A short review by Serious Eats of the new Starbucks Blonde roasts showed up in my feeds today, so I took a gander to see what they found. I'm not always in agreement with SE's coffee articles, and this time wasn't exactly the exception. Having tried Starbucks' Veranda and found it to be stale, nutty, and lifeless, I couldn't quite relate to the "fruity, more dimensional, and pleasingly acidic" findings on SE. What I did discover, though, was a very valid, and too-often overlooked insight about how Starbucks influences coffee consumers.
"As pacesetters for America's palates, Starbucks has once again done a favor for the entire coffee industry, influencing people to drink coffee of a higher quality as we shed the need for defect-masking maneuvers in production. Not roasting coffee so dark that you can't taste it—what will they think of next!"
Starbucks, like it or not, is the status quo of coffee in America. While I would be more likely to compare it to McDonald in terms of quality and ubiquity, there are an awful ot of folks who see it as a luxury brand - certainly true when comparing to more typical household canned coffee staples. I would probably believe that this new Blonde roast thing (blonde? It's a Full City for crying out loud!) is a response to the growing specialty market, but I doubt they expect to win over too many "snobs." I think they're playing at the fringes of their customer base, addressing the typical complaints of rubbery, burnt, ashy qualities in their products. As I'm sure some customers have drifted to other big chain players like Dunkin' or Tim Horton's for lighter roasts, others have found their way to quality cafes, where they can't complain about the quality, but they sure will complain about the price. Between those two subsets of lost sales, the 'Bux can try to win them back with the promise of that familiar green Siren, and lighter coffee. That's good for Starbucks, but you know, it's also good for the market as a whole.
As consumers become better acquainted with the lighter roast, as pushed by their favorite dealer, they can begin to appreciate the lighter roasts often found in specialty products, and that awareness alone can help improve overall quality coffee growth. One of the pervasive problems in providing quality coffee is breaking through what customers "know" coffee is supposed to be like. When you serve a cup of a good Kenya to a Starbucks afficionado, they might asked what flavor it is, or what you've added to it. You and I may know that between terroir, processing, and freshness, that saliva-inducing wine and berry acidity just comes naturally. But to the uninitiated, it's a defect - this isn't the bitter, two-creams-two-sugars brew they know to be coffee. That Kenya may in fact be too fancy for them, and they might reject it. But if you roast the Kenya darker, you lose everything there is that's unique about it, it just becomes generic Coffee. I've spoken with a few roasters about this subject, one of whom is local, and found that, yes, the specialty industry roasts too light for most people, we are the insurgents.
So how do the people who prefer to treat coffee as culinary stand up to the giants that mass-produce the dark oily stuff? For years, it's been to consistently provide a better product, and erode the customer base little by little. After all, any sort of quality-tuned business naturally has a smaller market niche, and most can deal with that just fine. But the Blonde move might present an alternative, as Starbucks -while certainly not nailing its own coffin lid - may be building the bridge to driving more specialty sales. A 'Bux customer, who's been so mainly for convenience, may try Veranda or Willow and enjoy it, and wonder who else sells lighter roasts. By doing so, they may find themselves at one of the specialty giants, or even one of the underdogs, and enjoy those offerings just as much or more. The possibility of accidentally converting their customers to better coffee is, I'm sure, something Starbucks has considered, but I personally find it to be a quite exciting prospect.