For the past ten years or so smaller, hipper, more nimble roasting companies have dominated the coffee conversation in America, outflanking Starbucks in roast style (lighter than Starbucks), freshness (roast-dated packaging), coffee selection (precisely identified seasonal small lots), brewing (by the cup, often by hand), and even design sensibility (usually blunt, simple and utilitarian, often reflecting the bold shapes and primary colors of retro Russian Revolution design).
But then, a few months ago, Starbucks opened its palatial Reserve Roastery in Seattle, a spectacular answer to the challenge of the growing swarm of its newer, more-authentic-than-thou competitors. The new Seattle Roastery appears to be intended as a full-on counter-attack: “OK, we may have 21,000 locations worldwide and roast a zillion pounds of coffee per year, and we may be huge and corporate,” this facility seems to say, “but we are still a true coffee company, and what you guys can do, we can do as well or better.”
The facility and its operations reflect most current tastes and trends in high-end coffee with impressive perception and intelligence. The plant and its demonstration-style layout illustrate fine coffee production with an almost museum-like thoroughness. The visual design is impressive, tactfully interpreting current tastes with materially rich understatement: cupper, leather, fine woods. The green coffees are precisely sourced and described. The coffee in the tasting room is brewed by the cup using the visitor’s choice of brewing method, from Chemex through siphon.
Bigger than the other guys, certainly, and more discreetly spectacular for sure. But what about the coffees?
Upstairs and Downstairs
The Seattle Reserve Roastery coffee production takes place on two levels. On the upper level a smaller roasting machine produces smaller batches of well-selected, very high-end, often micro-lot coffees that are sold in bulk only to walk-in customers at the Roastery. On the lower level a considerably larger roasting machine produces larger batches of outstanding, if somewhat less rare, coffees. These larger volume coffees are packed in state-of-the-art atmosphere-protected valve bags and (unlike coffees from the smaller roasting machine on the upper level), are available for purchase both via the Internet and at other Starbucks locations. They bear a “best by” date eight months out from roasting.
We tested five coffees from the elite small-volume upstairs operation, and three from the larger-volume downstairs operation. The five presumably rarer “upstairs” coffees were purchased at the Roastery (the only place to purchase them); the “downstairs” coffees were purchased via the Internet. Interestingly, there were broad differences in average degree or darkness of roast between the “upstairs” scooped coffees and the “downstairs” valve-bag coffees. But more on that later.
Benchmarking the Starbucks
In order to put these eight Starbucks Counterattack coffees in context, we decided to cup them side-by-side next to a range of coffees purchased from three similar (though more modest) demonstration roastery operations of the kind that helped fuel the trends that the Starbucks Reserve Roastery is imitating and out-scaling. To that end we purchased four coffees from an in-store roastery in Berkeley, California operated by Allegro Coffee (a subsidiary of Whole Foods Market), four samples from the Oakland, California roastery of Blue Bottle Coffee, and three from Coffee Review advertiser Victrola Coffee, whose modest roastery-café is located across the street from the grand new Starbucks facility. All were purchased in person, in-store except the Victrola samples, which we arranged to have sent to us. (However, all of the Victrola samples were pulled from stock available to walk-in customers on the day they were shipped). All samples, including the Starbucks, were roast-dated on the bags and quite fresh when we cupped them.
The Difference: The Roast
So how did the Starbucks Reserve coffees match up with the coffees from these three similar but smaller, longer-established, more modestly housed competitors?
The big difference (surprisingly for me) was in the roast. The Blue Bottle, Allegro and Victrola coffees all were light-to-medium roasted. In other words, they were roasted in the currently fashionable style: light enough to allow the character of the green coffee to dominate the profile. On the other hand, the Starbucks coffees were all, to varying degrees, darker-roasted. The impact of the roast tended to be foregrounded, not the green coffee.
Of course, you may think, that makes sense. Starbucks is a dark-roasting company. But in fact it is not one any longer. It has featured its “Blonde” medium roasts for some time now next to its traditional darker roasts. More importantly, the new Seattle Reserve Roastery is clearly an attempt to compete with a whole generation of new competitors, all of whom roast lighter.
To sum up: The spectacle of the roasting and brewing at the new Starbucks facility thoughtfully reflects current trends. The green coffee selection and description reflect current trends. What flat out goes against current trends are the darker roast styles.
Dark but Inconsistently So
If the roast styles chosen for this new line of coffees were just a little darker than the latest light-roasting trend I would applaud Starbucks for giving consumers an option they don’t really have very much of at present, which is a moderately dark-roasted, sweet, chocolaty cup with a good deal of the character of the green coffee preserved and just a hint of roast taste. In other words, something that strikes a balance between the bright fruit, honey and flowers of definitively lighter roasts and the bittersweetness of uncompromising dark roasts.
At this point that option is not much available to consumers, at least not as applied to the best green coffees. The marketplace seems polarized between aggressive dark roasts and uncompromising lighter roasts.
And, in fact, three of the new Starbucks reserve coffees we cupped for this article did come close to landing in that middle ground: the rare, expensive, prize-winning Brazil Sitio Baixadao (reviewed here at 92), the Kenya Sangana (reviewed here at 90) and the Tanzania Kimuli (rated 90, not reviewed).
However, the other five of the eight Reserve samples we tested were not roasted moderately dark. They were roasted quite dark, and apparently irrationally so. The Hawaii 100% Kona Perry Farm, a coffee whose simplicity and balance would seem to call for sensitive roasting, was subjected to a nuance-destroying dark roast. It is reviewed here at 87. Another presumably subtle coffee, and probably a very good one, the Brazil Sertãozinho, was treated even worse in the roaster.
Although final roast colors were on an average darker with the “downstairs” Reserve Roastery samples, overall there was no discernible pattern to which coffees were brought to a moderately dark roast and which were roasted definitively (and often tactlessly) dark. In a facility in which every detail, even the cups in the tasting room, has been lavished with thought and attention, the roasting act, perhaps the most important determinant of coffee character and quality after the green coffee itself, appears haphazard and arbitrary. And, from a consumer’s perspective, unpredictable.
Lighter-Roasted and Higher-Rated
One thing was clear, however. The eleven coffees we purchased from the three smaller Starbucks competitors all rated better than the Starbucks did. Much better. They all were roasted light or medium-light, they all were roasted consistently, and they all were roasted well.
Starbucks Reserve: 88.25
Allegro Coffee: 92.0
Blue Bottle Coffee: 92.0
Victrola Coffee: 94.0
However, if we only include in our comparison the three Starbucks samples that were roasted moderately dark rather than full-on dark, their average would be 91.0 – only a point lower than the Allegro and Blue Bottle averages. Which suggests to me, again, that the Roastery Reserve program is buying excellent coffees, but subjecting them to what would appear to be arbitrary roast profiling, a profiling not related to either the potential of the green coffees or to coherent positioning in the marketplace.
In the reviews associated with this report, we review the highest- and lowest-rated coffees from each of the three Starbucks competitors – Allegro, Blue Bottle and Victrola – plus the two highest-rated and two of the lowest-rated of the eight Starbucks samples.
Spectacle or Coffee?
I hope that Starbucks Reserve management gets a handle on the roasting, and begins to handle it as coherently and deliberately as it has everything else about its impressive new facility. Otherwise Starbucks could be accused, justifiably I think, of caring more about the marketing spectacle of its amazing Roastery than about the quality and character of the coffee that Roastery produces.