How Starbucks’ Own Coffee Revolution is Leaving the Chain Behind

A pickier coffee crowd is raising the bar for good java.

A woman stirs her coffee in a decorative cup.

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If you’re a coffee drinker, you probably fall into (or hover between) three different camps: the drip coffee loyalists, Starbucks junkies, and a newer brand of coffee snob who seeks out the finest beans and brewing methods. Whereas drip coffee drinkers are perfectly happy with a daily dose of Folger’s or even the stuff of gas stations, the Starbucks crowd demands a frothier, sweeter fix. The last lot, sometimes called the “third wave” of coffee culture, denounces both as bastardized excuses for java.

Coffee snobs revel in an ever-changing landscape of single-origin beans and brewing technology, and shops have been cropping up around the world catering to their heightened taste. These cafés are strikingly similar in their gritty, minimalist atmospheres and menu offerings, and they’re popular with urban millennials who crave impromptu offices with sparkling water and Swiss cheese plants.

In a way, Starbucks has created the monster, and whether it can keep up with a more conscientious coffee constituency remains to be seen.

According to Peter Giuliano, the Chief Research Officer of the Specialty Coffee Association, the various waves of coffee preferences can be tied to generations. In the early and mid-19th century, people would roast coffee at home, he says. Then first wave companies, like Maxwell House and Folgers, began commercial roasting establishments in bigger cities and grew significantly throughout the early 1900s. By the 1960s, these companies were ubiquitous, and the reaction to them constituted a second wave: Peet’s Coffee came in 1966 and Starbucks in 1971. Giuliano says that the third wave of the ’90s — characterized by coffee houses like Intelligentsia and Counter Culture — displayed a tendency to roast beans lighter and paid careful attention to the finer details of flavor.

A chart showing the connection between descriptive words and coffee flavors.
Specialty Coffee Association’s Flavor Wheel (Click to Enlarge)

What exactly are the flavors to be found in coffee, besides… coffee? The SCA has created a guide, the flavor wheel, that presents the range of flavor profiles that coffee can exude. These can be exotic and exciting, like coconut, rose, and blueberry, or a sign that something has gone wrong, as in phenolic, animalic, or petroleum notes. Often, lighter roasts will embody lighter flavors, those floral and fruity, while a darker roast will take on tones of caramel, spice, and smoke. These subtle notes are the reason many people have been embracing the third wave.

As a city-dwelling millennial, I will lunge at any and all coffee available, downing any gas station’s Colombian blend, modifying my pumpkin spice latte, indulging in a seven-dollar espresso shot, or even settling for a host’s Keurig machine. I spoke with Devony Schmidt, a Harvard law student and coffee tourist, about what makes for good coffee.

“I started drinking and caring about coffee when I was in high school in Memphis,” Schmidt says. “During undergrad, I took a coffee cupping class on campus, and someone from the local roastery walked us through different flavor profiles.” A cupping class serves as an introduction to fine coffee for many aspiring connoisseurs. From there, a world of flavor awaits.

Schmidt has travelled all over the world drinking coffee — from Finland to Vietnam to Australia — and she is as picky as they come (“I have a hard time telling you a place in New York or Boston that I like to go for coffee”). We have both noticed a prevalence of third wave cafés across this country, in likely places like Denver or Austin, but more recently to be found in college towns and Midwestern cities as well. She says Starbucks was a good introduction to the broader world of coffee for the U.S., and it appears as though Americans might be ready for the complex — and sometimes expensive — implications of specialty coffee.

Good coffee starts with good beans. Like grapes and cacao, the flavor of coffee is influenced heavily by the soil and farming practices with which it is grown: its terroir. In recent years, single-origin beans — those sourced from a single growing region — have spiked in popularity. The terms “single-farm” and “single-estate” have even entered the language of consumers looking for a uniform taste. While most coffee is made from a blend that could feature beans from any number of locations, single-origin buyers know exactly where theirs is coming from.

Schmidt says that, in her experience, this makes all the difference: “If I’m making coffee for myself in the morning, I always drink a single-origin, because there’s one overwhelming flavor profile that really defines the coffee.”

