Yesterday, Consumer Reports announced that their taste testers rated McDonald’s premium coffee as superior to Starbucks‘ coffee. (Isn’t that a bit like a beauty contest between Courtney Love and Joan Rivers?) But the real story behind this isn’t their ratings so much as the response to these ratings: Coffee taste test stirs hot debate – Los Angeles Times. Over the past day, talkbacks and forums on news sites have been experiencing something of a religious firestorm on this issue.
We live in a modern consumer culture where people frequently define who they are by what they buy and consume. So when Consumer Reports says that our favorite loyalty coffee brand is inferior, by extension they are saying that we are inferior. Or at least as offensive to some Starbucks loyalists, they are suggesting that they have inferior tastes to those raised on fast food and clowns. Hence the visceral, and sometimes vitriolic, reaction from many coffee lovers on the subject. This is akin to red states vs. blue states in a coffee cup.
But the coffee purveyors like it this way. It means that their brands have come to stand for more than just their coffee; their brands have come to identify with personal lifestyles — something much more intimate and personally defining. The real truth is, of course, in Starbucks’ statement in response to Consumer Reports‘ study: “Choosing a brand of coffee is a personal decision, as taste is subjective.” Which was a 24-hour about face from Starbucks CEO Jim Donald’s recent comments about customers “graduating” from McDonald’s coffee to the unquestionable superiority of Starbucks’ “super-premium” coffee.
Too often, I am sure, this site sounds like the rantings of a coffee elitist/curmudgeon whose only purpose is to serve as mainstream coffee iconoclast. “You know nothing about good espresso — my tastes are better than yours!” If so, that is certainly my failing. Because my intentions, while perhaps only paving my own road to hell, are about enlightenment: opening your eyes beyond the obvious, helping you question assumptions, getting you to experience first-hand more of what’s out there, and hopefully getting you to demand better quality from your favorite cafés.
That could very well mean that, for you, Starbucks is the pinnacle of coffee. But I will have succeeded if I help you question the possibility of other outcomes — because billions of dollars are being spent to convince you there aren’t any.
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