Coffee and milk: Starbucks takes a step backwards

by Carlo Odello

Trainer and member of the board of the International Institute of Coffee Tasters

In the September/October 2012 issue of the Global Coffee Review, Michelle Gass, Starbucks President EMEA, told about the flavour of the latte (according to the American-style recipe), judged by consumers from United Kingdom as being too…milky. Therefore, Starbucks had to work hard to create the right balance between coffee and milk.

In a recent training course with Japanese students, the Italian cappuccino, made with 25ml of espresso and 125ml of frothed milk, was thought to have a too low olfactory intensity as far as milk was concerned. This is probably due to the fact that in Japan the proportion of milk in coffee-based drinks has become more and more high, according to the American coffee style, where the longer the drink is, the better it will taste.

In short: in recent years, the world of coffee has been diluted by milk, and the Japanese case above shows how this has shaped the sensory trends. However, the fact that Starbucks has decided to take a step backwards gives us cause to hope for a greater balance between coffee and milk.

And, why not, you could even consider moving on from Latte Art, which has now probably reached peaks of graphomaniac autoeroticism, to a more balanced, and complex, Coffee Art.


UK customers looking for better coffee

What’s the state of art of the coffee market in the UK? We interviewed Simon Speed Andrews, Head of Training of Miko Coffee.

What’s the situation of the coffee market in the UK?

The coffee market is not precise, we have always been led by the culture of Italy, but serve what is more akin to America with a new lead from Australia and NL. The ‘Starbucks’ phenomenon in the early 90’s has capitulated the spread and expansion of the coffee shop. The problem lies with the fact that we drink milky style drinks and the coffee has not always been the main criteria for good coffee. The culture is now changing and the customer is seeking good quality coffee and the espresso element is becoming very important.

What is the general culture about espresso in the UK?

Espresso Culture per se is not evident, however this I think is in part due to the ‘Starbucks’ phenomenon, again with the high level of antipodeans arriving and working in the coffee industry this has changed the outlook for more artisan roasted quality blends and the focus is on the espresso but regrettably still more single origin 100% Arabica coffees rather than good blends.

What is the future of the espresso market in the UK and what do you think should be done?

The future for the espresso is very positive, however to change the culture we need to focus more on the espresso and educate not only the coffee companies but also the general public, in terms of the benefits of a quality blend and how to prepare correctly the espresso. Unfortunately little care is given to the beans by the coffee house or those that serve it and a lack of knowledge in how to prepare good espresso has led to what I can only describe, as at best a mediocre experience, to at worst nothing more than a flavourless poor experience.

Two Americas, two Italies

by Carlo Odello *

Consumer Reports, operating in the field of mass consumption product assessment in the United States since 1936, have just tested 37 leading coffee blends on offer on the American market. Their report reads:

None of the 37 caffeinated and decaffeinated varieties tested by Consumer Reports coffee experts earned an Excellent or Very Good rating.

And that would be fair, as we know that the American market is accustomed to all sorts of products, mainly of mediocre quality (mind, the same could be said about us). The following statement is less convincing:

However, java lovers can still find at least a few Good cups of coffee. Starbucks House Blend and Green Mountain Signature Nantucket Blend Medium Roast perked to the top of the 14 caffeinated blends that earned a Good rating from Consumer Reports.

At 26 and 23 cents per cup respectively, both the Starbucks House Blend and Green Mountain Signature Nantucket Blend Medium Roast offer a good combination of taste and price. Both have an earthy, woody taste, but Starbucks was found to be a fairly bitter to very bitter darker roast, while the Green Mountain has green/sharp flavor.

In other words, the findings point out that, despite their earthy and woody aroma, Starbucks and Green Mountain lead the ranking of the tested coffees. Which could make sense, as such blends might at any rate be the less unappealing in the ambit of American coffee for mass consumption. But it is surprising to find out that Consumer Reports’ assessment is however positive. That means that two intolerable faults, such as earthy and woody aromas, are tolerated after all.

Such America is absolutely different from the one influenced by the Third Wave (or is it already Fourth Wave?) and by specialty coffee which, leaving aside some twisted principles, pursue total quality. And by no means equal to those Italians who continue proposing high level products, either exported from fatherland or produced in the States by operators of Italian descent.

Yet if, as we love doing, we compare ourselves to the United States we will realise that mediocrity is promoted by many in our country, too. And that such people, forgive me if I sound a little old fashioned, are active in educating the mass to appreciate faulty and disappointing coffee. This time the States do not rank first.

* Trainer and member of the board of the International Institute of Coffee Tasters

Italian baristas, smile: you are already in the future (if you want to be)

by Carlo Odello *

A flash of lightning across the serene sky of the American coffee scene: Starbucks, the giant of the 16,000 cafes scattered between the four corners of the earth, gambles its name.  As Jason Daley’s optimal article for Entrepreneur Magazine reports, this summer the colossus from Seattle opened a new cafe.  However, it was not called Starbucks; instead, they named it, "15th Ave Coffee and Tea," decorated in a completely different style and operated by a completely different mindset than the traditional cafes.

