Is Starbucks Coffee Really That Bad?

As a craft coffee lover, I often get the question “so what do you think about Starbucks?”. While it may surprise many, the answer isn’t quite as simple as you may think. Here’s a few reasons why I don’t hate (but also don’t love) Starbucks.

1.) Their coffee really is burnt

First all, I don’t like most of the coffee at Starbucks. The roast levels are typically well past 2nd crack, and to me that masks the flavor of the actual coffee, and instead tastes more like carbon than coffee. This is true for the Pikes Place Roast, but even more so for their darker roasts like Verona. I have to believe that this intentional for a few reasons. One, it’s easier to replicate the same flavor of coffee across the world when your coffee tastes more like the roast character than the varietal flavors. Two, it’s easier for the coffee flavor to come through the milk and sugar based drinks, where a light roast coffee might get lost.

2.) The blonde roast and new Reserve pourovers aren’t that bad

If I am stuck in a situation where I really want a cup of coffee and there are no alternatives, I’ll often order a Blonde Roast. Although Starbucks coins the roast as light, in reality it’s somewhere around a Full City (medium) roast. The coffee, although not typically very fresh, is actually pretty high quality. The lack of freshness precludes many of the nuances that you would get at a third wave coffee shop, but the coffee is typically very balanced and not overly acidic or bitter.

The new Starbucks Reserve shops that are popping up in a few cities are even better than the Blonde Roast. I had a light roast (and truly a light roast) natural processed Ethiopian at a Starbucks near the Buffalo, NY airport, and it was surprisingly good. The coffee was brewed pourover in what looked like a Hario V60, and had some serious berry / fresh fruit notes. It was slightly over extracted, but worlds better than I expected. Hopefully this is a trend that continues, as Starbucks has the stroke and influence to bring great coffee to a number of places where you couldn’t find it previously.

3.) They give employees good benefits

Although it’s easy to hate on Starbucks for bad coffee, one thing you will have trouble saying is that they are unfair to employees. Although baristas often make close to minimum wage, Starbucks offers benefits that are typically not heard of in the retail food industry, such as health coverage, income protection, time off, tuition reimbursement, and employee assistance programs. Recent tax laws have allowed Starbucks to start raising wages, which, in my opinion, is a sign of a company that cares.

4.) They pay far amounts to their coffee growers

Per Fortune:

Starbucks (SBUX, -0.48%), which buys 461 million pounds of beans each year, created its own programs to work directly with farmers. It started seven support centers around the world, committed $50 million in farmer financing, and bought a farm in Costa Rica as a global agronomy center. The company relies on a program it developed with Conservation International called Coffee and Farmer Equity to verify that 99% of its coffee is “ethically sourced.” Starbucks paid an average price of $1.72 per pound in 2014, according to its annual global responsibility report.

The $1.72 per pound is above the typical price at the time of the article of ~$1.00 per pound, and is on the high-end of fair trade prices, which in 2014 were between $1.40 and $1.90. Recent reports have indicated Starbucks is currently paying a price of $1.92 for green coffee. Although some of the very high end coffee importers can pay much more, such as Counter Culture reportedly paying $3.37 per pound, Starbucks is leading the industry in the Fair Trade space and the sheer volume that they order has driven up green coffee prices by ushering in the “second wave” of the coffee revolution in the 1980’s.

Note that while researching this topic I did find some discrepancies in Starbucks green coffee prices. Many sources stated that the current prices were just under $2, whereas the Starbucks Sustainability Report indicated that the price in 2011 was $2.37. I’m not sure if this is really an indication that prices have gone down, although it would be possible comparing green coffee market prices from 2011 to 2018.

Current coffee prices can be found here.

Ultimately, while Starbucks is not my first choice in coffee, I am supportive of the current trend towards better coffee and am hopeful that this will bring third wave quality coffee to the masses, whil will ultimately result in better wages and incentives for coffee growers to produce high quality green coffee.

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