Date: May 2009

Column/Title: McDonald's vs. Starbucks: A Milky Skirmish in the Coffee Wars

Author: Kenneth Davids with Ted Stachura

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The latest front in what the business press likes to call the Coffee Wars is clearly more a battle about frothed milk, whipped cream and syrup than about coffee. McDonald's is rolling out its McCaf&##233; line of espresso-based (OK, milk-based) beverages with a national advertising assault of old-fashioned scale and intensity, while Starbucks, the Chain that Brought the Caff&##232; Latte to Main Street (plus strip malls, high-rise lobbies, et al) has retaliated with full-page ads in the The New York Times, ads of the reasonable-sounding, text-heavy type that non-profit organizations run to set the record straight on political, social and economic issues of great importance to the Republic.

The business press calls winners on the basis of the bottom line, and generally appears to be of the opinion that the Arches will wreak considerable havoc on the Mermaid. The battle front that seems to have escaped much comment so far, however, is how the beverages themselves stack up. Frothed milk can be frothed in different ways, some syrups are better than other syrups, and the drinks can be assembled differently. Finally, coffee is buried in the drink somewhere, and its character and quality does have an impact on how much pleasure we take in all of the milk and the syrups.

Hence our McDonald's/Starbucks espresso beverage taste test: one skirmish observed in the Great War.

We sampled four different hot, espresso-based beverages in two McDonald's Northern California locations offering the new McCaf&##233; menu, and the analogous four beverages at two nearby Starbucks locations.

Our choices: A cappuccino, caff&##232; latte, caff&##232; mocha (espresso, frothed milk and chocolate syrup) and caramel latte. (Note that Starbucks retains the traditional "caff&##232;" in "caff&##232; latte" and "caff&##232; mocha," whereas McDonald's reflects current vernacular by shortening the names to "latte" and "mocha.") We bought the modest, twelve-ounce size of each of the four beverages ("tall" at Starbucks, "small" at McDonald's). Our assumption was that by attentively sampling the four we could get a general idea of how the programs generally match up from a sensory perspective.

In reporting our evaluations, we decided against deploying the usual Coffee Review 100-point rating system as too recondite when applied to what are essentially coffee-powered versions of fountain beverages. Instead we used the familiar schoolroom A through F scale.

A pure taste comparison of two sets of similar beverages overlooks other major differences between the two programs, of course. For example, the potential number of variations available to the consumer (in syrups, in milks, etc.) is much larger at Starbucks than at McDonald's. McDonald's offers a choice of five syrups. The local Starbucks offered twelve. McDonald's offers two milk options, Starbucks five, including soy (for 40 cents more). The Starbucks website claims that if one considers "our milk options, number of shots, various syrups and the choice of whip or no-whip, we have up to 87,000 different drink combinations." You can squeeze a lot of options out of the much simpler McDonald's menu too, but nowhere near that daunting number.

Then there is the "we know coffee" angle pushed by the Starbucks New York Times ads. An ordinary straight espresso without milk was not a menu option at the two McDonald's we visited, for instance. When I asked whether I could order one, the counter person consulted a manager who indicated that this was possible, but even after a button-poking run through the cash register data base she could not tell me how much that simple drink might cost. Admittedly a pure shot of espresso is not a frequent order at Starbucks either, but it is on the menu. In fact, if you look unhappy or Italian enough, the staff may even rummage in a cabinet in back of the cash register and produce a properly scaled, ceramic demitasse for your straight shot. Both programs are heavily automated, but McDonald's is more so. Starbucks uses what are called automatic espresso machines, devices that grind the beans and brew the coffee at the touch of a button. But at Starbucks the barista still froths the milk and combines it with the coffee, a step that is automated as well at McDonald's.

The trade-off, presumably, is price. McDonald's is cheaper: about 17% to 18% less for the cappuccinos and caff&##232; lattes we sampled in our part of California, 26% less for the caff&##232; mocha.

So on to the test: Are you likely to find 17% to 26% more pleasure in your beverages at Starbucks than you would in the less expensive versions at McDonald's?

