Two weeks ago Starbucks made a big announcement. Bigger than dropping their written name from their logo (which I never covered), and bigger than this month’s roll out of Starbucks k-cups. On October 18th, the green giant announced that it would start selling lighter roasted blends, misleadingly named Blonde.
This is big for several reasons.
First, it supports the notion that a growing segment of the market realizes that Pike Place tastes like charcoal and they’re looking for something not-so-burnt. It may also encourage other roasters—who were worried that the size of the light roast market would not support their business—to lighten their roasts. If the market for lighter roasted coffee is big enough to gain Starbuck’s attention, there’s enough room for the small guys to compete in better ways and with more panache.
I’ve previously written about the uselessness of the term “bold,” and Starbuck’s role in perpetuating its use. Like it or not, the size of their business allows them to shape the language and perception of coffee for many people. How many independent coffee shops regularly get requests for tall, grande and venti drinks? Or have upset customers who ordered a macchiato, by serving them a shot of espresso with a bit of foam on top—where’s my caramel!? If Startbucks and its ginormous $2 billion dollar marketing megaphone can get people to think lighter roasts are a good thing—it allows the roasters who have already been roasting more enjoyable coffee to reach more people.
All of that said, there’s one big caveat to the Blonde roast—it’s not actually “light.” The new roast has been compared to the “milder taste” and “lighter roasts” of Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonalds, not Tim Wendelboe and Intelligentsia. So there is a bit of subjectivity in how the Blonde roast has been described. In the Starbucks video that announced the new roast, two Starbuck’s roasters discussed the process saying:
We went through 80 to 100 iterations…we were narrowing in on it for quite a while. At second pop is where we found the sweet spot for Blonde roast.
Second pop? On my recent trip to The Coffee Collective in Copenhagen, the first pop (or crack) took place in the cooling tray of the roaster. There’s usually another minute or two between the first and second crack in roasting, which means the Blonde roast is being cooked for 10% longer (or more) than light roasts that tend to highlight the taste of the coffee and not the roast. Not that its a fair comparison, since Nordic roasters are often teased for simply brewing green coffee, but it does put things into perspective.
For the sake of those who truely do roast light, its nice that Starbucks choose the name “Blonde” instead of “light,” even though it’s really medium dark. Just because Blonde is roasted lighter than the other Starbuck’s coffee (which isn’t hard to do), doesn’t make it a light roast. But it does make for great marketing, who doesn’t love a tall blonde?
So will Starbuck’s Blonde roast steal customers away from other roasters who have been roasting lighter for years—highly doubtful. Will it open the door for those same roasters to have conversations with new customers about lighter coffee—absolutely. It may even make the occasional, intolerable cup of airport coffee, slightly more tolerable.