At a Glance: blend (Sumatra, Latin America); full-bodied; smoky, cinnamon, spicy, burnt; no acidity

Happy December, coffee friends! Welcome back to my table here in the corner of this cafe. Well, December is here and that magical Christmahanukkwanzikaa feeling is in the air. Here at the table, we won’t be doing many cafe reviews (if any) this month, as we are dedicating December to reviews of different coffee company’s holiday roasts and holiday gift ideas. Hopefully over the course of this month, you’ll be able to generate some ideas to ensure that the coffee lover in your immediate circle will have the greatest Christmahanukkwanzikaa ever.

Feel free to pull up a chair.

Everybody knows that nothing says “Christmas” like corporate commercialization. And everybody knows that no corporation is better at commercialization than Starbucks Coffee Company—the juggernaut of American coffee consumption. And with all the commercialization shoved in our faces everyday between Halloween and Christmas Day on television, radio, and in every department store we walk into, it’s no wonder that Americans are losing sight of what the holidays are all about. And with the complete market saturation Starbucks Coffee Company has been displaying for the past twenty-some years, with their massive popularity, and with their billions upon billions of dollars that they rake in every year, it’s no wonder that most people have completely lost sight of what coffee should be.

I guess Starbucks and the holiday season go hand in hand.

Coffee and coffee shops have become a bit of a joke in popular culture. We’re all familiar with the media’s idea of what a barista looks like: long, shaggy hair, thick-framed, horn-rimmed glasses, a bracelet made of hemp, etcetera. We’re all familiar with the general public’s resistance to cafes because the prices are just too astronomically high for “nothing more than a cup of coffee with some milk in it.” That’s the reason so many people stick to Folger’s and Hill’s Brothers. These are also the same people that say, “Coffee is coffee. It all tastes exactly the same, so there’s no reason to pay more for it.”

Hey. As long as we’re being honest, if they’re talking about Starbucks, they’re right. I’ve yet to taste a Starbucks coffee that didn’t taste exactly like the one before it. I’ve yet to taste one where my tasting notes journal didn’t read “smoky, bold, ashy” afterwords. This is Starbucks tradition—roasting their beans into oblivion.

And since the holiday season is all about tradition, no one should be surprised that the 2011 Starbucks Christmas Blend remains true to Starbucks form: over-roasted.

The first thing you notice about the Christmas Blend is its peculiar and pungent aroma as soon as you open the bag. Now, itt’s very difficult to describe without saying abused tasting terms like “smoky,” so I’m going to take a stab at a more creative way to describe it, while sticking to the Christmas theme—the aroma was a tinge of burnt reindeer fur with hint of smoldering ashes after a wildfire in a forest of pine trees in the North Pole. It smells like Santa’s famous red suit after his jolly belly lodges him in a narrow chimney while chestnuts roast on an open fire just below him.

I wish I could report that the flavor is different, but it really isn’t. It may even be worse, I haven’t decided yet.

This roast is a blend of their infamous Sumatra, another “aged” Sumatra bean, and a non-descript “Latin America” source (or sources). I’m very curious about what Starbucks means when they describe the second Sumatra bean as “aged,” because their website reads that these “rare” beans have been “aged three to five years.” In the coffee world, “aged” usually means that the cherries on the vine were left alone for a few months even after they were fully ripened to absorb more sun, rain, and other airborne elements. In the case of this aged Sumatra bean, it seems that they put the beans in a cask of some sort, and shoved them into the corner of their warehouse for a few years. I’m not sure.

As far as the Latin American source is concerned, “the region that shall not be named,” I contacted the company a few times to find out which Latin American region is represented in their Christmas Blend, but to no avail—they merely told me, “Christmas Blend is a blend of Latin American, Sumatra and our Aged Sumatra. Spicy and delicious” even though I asked them to tell me which specific Latin American regions were represented. Of course, you can’t expect a multi-billion dollar corporation to be transparent with their customers. When I asked a couple of the employees at one of their Chicago stores, only one of them knew any of the regions in the blend. Of course, you can’t expect a multi-billion dollar corporation to be transparent with their employees either.

With some coffees, if I close my eyes really tight and taste with all my might, I can identify different regions in a multi-region blend; but with Starbucks’ roasting all a region’s famous flavors out of the bean, it’s next to impossible to do a blind taste test. With this coffee’s smokiness and other slight flavor nuances, I’d guess that the Latin America is either Brazil, Costa Rica, or Honduras.

These “other slight flavor nuances,” I will admit, were a treat—they really were. The Christmas Blend had some herbal notes, a lot of spice, earthiness, and hints of cinnamon, cardamon, and cedar. Perhaps the woodiness I tasted could have been pine—it’s a fairly syrupy coffee. Now, if this blend were being roasted by any other coffee company, I’m sure I would’ve really liked it. However, because the head roastmaster at Starbucks Coffee Company apparently enjoys taking little catnaps while he’s roasting the beans, these delightful flavors were almost completely masked by smokiness and char.

What’s worse than the taste of the coffee is the aftertaste. Immediately after each sip, the coffee sparkled on my palate with Christmas cheer and the spiciness did pirouettes at the tip of my tongue. But moments later, I actually got an upset stomach and I started feeling a little nauseous. It even made my teeth feel weird. My mouth actually naturally formed into a grimace without my realizing it until Ashley asked me what the matter was. The only thing I can really liken to the aftertaste to is chain-smoking an entire pack of cigarettes, or smoking a full-bodied Cuban cigar on an empty stomach. It’s not that the coffee was acidic or anything, it actually had no acidity—it’s just so heavy, so burnt, so smoky, so ashy. You know that moment of panic when you accidentally taste a sip of a soda that somebody tapped their cigarette butt into?

Yeah. It’s a lot like that.

The Bottom Line

Starbucks Coffee Company’s Christmas Blend is very easily at the top of my naughty list. It’s intensely smoky and vastly over-burnt. It had some nice notes of herbs, spice, and cedar, but those flavors weren’t nearly strong enough to poke their heads through the thick layers of smoke and roastiness. Now, I’ve never been a big fan of Starbucks’ coffee, but there are at least a couple of them that I didn’t hate or even dislike—their (RED) blend comes to mind as one I actually kind of liked. But their 2011 Christmas Blend… Well.

Let me just put it like this: if a person you’re shopping for this holiday season has been a naughty boy or girl, forego the coal and instead put a bag of Starbucks Christmas Blend in their stocking. It’ll have the same effect.

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