For the record, neither Starbucks nor McDonald's produced anything like a classic Italian cappuccino, in which milk brought to a dense-textured, soupy froth is poured into a single serving of espresso. In the classic cappuccino the densely bubbled milk draws the espresso up into its heart, and the two settle out deliciously into liquid as one drinks. Instead Starbucks served us a "dry" cappuccino, a Seattle-inspired version of the beverage in which a stiff, fluffy head of froth floats atop a short, strong mixture of coffee and milk. The McDonald's cappuccino, on the other hand, consisted of a more coffee-heavy version of a caff&##232; latte, ten ounces of milk and coffee topped by a thinnish head of big-bubbled froth. In our ratings, by the way, we did not punish any of these beverages for straying from their classic antecedents. We simply asked ourselves how generally pleasing a combination of coffee, milk and (when relevant) syrups they represented.

The drink: Two servings of espresso topped by about the same volume of 2% milk plus a head of fluffy, meringue-like froth that reached the top of the twelve-ounce cup. The milk and coffee together supply about five to six ounces of powerfully coffee-influenced liquid under the cup-filling white fluff.

The price (at our Northern California Starbucks): $2.65, tax included.

The quality: Starbucks' sharp, dark-roasted coffee dominated the small volume of milk, with little tendency to display the rounder chocolate and caramel notes that milk can coax out of a darker roasted coffee like Starbucks'. Nevertheless, we found the rough, slightly burned, roasty notes bracing, the mouthfeel naturally full and syrupy, the finish dry but with a hint of chocolate. The white fluff was irrelevant, aside from the threat it posed to one's nose during the initial attempt to get down to the liquid underneath. Grade B-.

The drink: Considerably milkier than the Starbucks version. Two servings of espresso in about ten ounces of hot whole milk with a thin layer of coarse-bubbled froth topping the mix of coffee and milk. Essentially a caff&##232; latte with emphasis on the caff&##232;.

The price: $1.99, or $2.19 with tax.

The quality: A pleasant beverage, with a good balance of coffee and milk flavors. Unfortunately, the coffee contribution seemed woody and inert, sparing us the slightly burned sharpness of the Starbucks coffee but without replacing it with anything livelier or more interesting. Grade: B-.

The Cappuccino Challenge: Slight edge to Starbucks, though some may prefer the more coffee-muted McDonald's version with its larger proportion of milk to coffee.

Both McDonald's and Starbucks served very similar versions of the caff&##232; latte, a rather simple beverage involving a lot of hot milk topped by a thin layer of froth with just enough espresso (in the case of our samples, one serving) to make the milk taste vaguely coffee-flavored.

The drink: See above. Made with the Starbucks default 2% reduced fat milk.

The price (at our Northern California Starbucks): $2.65, tax included.

The quality: The coffee presence was muted but pleasing: the sharp, slightly burned coffee flavor dominant in the Starbucks cappuccino softened here to chocolate and caramel, with even a hint of mint in the finish. One of our two sample drinks was flatter than the other, with less chocolate suggestion. Nevertheless, a good version of the beverage. Grade: B-.

The drink: See above. Made with the McDonald's default 3% whole milk.

The price: $1.99, or $2.19 with tax.

The quality: The milk seemed to intensify the flat woody character of the coffee without promoting much in the way of compensating flavor. The coffee imparted no natural chocolate or caramel suggestions to the milk that I could detect. Grade: C+.

The Caff&##232; Latte Challenge: Definite edge to Starbucks, which was similar to the McDonald's but with a livelier coffee flavor.

The mocha is a sweet-tooth favorite in American espresso cuisine. Contemporary versions put a serving of espresso plus chocolate syrup into a caff&##232;-latte quantity of hot milk, topped by a thin layer of froth and, at the customer's discretion, a modest mound of whipped cream. This was clearly the featured beverage at the McCaf&##233; locations we visited, where banners and signs pictured it in creamy splendor, the whipped cream topping crisscrossed with a golden-arches grid of chocolate syrup dribbles.

