Bold or Blonde: Does Your Coffee Roast Matter?

Baristas bending over rows of fresh coffee at a tasting. Professional baristas leaning over a row of freshly ground coffee, taking in the aroma, at a coffee tasting with different varieties of roasted coffee beans

The Starbucks phenomenon began in 1971 at Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, when a small coffee shop started offering its customers a wide variety of coffee drinks. The phenomenon, which spawned hundreds, maybe thousands, of copycat companies trying to replicate Starbucks’ success, has contributed tremendously to coffee culture. Anyone living in the NYC area has either heard or stated that “there’s a Starbucks on every corner.” It soon became the face and name of coffee, much like Coca-Cola became the representative soft drink. (My southern mother says she’s going to have a Coke even when she’s going to drink Sprite or Pepsi).

With the proliferation of their stores, Starbucks entered the routine of millions of Americans lives. That kind of popularity only leads to the power to influence trends and tastes. Accordingly, Starbucks is cited as the source of the Dark Roast trend in American coffee culture. Many speculate that the dark roasting and, to be honest, over-roasting of Starbucks coffee beans comes from efforts to hide the fact that the company is using the cheapest and lowest quality beans in its brews. It seems inevitable that when a popular company begins expanding and spreading its popularity, they start to go cheaper to balance the costs of opening new locations.

Starbucks, the coffee shop on every corner, has expanded extensively from its small Seattle shop. That expansion is reflected in the burnt beans they grind and serve to their loyal customers. Roasters will burn the low-quality beans—which are naturally very bitter—to hide the fact that they are low quality. Masterful marketing turned this money-saving, quality-sacrificing practice, which leaves the coffee tasting bitter and burned, into the preferred coffee taste for most coffee-shop patrons.

Why does it matter?

Firstly, it matters because the extremely burnt quality of Starbucks’ everyday coffee beans tells us that they most likely use the lowest-quality beans for these brews. In recent years they’ve introduced the “blonde roast,” which gives patrons the option of a less-burnt taste. The use of the word “blonde” however creates connotations with dumb blondes and weak femininity. This means that they’ll offer you the chance for something that isn’t as bitter but you might very well feel judged and belittled while you consume it. This is a strategy to keep the majority of their patrons buying the burnt, crappy beans. Using words like “bold” to describe the dark, dark roast, builds positive associations around it.

Secondly, the roast of a coffee bean has a significant impact not only on its flavor but also on its caffeine content. When Starbucks tells you that your burnt coffee is a bold exclamation point, they don’t mean that it provides a stronger energy boost, it just means that it kicks you in the mouth with that flavor. The facts are, the darker the roast, the lower the caffeine content.

The dark roast, with beans looking black or black brown, has the lowest caffeine content of any of the roasts. Coffee beans begin their lives as a softer green version of what you grind for your morning cup. To get to that black color takes a lot of cooking. Think about cooking anything else, if you overcook meat it becomes tough and dry. If you overcook vegetables they lose almost all of their nutritional benefits. This applies to coffee as well, taste aside, the longer you roast a coffee bean the more caffeine is going to be cooked out. Dark roasts’ caffeine content is significantly decreased. This brings us back to that dipsy, don’t-take-her-seriously blonde roast alternative. This coffee bean is actually cooked for the least amount of time and therefore retains the majority of its natural caffeine content. Less cooking also means that more of the natural flavor profile is present, giving the coffee a complexity beyond “burnt” and “bitter.” There isn’t an unpleasant after-taste. When I drink the Blonde versus the regular Pikes Place brew, I have to put significantly less milk and sweetener into my cup because there is a less unpleasant flavor to camouflage. This makes my coffee drinking healthier as well. And, because of the higher caffeine content, I need fewer refills, which saves me money. This isn’t so great for Starbucks, who likely counts on the weak caffeine content of their regular coffee to keep customers coming back to recharge.

People like what they like. They like reliability and familiarity. Part of the reason Starbucks has become the phenomenon it is is because it banks on routine. People will come back to what they know, repeatedly if they can (especially if they’re addicted) and they’ll depend on the flavors they’ve grown accustomed to. And when that energy dwindles, they’ll come back again. In metropolitan areas, coffee shops are the first stop for the majority of medium-wage workers; they aren’t necessarily interested in the experience of a cup of coffee. They’re there to get in, get out and wake up! They don’t care so much about the taste as long as it’s reliable and wakes them up. The lighter roast tastes better, is just as fast (unless it’s a weekend and they aren’t brewing it) and provides a more potent caffeine kick. It’s something to consider.

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10 Comments

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  1. The article image – made me wish I could join them fellas! Haha 😀

    But seriously, I had no idea about the blonde roast. I’ll have to ask the barista about it the next time I stop into Starbucks.

    Also, is it possible that it’s not available everywhere? I remember asking about the pink drink, but it wasn’t available at every location…. that’s also something to think about.

  2. The blond roast sounds really good. I can’t handle the bitter taste of black coffee and I always drown it in milk and sugar. It sound like that with blond roast it might actually be light enough to have plain. I really must try this at some point.

  3. If you are one of the coffee enthusiast you would definitely know that starbucks coffee is made from low quality beans suitable for youngsters and young professionals. Most of my customers (oldies) does not prefer drinking coffee in starbucks because they can taste it and they dont like it. Sorry starbucks! I know you already know this (this is already an open secret) no offense meant if someone from starbucks reading this. 😀

  4. Wow! This article is amazing! I never thought that blond roast has greater caffeine content that those with bold. And I thought Starbucks offers those high-quality beans because of the price value compared to those simple coffee shops. This post gave me new information today.

  5. If you have a coffee shop and want it to look like a professional coffee shop, I think different types of roasts are a must.
    Customers with bigger knowledge of coffee will come to your shop and ask if you have a dark or light roast, and if the answer is no, it might make you look amateur-ish, and even worse, bad word might spread for your business.
    So, if one plans to open a serious coffee shop with its own products, different types of roasts are essential according to me.

  6. I’ve never really understood the charm of plain old black coffee. I always enjoyed my coffee with lots of milk and sugar, as I only like coffee’s bitterness as a nice little tang to the drink. Whenever I ask friends who have more ‘refined’ tastes in coffee, they describe the best coffee is definitely very bitter. Their recommendations? Starbucks coffee in their regular roast.
    Now, this isn’t to say that their opinion is wrong, but I think it’s a bit dangerous at how influential this cafe chain is. If they have convinced a large group of people that their burnt brews are the golden standard of coffee drinking, it’s easy to see a decline in the coffee industry.
    I personally don’t think that Starbucks call their blonde brew because of the female blonde analogy (also, that is very very sexist). Other coffee roasters have used the term for their coffees. Simply because blonde is a color, and this light roast gives out a golden colored brown liquid.

  7. I’ve heard of blonde roast before, but I didn’t really know what it was before this article. I’ll have to try it next time I make my way into a Starbucks. Generally, I prefer the stronger “bold” coffees, but I do tend to dilute them almost entirely with milk and sugar. I think it would be interesting to see if I’d need less of that in a blonde roast.

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