We got a champion barista to rank second-wave coffees like Starbucks
In the spectrum of coffee, the two poles are the crappy grounds your parents drink and the new-school roasters who're trekking through jungles to find the fairest of traded beans. But in between exists a middle ground: the second-wave roasters, who brought espresso drinks to the masses despite their inability to spell even the simplest names. To judge how these titans of the industry stack up, we enlisted Lorenzo Perkins -- certified coffee instructor at Cuvée and executive council member of the Barista Guild of America -- to put five of these second-gen roasters to the test. And to keep him honest, we snuck in the champion of our last taste-test (Community) and a ringer: a bag of small batch from the roaster ranked most favorably in our poll of coffee geeks, Counter Culture.
First, we had our taster do a round of smells, getting his nose right up in there and breaking the seal of the grounds to unleash a torrent of aromas. Then the coffee went through several rounds of tastings to see how the flavors developed as they cooled. This is how they ranked:
7. Seattle's Best
Aromas: Really nasty, rubbery
First flavors: Carbon, lack of sweetness, smoke, tar
Second flavors: What flavor existed fell apart and turned into burnt caramel, according to Perkins.
6. Community Coffee
Aromas: Caramel, candy bar
First flavors: Neutral and blandish. A little gamey. Moderate acidity, but doesn't really taste like anything.
Second flavors: Falls apart and loses its structure and body. Perkins even calls it "leathery". And this was the champ of our mainstream coffee test!
Aromas: Cardboard, peanut shell... just generally weird
First flavors: It tastes like they're older beans; cardboard and papery. There's some acidity, but it's not very balanced.
Second flavors: The acidity becomes more pronounced, and a more rounded character emerges with hints of red cherry and overripe strawberry. The paper notes are still there, though, and it's a big turn-off.
4. Peet's Coffee
Aromas: Dark chocolate
First flavors: Cigar-like... and not a great cigar. More like a Philly. But there's some sweetness -- bittersweetness, but still sweetness -- despite tasting super dark.
Second flavors: The flavors hold up. The darkness would lend itself well to cream.
2. (tie) Caribou
Aromas: It's all roast: the aromas are masked.
First flavors: The roast is still up-front, but it has great character. Very solid overall, with roasted walnut and a touch of fruit.
Second flavors: Flat-lined. The acidity disappears and turns a bit ashy.
2. (tie) Starbucks
First flavors: Smoky, but not ashy... actually kind of endearing.
Second flavors: The smoke becomes less intense. Very bitter and astringent, but not in an unpleasant way.
1. Counter Culture
Aromas: Green pear, cucumber
First flavors: Clearly the best; really juicy and acidic, with a peachy flavor and lots of sweetness.
Second flavors: Usually in tastings you spit out the coffee, but even when cool I want to swallow this. It's complex: there are elements of basil. The peach turns into a milder grapefruit. It tastes like it might be a high-quality Kenyan.
It's worth noting that on his first sip during a blind taste-test, Lorenzo immediately knew Counter Culture was the ringer, and even nailed the grapefruit tasting note (although he mistook the country of origin).
As far as his other preconceptions, he correctly guessed the identities of both Starbucks and Peet's, and once we revealed the final results, he said, with the exception of Lavazza and Seattle's Best (he imagined them swapped), the results fell like he would have expected.
The overall conclusion? These aren't bad at all... for the most part. Regardless, nearly all of these are a big improvement over the other stuff you'd find in the grocery store.
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food and drink team. He doesn't go to Starbucks often, but his future trips will be marked by significantly less guilt. Follow him to some serious jitters at @Dannosphere.