For the better part of a year, a running gag from the casual coffee lovers who know me is to ask, “So have you tried McDonald’s espresso yet? How does it rate?” Mostly they ask as a curious, sick joke — knowing that I subject myself to the worst kinds of coffee punishment. But now that I have donated my taste buds to science once again, it may be surprising to many of them that I’ve definitely had a lot worse.

Which isn’t saying a whole lot. But this is McDonald’s we’re talking about — one of the world’s most vilified entities in the fights against worldwide obesity, factory farming, and environmental atrocities. Up until recently, we’ve long remarked how visiting the McDonald’s Web site was like viewing an inner city billboard advertising cigarettes: nowhere was there a mention of anything so much as a hamburger, but there were plenty of glossy lifestyle photos of ethnic-friendly families and friends — enraptured in open-mouthed, white-toothed laughter — frolicking about at hillside picnics and poolside parties. By branding themselves like cigarettes, how was that not like a McDonald’s admission of guilt?

We suppose the good news today is that the company with the audacity to create the “Shamrock Shake” now proudly announces the new “Third Pounder” on their Web site. (Because we apparently don’t feel we’re getting fat fast enough on a diet of Quarter Pounders? The Three Pounder can only be around the corner.) But the McCafé concept is heavily promoted on the site as well.

McDonald's is one of the few companies where the customers are herded a little like the product The mighty appetizing McCafé menu: Starbucks milkshake marketing approach in overdrive

The 16-year-old McCafé concept

And McDonald’s has invested heavily in the U.S. rollout of the McCafé concept. Although much of McDonald’s PR campaign in the States tries to brand the McCafé as “new!”, it is anything but. The McCafé was first spawned in 1993 in Australia, infiltrated some countries in Europe, and it was first introduced to the U.S. in 2001. Since its U.S. introduction, McDonald’s has opened and quickly shuttered various McCafés across the country — such as the one that opened in Mountain View in December 2003 and shut down just 14 months later.

The first generation of U.S. McCafés were dedicated, separate chain stores. McDonald’s latest move has been to integrate the McCafé as a workstation within existing McDonald’s — first starting with suburban McDonald’s chains with more real estate and less coffee competition. The McCafé has arrived in San Francisco, however, and we chose a downtown location for our first experiment.

The tepid and stock flavors of McCafé

The branding for McCafé was laid on thick and heavy. And not uncommon to McDonald’s in expensive commercial real estate districts, this is a tight spot with mirrored walls trying to make the place seem less like a closet. In front is an ever-present refugee-from-a-methadone-clinic as your doorman. (For tips, of course.) In part, the attraction for voluntary doormen is due to the heavy tourist traffic that flows through here — a lot of it from Asia for some odd reason. And at one corner of their serving station is the McCafé setup.

The McCafé signs even provide an espresso-drink-ordering procedure as follows:

  1. Size
  2. Drink
  3. Milk
  4. Syrup

Naturally, for us it was only steps #1 & #2, and they use dueling superautomatic Franke machines to pull shots with a large pour size and a blonde, even crema. The existence of any crema thickness was actually a little surprising, given the machines and staff skills, even if its color is way off. Served in a large, insulated McCafé-branded paper cup, it has a tepid flavor of cedar and some pepper. While it isn’t ashy, like some Starbucks and their blackened coffees, it is one-dimensional but not entirely unpleasant. Their ads may call out “the bold and rich flavors of McCafé,” but we find that statement to be accurate only if you’ve been mostly nursed on Maxwell House.

Their coffee is supplied by three main roasters — Distant Lands, Gaviña, and S&D Coffee. And just as McDonald’s buys food staples from multiple suppliers in huge lots to blend out the flavor profile to a single, consistent stew spread across entire nations, their coffee is little different. Although their supply chain for coffee appears to be a lot more thoughtful than the one for, say, beef, another difference is that McDonald’s makes bigger, nameless vats of “mutt” coffee from multiple suppliers who each produce vast nameless lots of “mutt” coffee.

McDonald's dueling Franke machines crank out drinks at a dedicated station. Don't forget to soap up. The McDonald's espresso. About what you'd expect from a Nespresso.

When McDonald’s can make espresso this mediocre, who needs Starbucks? Or Nespresso?

But as we mentioned up top, the espresso here may not be good, but it isn’t outright awful. And therein lies the marketing foolishness of Starbucks: years of dumbing down their product to fill an ever-expanding armada of cafés has made it rather push-button and brain-dead. So much so, that any fast food chain with an ounce of ambition, such as McDonald’s, can make a relatively legitimate quality play for their customers. Slap on a recession and a cheaper price tag, and Starbucks is suddenly dog-paddling to stay afloat in the deep, rapid waters of fast food competition.

McDonald’s espresso quality also depreciates the value of many superautomatic home espresso machines, such as the Nespresso. Why should consumers spend hundreds of dollars on a home machine, plus a subscription of premium-priced coffee capsules, to essentially achieve McDonald’s quality at a similar price point? That just doesn’t cut it.

'Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! I am the great Starbucks!'In a way, this all makes us commend McDonald’s espresso for helping to draw back the curtain on the “Great Oz” of Starbucks — or superautomated home machines such as the Nespresso system. When you are charging a premium for your product, or if you are promoting it as some premium espresso experience, you had better set your standards above McDonald’s (for crying out loud) to be taken seriously.

While we would never go to a McDonald’s McCafé for the espresso unless we were extremely desperate, we like the McCafé if for nothing other than shining some humbling truth behind the many hot-air claims of “luxury” mass-produced espresso out on the market today.

Read the review of McDonald’s at 609 Market St. in San Francisco.