Starbucks. There’s a lot to love about those guys. They’ve managed to combine milk, sugar, and something brown (maybe coffee?) in massively addictive ways. They’ve got more than 21,000 freakin’ stores, which makes them a pretty serious player in the global fast food market. They’re also (arguably) responsible for bringing specialty coffee into the the mainstream American consciousness — but in doing so, they seem to have completely lost their grip on the industry, and maybe on reality.
Cold Brew is just one new item on a growing list of questionable Starbucks offerings. And we can only imagine the decision-making process behind these truly ridiculous offerings.
The cameras fade in. We’re inside the board room at Starbucks Headquarters. The scene is dark and musty, with lanterns lit along the walls like in a Masonic dungeon. The seats are filled by rumpled-suit wearing, hollow-faced men who have managed to move from one Starbucks to another for the past few decades without ever breathing air from the outside world.
At the head of the table sits The Supreme Leader of Coffee. The underlings toss ideas out to the group. “What if we made something that was like our normal coffee, but we didn’t burn it quite so much?”, someone suggests. An uproar breaks out. “Traitor!”, cries one of the Rumple-Suits. “Blasphemy!”, spits another, “Light-to-Medium Roasted beans? That nonsense is for heathens and Scandinavians and people who want to taste the coffee in their coffee.”
The uproar continues, until The Supreme Leader silences the room with a glance. For a moment, he stares out into the room, wordlessly stroking the weird Seattle-style pet he keeps on his lap, which is probably, like, an albino snake or a hairless dog or a small, unnaturally docile human being. “I like it,” he says. “We’ll call it ‘Blonde Roast.’ But it’s a new thing, that we invented. No one has ever thought of this before.” The room explodes in praise and wholehearted acceptance of this fresh, original idea that Starbucks came up with, not anyone else, ever.
“What if we send our baristas to college?” says one especially meak Rumple-Suit. “It’d look great, from a public relations perspective.” Anger glimmers in the Supreme Leader’s eyes. Rage flows from within him, giving way to a cautious calm. “Educate the employees, you say. I like this idea. We’ll provide those millennials with the illusion of Opportunity now, so that in a few years when their dreams have been dashed to the rocks, they’ll have no choice but to stay in our service, forever! I know just the place that will trick them into thinking that we care, without actually allowing them the luxury of earning an education: we’ll send them all to Arizona State University… online!” Once more, the room explodes in a mixture of applause and sadistic laughter.
Another underling finds the courage to chime in. “I hear that the people like this… ‘Soda.’ It’s sugar and water — like what we sell, but without the addition of brown dye and artificial coffee flavoring.” The room is hushed, fearfully waiting for the response of The Supreme Leader. After a very pregnant pause, he replies. “Water with sugar. I like this new idea of ours. We’ll call it…. fizzio.” The word echoes throughout the room, casting a spell that causes many of the members to dissipate into smoke, never to be seen or heard from again. The Supreme Leader laughs maniacally. End scene.
The marketing effort behind Starbucks' “newest" product has been impressive, and more than a little off-base. Their website is an excellent example of this. It starts, “We use a unique craft-brewing process to to create a super smooth tasting coffee you won't find anywhere else.” Let’s break this sentence down.
First, “We use a unique craft-brewing process.” This process is far from unique. As a matter of fact, the Japanese have been doing it for hundreds of years, and the method has become increasingly ubiquitous in shops across the United States over the past decade or two. Not unique. Not special. Not even remotely interesting, at this point.
Second, calling this method “craft-brewing” is kind of a stretch. Here are all of the items required to make cold brew: some sort of vessel, coarsely ground coffee, cold water, and some sort of strainer. Here’s the procedure: put coffee in the vessel. Dump cold water on it. Let it sit for at least 12-24 hours. Strain. We’ve MacGyver-ed it in a 5-gallon pickle bucket using a pillowcase as a strainer. Implying that this process requires any kind of skill is absolutely absurd.
The web page goes on. “We carefully created a blend of coffee beans from Latin America and Africa.” Thanks for the specifics, guys. It’s not like Africa is a giant freakin’ continent, or anything.
“Preparation Matters. Then we coarsely ground our beans to slowly extract a consistent, full-body flavor.” Proof-reading is key, y’all. Sorry, but that pair of sentences is just the worst. Full-bodied! It’s not body flavored! (We hope.)
“This no-heat, lengthy approach produces a distinctly sweet, smooth coffee.” See below.
“20-hours. That’s how long your barista gently slow-steeps the coffee in cool water.” Our barista is working a 20-hour shift? Should “slow-steeps” really be used as an action verb?
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“The result. A delicious cup of cold brew coffee that is balanced and smooth, with hints of citrus and chocolate.”
Our notes for this coffee are just a little different from Starbucks' — when we tried it, we got kind of an engine-exhaust aroma, with notes of "rubber tires", "making out with a smoker", and "sadness". We agree that, when executed correctly, cold-brewed coffee can be a really sweet, complex flavor experience (“distinctly sweet and smooth,” to borrow a line from the Starbucks site). But that’s contingent on starting with good coffee. Cold brewing really dredges out all the flavors in a bean, so if there’s anything icky in there, it’ll only get amplified in the cup. We tried two sips in earnest, desperately searching for the citrus and chocolate we were promised.
Instead, we found only stomach-curdling despair in that cup.