Of course, what happens to the beans after they’re grown is just as important. This is where many so-called coffee snobs take issue with Starbucks. The roasting process determines much of the flavor of the resulting brew, and the Seattle chain is known for roasting its beans on the dark side, to put it lightly.

Third-wave coffeeists might savor the subtle — or glaring — differences in coffee flavor profiles, but for a chain café uniformity is the goal. That’s why Starbucks beans are heavily roasted — or burnt, as many coffee critics have claimed. A lighter roast will preserve the delicate characteristics of a coffee bean, while roasting it further gives it a bolder taste that can be replicated en masse. The dark, bitter coffee that the green mermaid churns out is also suited well to its milky, sugary drinks. The ones that have led millions to drink there in the first place.

The final steps that stand between farm and mug are grinding the beans and brewing them. Pre-ground coffee is a no-go for Schmidt and others like her. She extols the difference in quality that one can experience simply by opting for whole beans and grinding them to order. “The difference between fresh ground beans and pre-ground ones is huge!” she says. “Some coffee blogs will say you need a burr grinder (and you can get purer flavor with one), but if you’re just starting out, any normal electric grinder will do the trick.”

The coarseness of your grind will depend on which brewing method you’re using. These can range from a five-dollar plastic pour-over to an espresso machine priced in the tens of thousands. Of course, the latter isn’t necessary for an enhanced coffee experience. A French press, with coarse grounds, is perfect for making coffee for a group with more control over temperature and steeping time than a drip machine. Schmidt uses her trusty chemex each morning. Personally, I swear by the quick and transportable Aeropress that produces almost-espresso with fine grounds.

The move toward a more authentic relationship with coffee didn’t spring out of nowhere. Millennial culture has been known — and sometimes derided — for making mainstream the pursuit of adventurous and complex flavors in food and drink. Sriracha hot sauce is more prevalent than ketchup in many refrigerators, a double IPA may be preferred over a domestic lager, and pairings with the likes of fennel, truffle, and vanilla have never been gutsier. That the newest crop of adults would embrace a global coffee culture is hardly a surprise.

“For me, it became a good way to experience a city when I travel,” Schmidt says. “You can get a feel for a particular city or location by drinking their coffee, but you can also learn a lot about the world in general by learning about the coffee you’re drinking.” She cites the exciting coffee scenes of places like Myanmar and Melbourne. In the latter, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Starbucks amongst the thriving milieu of local Australian cafés.

Giuliano, of the Specialty Coffee Association, says their research indicates that Starbucks might be just fine here in the U.S., though. While people like specialty coffee because they perceive it to be better tasting, crafted by professionals, and more sustainable and ethical, they might not necessarily give up on Starbucks in making the switch. “People might get turned on to Neapolitan-style pizza, but that doesn’t they stop eating Domino’s,” he says. Giuliani’s data suggests that third-wave consumers often encountered gateways to specialty coffee in other shops, like Starbucks or Caribou, and they still return to those mainstays even after seeking out more refined coffee.

“We are in the middle of revolutionary period,” Guiliano says, noting the definite changes in the way Americans are drinking coffee. “There is a shift to people drinking better coffee, having more preference in regard to flavor, drinking in the afternoon, and even as a culinary indulgence.” These trends, however, don’t divert remarkably from Starbucks’ offerings. With their new Starbucks Reserve brand, the big box café is offering a wider variety of roasts and brewing methods at select stores. Even Folgers is attempting to jump on the bandwagon, with the release of their new 1850 series. Their light roast, called Lantern Glow, offers notes of “Lemongrass Jasmine Tea Top” and “Sweet, Lemony Undertones,” according to their website.

Schmidt is also skeptical that third-wave coffee can inflict the same damage on the chain in America. She believes that, for all their virtues, specialty coffee shops can seem overwhelming and elitist to casual consumers, and there could always be a place for a unicorn frappuccino in the U.S. market.

Schmidt and I inevitably turned the conversation to our Starbucks drinks-of-choice, when we are forced to suck it up and patronize the place, of course. She finds herself ordering a pumpkin spice latte about once a year, and I fondly reminisce over the discontinued 2016 drink, the Chile mocha. Neither of us takes the full four pumps of syrup that are standard. “I like to call myself an unsnobby coffee snob,” she says. “I also like good wine, but there’s a soft spot for the stuff that comes in a box.”

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