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.