At a Glance: blend (non-specific Latin American blend - Starbucks corporate informed me that their regional sources are proprietary information that not even most of their employees are told); medium body; fruit, mellow, roasty, nutty; low acidity; washed

Hello there, coffee connoisseurs. Welcome back to my table here in the corner of this cafe. We’re going to do something much different today, veering away from our normal course (which is specialty coffee) and instead setting our sights on the coffee corporation powerhouse that is Starbucks Coffee Company.

Ready to sell out? Feel free to pull up a chair.

Now, no matter how you feel about Starbucks’ coffee, or how you feel about Starbucks as a corporation, there is nobody that can deny that Starbucks has done more to raise coffee awareness over the past twenty or so years than any other coffee company in the world. Starbucks, for better or worse, made coffee wildly popular and established it as an American social institution for the first time since beatniks took over coffee houses in the Village during the 1960’s.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met baristas or roastmasters from really awesome specialty coffee companies who tell me, “I got my start at Starbucks. They introduced me to coffee and first sparked my appreciation for it.” The same goes for Peet’s Coffee and Tea, which also gets some flack in the specialty coffee industry – the owners of Metropolis Coffee Company and Dark Matter Coffee Company (Tony Dreyfuss and Jesse Diaz, respectiely) and I all got our start at Peet’s.

So, whether you want to admit it or not, we each should be grateful to the Starbucks Coffee Company for having such a profound influence in the coffee world.

However, Starbucks is actually the laughing stock of the specialty coffee industry. Nobody takes the company seriously as a coffee provider. Some of the criticism may stem from jealousy of Starbucks’ insane popularity and success, but most of the criticism is aimed directly at the quality of their coffee. Their beans are over-roasted, well past the point of second crack; the coffee is bitter, smoky, ashy, astringent, and plastic-like; the body is way too bold to actually enjoy.

So the obvious question is, how the heck did the company get so damn popular?

Well, in the early 1990’s, companies like Starbucks, Peet’s, and Gloria Jean’s, through powerful and affective marketing, convinced consumers that bold was beautiful; that full-bodied, dark-roasted coffees were the definition of premium. And people bought it. Before you could say “Venti triple mochaccino extra foam,” Starbucks somehow became one of the most successful corporations in the world. No longer were people satisfied with their lightly-roasted, light-bodied, flavorless Folger’s and Maxwell House – they wanted their coffee to kick them in their teeth! They wanted their coffee to be extreme! They wanted their coffee to make them feel like they had just drank a powerful cup of coffee instead of watered down, mass-produced, cheapo grocery store shelf coffee!

Fast forward ten or fifteen years, and people are still chugging Starbucks Coffee like it’s going out of fashion, but they’re starting to criticize it. Starbucks starts losing business. Starbucks starts closing stores for the first time in umpteen years, retraining their baristas, dredging their former CEO, Howard Schultz, out of retirement – all to somehow, once again, make profit in the billions of dollars (instead of the measly millions). But there were a few things at work against them: 1) their coffee tasted terrible, 2) the entire world fell into a deep recession, 3) people started cutting back their spending, and 4) Starbucks is insanely expensive.

Starbucks regulars started falling to the wayside, but companies like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts were there with nets to drag them in. Their coffee is cheaper (which is a big plus in a failing economy), and lighter-roasted, possibly even having more flavor. Then, of course, the so-called “third wave” came into full swing in the early 2000’s, and consumers who abandoned Starbucks were now tasting incredibly flavorful specialty coffees and asking themselves “What the heck was I drinking before??” Now, even as America is slowly coming out of recession and Americans are gradually finding employment, Starbucks isn’t enjoying the sort of success it once did. The damage was already done, and their customers were lost.

So now they’re trying to get them back by competing with McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and specialty coffee retails head-on. Consumers demanded lighter-roasted, more flavorful coffee, so Starbucks is doing their best to deliver with their brand new Blonde roast coffees: Veranda Blend, Willow Blend, and Decaf Willow Blend. These coffees were roasted lighter, and Starbucks boasts that they’re “subtle and soft with mellow acidity, and deliver an approachable and flavorful cup with slight hints of roast.”

(Boy, they just won’t let go of that “hints of roast” thing will they…)

So, naturally, being a person that has certain strong feelings towards Starbucks Coffee Company, and also being a person that’s dating a person who works at Starbucks and can get me free samples of it, I wanted to see for myself if this whole “Blonde” thing is anything to shout about. Today, we’re sipping the Veranda Blend.

The first thing I have to say about the Veranda Blend is this: it’s still very much a Starbucks coffee. It is much lighter-bodied, for sure; it’s even more flavorful; but when their website says “a flavorful cup with slight hints of roast,” they’re not kidding – that signature Starbucks roastiness is still there. So, buyer beware – if you’re a Starbucks regular that’s looking to switch from Pike Place to Veranda because you want to escape smoky roastiness, don’t fool yourself; you’re not getting permanently away from it that easily.

This coffee is much, much more flavorful than the rest of Starbucks’ offerings (and, by that, I of course mean this coffee has flavor). It’s certainly mellow, not nearly as intense on the palate as their other roasts. It has a nice, clean finish with a fair amount of acidity, and not much of an aftertaste. The roastiness that’s still present does leave behind a slightly astringent mouthfeel and a bit of bitterness – but these don’t even come close to the way their French Roast will make you feel after each sip.

Here’s the thing that surprised me most, though – as the cup cooled, I actually tasted fruitiness. A really sweet watermelon juiciness that was there – … And then it was gone. Almost instantly. It was like there was some sort of rift in the time/coffee continuum that was open for about ten seconds and allowed this dash of fruit to come through, but then closed for the rest of the cup.

The Bottom Line

Okay – I feel so incredibly dirty for admitting this – I actually kinda, sorta didn’t mind Starbucks Veranda Blend. I want to make that perfectly clear: I didn’t mind it. That’s not to say I loved it, that’s not to say I’m going to rush out and buy another pound of this coffee. But, I didn’t mind it. There! I said it! Stone me if you must! But this coffee actually isn’t too bad… For Starbucks. It’s actually surprisingly good… For Starbucks.

And all puns and jokes about “hot, tall Blonde” or “sexy short Blonde” or “mucho grande Blonde” aside, I actually think Starbucks Coffee Company has reached a bit of a milestone in humility – rather than convincing consumers that big, bold coffees are the way to go, they instead listened to the consumer and supplied the demand for a lighter-bodied coffee. It really shows that they’re at least willing to entertain the thought that their coffee isn’t actually as premium or specialty as they once thought.

Then again, I’m not an idiot; this change to “make the customer happy” is probably just a ploy to steal customers from fast food chains and make lots and lots of money.

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