July was not a good month for me, coffee-wise. You see, I work near York Mills and Don Mills, which is a terrible area if you are hungry, thirsty or tired. There is little in the way of good food, and even less in the way of good coffee.
And last month, two of the “best” options for espresso in the area — Tim Hortons and Artisano — underwent renovations at the exact same time. Which meant that in order to get an espresso, I had to go to the place that cannot be named.
Fine, I’ll name it. I had to go to Starbucks. This place is not good, especially if you’re an espresso jerk like me. I’m the kind of guy to swish espresso around in my mouth like it’s wine, but I’m not completely obtuse. I drink Tim Hortons espresso on the regular, for utilitarian purposes, because it is actually palatable. Not good, but palatable. I can’t say the same for the place that cannot be named.
Many people think espresso is supposed to be mostly bitter, but a good shot is a thing of balanced beauty. It can be citrusy, nutty, sweet and yes, bitter too, but not overwhelmingly so. For good espresso in Toronto, go to Lit, Café Pamenar or Sam James Coffee Bar.
Starbucks espresso was a good candidate for this column. I am convinced that it’s one of the grossest things you can buy, anywhere, period. There is absolutely no balance to it. It’s acrid bitter with an aftertaste of acrid bitter. The texture is watery. There is little to no crema. It has notes of turpentine, tar and botched moonshine, the kind that makes you go blind.
I have felt this way about Starbucks for a long time. There is a lot of pent up rage going on here. How can a business get away with selling such a shoddy product? And it’s not like espresso is a side project for Starbucks. It is the very foundation of all the other terrible, foamy beverages Starbucks sells.
I raised the issue with Starbucks a while back, over Twitter.
Hey @StarbucksCanada, how do you make such grotesque espresso? Seriously, I am fascinated.
— Jon Sufrin (@jsufrin) November 13, 2012
In hindsight, I may have been a bit rude about it, which is probably why I didn’t get an answer. But to gain some insight in the matter, I got in touch with Sam James. This man makes some of the best coffee in the city. He’s not exactly an unbiased source, considering Starbucks is a competitor of his — kind of — but I wanted to hear his feedback.
“It’s like the worst of the worst,” he confirmed. “It tastes like Windex filtered through burned toast.”
James recently did a taste test of espresso from major coffee chains — Tim Hortons, Timothy’s, Aroma, Second Cup and Starbucks — and concluded that Starbucks was by far the worst.
“Tar bucks [sic] was in a league of its own,” he said. “I’m convinced I’ll get mouth cancer from that one espresso I had there.”
Tim Hortons, he found, was the most flavourful of the bunch. And here’s the best part: a shot of espresso at Tim Hortons is 63 freaking cents, taxes in, while at Starbucks it’s $1.85. Starbucks is almost three times as expensive, and many times more gross.
James had a number of theories as to why Starbucks espresso is so bad. He wondered if it’s possible to buy quality coffee beans at such massive quantities. He also posited that Starbucks purposely over-roasts its coffee — hence the dark, oily beans and the notorious burned flavour — because it is easier to maintain consistency that way. He also pointed out that Starbucks baristas have no power to make necessary adjustments for good coffee, because their machines are mostly automatic.
All of these seemed like valid explanations. But I wanted to hear Starbucks’ responses to them. So I got in touch with Starbucks’ media people and asked them, in a more diplomatic way, why the espresso sucks.
What followed was a very awkward conversation over speaker phone a few days later between me, a publicist and a brand manager with Starbucks.
I don’t know exactly what I was hoping to get out of the interview. Maybe a roundabout admission that we cannot expect perfection from such a high-volume company. But I got the opposite of that. I was told that shortcuts are never taken, ever. Only the best beans in the world are used, always. The machines are adjustable, kind of. The coffee is batch-roasted, meticulously. The crema is there, and it is thick (see photo above, taken less than a minute after the shot was pulled). And each coffee gets tasted at least 26 times for quality control before it hits stores. All of that effort is to create a specific flavour profile that, apparently, the customers want.
Well, I have to give it to Starbucks. Blaming the customer was certainly an interesting way of dealing with the situation.
The weird conversation wrapped up with a suggestion that maybe I could head over to one of the stores to do some more tasting. Maybe I could even get behind the bar.
“We’re not trying to make a convert out of you,” the publicist assured me.
“I don’t think that would happen,” I responded.
Conclusion: Starbucks espresso is gross.
Jon Sufrin is the editor of PostCity.com. For his column, Eating Gross Things, he eats things that are widely considered to be gross and writes about it. He has no scientific method to determine what “gross” means. The article is just meant to be fun, so relax. For more of his thoughts on stuff, gross and not, follow him on Twitter. If you would like to suggest a gross food item for him to try, email him at email@example.com.