously taste and hand pick the beans they bring back. They have personal relationships with these farmers. It’s truly a great thing and this type of sourcing and direct trade has changed the coffee industry. And that’s only half the battle. Then they have to roast, which is an art in itself and a crucial step in the process. Over roasting beans is such a common problem in the mass coffee market. It happens mainly because it allows a longer shelf life for beans, and requires less attention to detail.
So, you might still be wondering how on earth Starbucks is my go to?
All the great things these “boutique” coffee companies are doing to bring the best possible product to the market comes at a price. And they have to pass that on to the customer. I believe it’s a good thing and appreciate and understand the difference in price, and the quality that you gain. The problem is, not as many places as you might think do it right. And the ones that do can be a little hard to come by, unless you live around the corner from one.
A lot of coffee bars and even roasters still charge extremely high prices for a small cup of coffee, that honestly is a little weak or too floral, and just not that good. Sometimes they are using good beans from a reputable roaster, but they don’t have the focus on brewing, or the required training, or the education. Sometimes they are simply using beans that are 21 days or more past the roast date and then combine that with mistakes in the brew process and you have a subpar $4 cup of coffee. I’ve even paid over $5 for these crappy coffees! Often times this is after waiting 10-15 minutes while some barista explains the meaning of his tattoos and adjusts the feather in his hat. I’ve always been willing to wait a little longer for a good cup, but not for a somewhat decent one. Places like Intelligentsia and Stumptown are very consistent across all locations. In my experience they always brew a very nice cup and are well worth the extra two or three dollars per coffee over a Starbucks or Coffee Bean.
Now, if you’re talking espresso or lattes then the comparison isn’t even close. They really aren’t in the same league. In that case the difference in price is minimal and the likes of Stumptown or Verve do these beverages far better than a Starbucks or Coffee Bean. The milk is higher quality and steamed properly, and the espresso is pulled with a level of control that the baristas at Starbucks simply don’t have. Espresso drinks are where these specialty coffee bars have the edge.
But in this case I’m talking about that go to coffee, that cup you must have to fight off the morning caffeine headache or afternoon drowsiness at work.
This isn’t a complaint about the roasters that do it right. It’s about the boutique coffee shops using beans from one of these reputable roasters, or their own roast, and not making coffee that matches the quality, yet still charging the same prices. You might say, well the market will weed out those places and people will choose to take their business elsewhere. I would generally agree with that statement and think it’s normally the case. But if I don’t go to this boutique place with the mediocre $4 cup, where do I go? Do I try another boutique single brew coffee shop and take the risk? See, now I’m factoring in convenience and my time driving to another place and potentially waiting 10 minutes for a subpar coffee. That’s not the mentality that someone like Intelligentsia wants. Because let’s be honest, although I can have a great cup of coffee there, I’m driving out of my way, I’m waiting in line, and will most likely spend $5-6 for a 12oz cup of coffee. If it’s a rough morning or I’m slightly hung-over after a night of rye whiskeys, that 12oz cup won’t do the trick. I need more. And even at Intelligentsia I take the risk of getting an Ethiopia single origin that might be a bit too floral for my liking. My wife often says, if I wanted a tea I would order a tea. It’s a good point. So, what has happened is the good shops suffer from their desire to sell more beans to subpar coffee shops. It has weakened the entire market or at least my perception of the market.
So, it brings me back to Starbucks. If I’m on my way to work and I need a coffee I can generally count on to be decent and strong and big, I pull into the parking lot with the big green Siren on the building. I’m sorry but I’m opting for the quick cup of coffee. It goes against a lot of what I love about coffee. But Starbucks has improved in the last couple years. They actually buy pretty good beans, although they over roast them, they aren’t bad. Granted you have to make sure you don’t get a cup from the vat of coffee that’s been sitting there for a while. But I always ask and they will generally tell me which one is freshest. As a former coffee bar owner, it pains me to say this, but its true. Starbucks has caught up enough to sway the real coffee drinkers. Many locations even offer pour over or single brew on The Clover, but of course you’re waiting a bit longer for that.
Now, if I lived within walking distance of Intelligentsia, yes, I would be there all the time. BUT even then, I’d have to factor in the difference in price and the likelihood that during busy hours I would be in line for at least 10 minutes.
Many of these boutique coffee shops or single brew bars or whatever you want to call them might say, well that’s not our customer. We don’t mind catering to someone that has a bit more time or the customer that puts quality above everything else and doesn’t mind paying for it.
I greatly appreciate what all these roasters and coffee bars are doing and frequent them on weekend afternoons or when I have a little more time and happen to be driving by a location. But not everyday or even more than twice a week.
You could compare Starbucks with the likes of Stumptown or Coava by using the analogy of a fast food joint (Starbucks) and a nice sit down restaurant (Stumptown), but I don’t think that’s quite right. The difference in product isn’t that drastic. Yes, Stumptown brews a better cup of coffee and the time and energy and creativity they put into sourcing and roasting far exceeds that of Starbucks, but at the end of the day it’s still a cup of Joe.
Coffee has more flavor profiles and is more complex than wine. I know there is a definite difference in the coffees. I understand all the arguments for direct trade single brew coffee and proper roasting practices, and I agree with them. I love great coffee and will go out of my way for it, when I have time, and it’s not a crucial part of my morning existence; a cup that could sway how good or bad my day begins.
For that, I’m sorry, but I stick with the tried and true. As I often say about many products including food and beer and wine, it’s good to have fine taste and it’s great to believe in something and the way its made or the craft involved, but sometimes there comes an elitist attitude with that thinking. People say, I only drink this type of coffee, or this beer, and that’s it. Anything less is uncivilized or horrible. I’m not afraid to say I like Starbucks. For the record, I also like Peet’s Coffee, which is in a similar category although has far less locations.
I guess the point is that all these single brew coffee bars are great, but I don’t think they’ve set themselves up as the everyday coffee choice, which is what coffee is. It’s an every day thing. It’s a morning ritual. It’s a part of life, a part of work. Most people can’t afford that $5 cup every morning, god forbid twice a day, if you drink coffee like I do. But maybe these single brew coffee joints are fine with that? They have made it sort of a luxury beverage, and maybe that’s a good thing?
But for my morning cup of coffee, in a pinch, I choose Starbucks for its convenience, speed, price, and because I know what to expect. Kill me.