Why would an international chain whose very trademark became its driving force, a shamelessly global business that serialized the cafe concept, suddenly try to play it local?  One simple motive: it needs to return to the community and connect to its territories to make the consumer perceive it in a different way.  It is no longer the great homogenous chain, the coffee empire over which the sun will never set; instead, it is becoming a social place in service of the community.

The good news for Italian baristas: you are ahead of Starbucks. You are already local, you already serve your communities, you are already part of the social fabric; more accurately, you help build it.  Besides, the Seattle colossus admitted it: Italy is a difficult market, with a capillaceous presence, rooted and diffused in its tens of thousands of cafes.  Frankly put: a nightmare for the commercial logic of Starbucks.

The bad news for the Italian baristas: you are behind Starbucks.  Most of you do not do any marketing whatsoever.  The overwhelming majority of your cafes all look the same: even though they are not part of any chain, they are still characterized by that conformity typical of franchises, almost always offering the same banal and homologous products.  And yet, one could do so much more with very little: in addition to paying closer attention to the coffee, which wouldn’t hurt anyone, why not start thinking of ways to make these cafes truly unique?

Dear Italian baristas, take from Starbucks a different way of marketing. You have the advantage of being local, something for which the American giant now aspires. One step further and you will be in the future.

* Trainer and member of the board of the International Institute of Coffee Tasters

Poland: Starbuck’s American dream is here

from correspondent Elisabetta Wierzchowska *

The first Starbucks venue was inaugurated on one of Warsaw’s main streets on 8th April soon followed, on 17th April, by the second premises in Wroclaw, a city with 640,000 inhabitants situated in south-west Poland. Both coffee shops were crammed straight away, mainly by school students who associate Strabuck’s image to the fulfilment of their American dream.

The interviews clearly indicate that youths consider the Seattle based chain as a positive sign of globalization. Many of them crowd the venue because, as they declare, they have already experienced Starbuks during trips abroad to Spain and Great Britain. The image of these youngsters queuing in front of the premises brings back memories of communist days, when shops supplies run short, even primary goods. While nowadays young people patiently wait for their turn to get hold of a cup featuring the famous Starbucks logo.

Very interesting is the sensory assessment, given by the young customers, comparing Starbuck’s products to those of Coffee Heaven, number one Polish chain in the country, launched in 2000 and now boasting 86 venues located throughout Poland and other Central European countries.

The boys and girls that took part in the interview declared they prefer Starbucks rather than Coffee Heaven because it is "better, less adulterated, more genuine, and you can taste more coffee in the coffee". The young consumers also appreciate the fact that coffee is served in a china cup, and not in a paper one  as usual happens in many Coffee Heaven cafés, because it makes them feel more comfortable and at home.

A main feature to bear in mind to understand why youths prefer Starbucks involves their habit of drinking coffee with 30, or even 40, cl of milk.  At Starbuks’ you can choose your favourite milk from a selection: from skimmed to soya. Such a broad range is assessed very positively by young consumers as they like accompanying their favourite drink with milk as well as with syrup, mainly caramel.

And what about espresso? They declare they drink it only when it is essential to stay awake, just on special occasions…Much better a coffee with ice-cream or the big favourite, American coffee. In other words, young Polish generations enjoy their coffee with plenty of milk and syrup, the coffee type which was launched by Coffee Heaven over the last years and that could now be affected by Starbuck’s competition.

* Elisabetta Wierzchowska is a biologist fond of Italy and of its life style.  In 1996 she set up a venue with her husband. In 2006 she started to import and distribute Italian coffee, with the aim of divulging our country’s culture in Poland. She is also a taster for the International Institute of Coffee Tasters, an Espresso Italiano Specialist and a sensory analysis panel leader.

Starbucks points out: ready to open new stores in Europe, but not in Italy

After Coffee Taster reported Starbucks plans to open 150 new stores in Europe, a number of Italian readers wrote to us to know how they can open and run a Starbucks shop in Italy. Coffee Taster asked the question to Mrs Bridget Baker, Starbucks spokeswoman.
"Starbucks Coffee Company is excited about the great opportunities that Italy presents to the company. However we do not have announcements to make regarding the Italian market at this time," Mrs Baker told Coffee Taster.
"When we open a new market, we take time to make sure we have the right joint-venture partner or licensee to help develop the brand," Mr Baker said. "As it is very important for us to find a partner with the right business and retail experience, as well as cultural fit for Starbucks, the process can be a long one.  We will open each market when the time is right, one store at a time."

(Carlo Odello)

Starbucks to open more than 150 stores in Europe

Starbucks today announced a strategic licensing partnership to open more than 150 Starbucks stores in prime travel channels in key European markets within the next three years. The agreement details wide-ranging co-operation across the European travel market, covering both airport and railway station locations. Starbucks will give SSP licensing rights to the Starbucks brand in a number of significant markets that in some segments are exclusive, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom.  (Carlo Odello)

Schultz, Starbucks CEO: Italian baristas are very good, Italian coffee is awful

Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, was in Italy with a group of partners to study the coffee market in the country. In the last months he has been working on the repositioning of Starbucks, trying to face the threats coming from aggressive competitors as McDonald’s. Coffee Taster republishes the letter from Howard Schultz.