The drink: About ten ounces of milk flavored by one serving of espresso and a discreet shot of sweetened chocolate syrup, topped with whipped cream (whipping cream from a dairy supplier with vanilla and propellant but no other ingredients added).

The price (at our Northern California Starbucks): $2.95, tax included.

The quality: The milk was sweetly but subtly flavored with what seemed to be good quality chocolate syrup. The coffee flavor was difficult to clearly pick out behind the chocolate, milk and whipped cream residue; nevertheless it made its presence felt, giving the chocolate sweetness a pleasingly bittersweet, grown-up edge. Grade: B.

The drink: A caff&##232; latte with a lot of added chocolate and sugar, topped with Reddi-wip Original (canned whipped cream with significant additional ingredients).

The price: $1.99, or $2.19 with tax.

The quality: Sugar and cheap-tasting chocolate syrup dominated both milk and coffee. Distinctly oily, chemical-tasting finish. Better when ordered without the Reddi-wip. Essentially came across as a not-very-good hot chocolate with bonus caffeine. Grade: D-.

The Mocha Challenge: Edge to Starbucks big-time, although the Starbucks version costs 76 cents more than the McDonald's.

I am told that vanilla and caramel syrups reign as the public's favorite additions to milk-based espresso beverages (following chocolate, of course). A caramel latte does not appear on either McDonald's or Starbucks menus, but is one of the favorites among the 87,000 beverage variations Starbucks boasts about, and the counter person at McDonald's certainly knew what I was asking for: A caff&##232; latte with an added shot of caramel syrup. At both McDonald's and Starbucks the caramel latte is not served with whipped cream unless the customer requests it. We tried it without.

The drink: A caff&##232; latte made with the default 2% reduced fat milk with a generous squeeze of either caramel sauce (the kind that is added to sundaes) or caramel syrup. We chose caramel sauce.

The price (at our Northern California Starbucks): $2.95, tax included.

The quality: A very distinct, heavy-bodied caramel flavor dominates the drink, though without excessive or cloying sweetness. Only the remotest hint of the presence of coffee. Grade: B-.

The drink: A caff&##232; latte made with the default whole milk with added caramel syrup.

The price: $2.29, or $2.51 with tax.

The quality: The caramel presence is less dominating than the chocolate added to the McDonald's mocha; nevertheless it is cloyingly sweet, shallow in sensation and distinctly metallic-tasting, especially in the finish. Grade: D.

The Caramel Latte Challenge: Chalk up another one for Starbucks.

It appears that at this front of the war you get what you pay for, particularly when it comes to drinks that include syrups and whipped cream.

Although we preferred the more intense Starbucks cappuccino to the milkier McDonald's version, many consumers understandably may prefer the McDonald's. The difference in caff&##232; lattes was subtle, perhaps not worth fussing over for most palates, although we found the Starbucks version livelier and more nuanced.

However, the superiority of the Starbucks versions of caff&##232; mocha and caramel latte was dramatic, and significant, given consumer preference for espresso beverages involving added syrups. From what we could tell, Starbucks simply used considerably better quality syrups and whipped cream and added them with a subtler, more controlled hand.

Finally, it appeared to us that the darker roasted, sharper and more pungent Starbucks espresso blend, although much derided by coffee insiders ("Charbucks"), nevertheless contributed a livelier and more complex coffee flavor to the milk and flavorings than did the apparently rather woody and flat McDonald's blend.

Readers of Coffee Review know that I am not a Starbucks basher of the kind typical in the specialty coffee industry. On the other hand, it should be clear from the pattern of our review ratings that we do not cut any slack for Starbucks either. And I am certainly not a McDonald's basher, harboring as I do considerable gratification at the success of the McDonald's premium drip program in revealing that many Americans prefer a classic traditional drip coffee to the dark-roasted Starbucks style.

In other words, with this article we are not taking sides in some vaguely ideological conflict between corporate styles and customer demographics. We are simply doing our best to describe what you are likely to taste at the point you pry the plastic top off your logo-adorned cup of milk, coffee and syrup.

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