* * * *

Dear Partners,

As I write you this note, I’m flying back to Seattle with a small group of Starbucks partners after spending a few days in Italy. No, we were not there to open our first store in Rome, although I’m quite certain that day will surely come. We were there to conduct a market visit to take in “all things coffee,” and to have strategic discussions with leading food and beverage companies.

We tasted and consumed coffee in every coffee bar we encountered. We saw elegant designs, experienced the artistry of baristas, ate fantastic food, and were introduced to new and interesting product ideas for the future. It was exciting for me to, once again, return to where it all began. The Italian people are wonderful. Their passion for life, their love of food and wine, and their coffee, is contagious.

During our visit, I made the following observations:

The Barista — The Barista is highly trained and very skilled. He presents each cup of espresso with great care and pride after intently watching the pour of the shot. He steams the milk as an artisan to produce a velvety foam, and from time to time, truly elevates his work to “art.”

The Coffee — This will probably surprise you (and hopefully you will not view my assessment as arrogant, but rather as honest), but the coffee was not that good. It turns out that most Italian coffee roasters blend their coffee with robusta beans. This is most likely because of a need for increased profit, but as a result of this decision, much is lost in the cup. The coffee leaves you with a strong, acidic, somewhat sour taste on the side of your tongue. This taste was unpleasant and disagreeable, but prominent in almost all the coffee we tasted.

Despite the change in the taste of the coffee, the experience we had was overwhelmingly positive on both a personal and professional level. We all felt a strong sense of pride in our company and in all of you. For many years now, we have been a respectful inheritor of the Italian coffee culture. We have built our business honoring the very things we saw and experienced. And, in some cases, I am humbled to say, we have improved it.

All of you deliver a world class experience to our customers — one that I believe Italians would praise. We have challenges and opportunities ahead of us, but as long as we embrace our heritage and tradition, have faith in our coffee, our values, and our core purpose, we will continue to win the hearts and minds of our customers. As for the coffee, we never have and never will blend our coffee with robusta beans. We will leave that for others. It is important to note that today; we ethically source higher quality arabica coffee than in any other time in our history. And, in my view, we roast it at a quality level that is better than in the past because of new technology.

So, this trip brought me back to where it all began, but at the same time reinforced how good we are and how far we have come. We learned a lot. And, we will utilize much of this learning to keep pushing for innovation, while at the same time embracing our core, our people, and our coffee. All of which I am proud to say would stand tall even in the greatest coffee theatre of them all.

Thank you for all that you do.



Starbucks launches US nationwide education event

Launching the next phase of Starbucks ongoing efforts to transform the company and renew its focus on the customer, Starbucks today announced an historic in-store education and training event for its more than 135,000 store partners (employees) across the United States. The company will close each of its nearly 7,100 company-operated stores in the U.S. on Tuesday, February 26 at 5:30 p.m. local time to conduct a nationwide education event, designed to energize partners and transform the customer experience. Stores with evening hours will re-open at 8:30 p.m.

(Carlo Odello)

Quality of coffee: for some companies it is a taboo

by Carlo Odello

Have you ever tried to drop a line to the customer service of the big multinational coffee companies? We have and we have posed them the sort of question that any careful consumer asks himself: how do you check the quality of your product? We found the address of the customer service or, if they did not have one, the name of the most appropriate person on their corporate websites. We wrote to the companies using a private email address and signed the request. We asked them all the same question: which method do you use for measuring the quality of your product?

This is an unnecessary question when it is down to quality in other sectors. It is already a few years since the car manufacturing industry, just to give an example, has started publishing the results of its safety tests and devotes special focus to them when promoting its product. Coffee is a different story: some companies show the plantations in their ads on television and some others take you in paradise. The overall impression is that not all of them are ready to openly deal with the issue of quality. This is, as we shall see, confirmed by our brief, albeit, accurate analysis.

We had three different categories of replies. Four companies – Nespresso, Illy, Diedrich and MacDonald’s – explained to us in sufficient detail how they measure the quality of the finished product. Vague replies category: Starbucks suggested we should visit their corporate website (which was not that useful), Nestlé replied they would have come back to us. Lavazza told us that quality tests take place everyday and that these tests are certified. The other four companies – Tchibo, Sara Lee, Dotour and Segafredo – have not even replied. We have not been able to contact Costa Coffee because there was no useful contact indication for the common consumer on their website.

Here goes what McDonald’s, Diedrich, Illy and Nespresso said. The Italy customer service for McDonald’s ensured that they use “only products and ingredients that match the highest quality standards and that have been officially approved by competent authorities”. They informed us that “the choice is made on organoleptic evaluations – defined by a panel of tasters – representing the average consumer – who has positively rated the current supplier”. Diedrich gave a more detailed reply saying that the coffee samples are tested before purchase and delivery and that they are also subject to a visual evaluation aimed at spotting any defects of the green coffee. Each roasting process is cupped before it goes to packaging. Also Illy provides great details, informing us that they select the coffee batches and then they make an electronic control on the colour of the beans so that they can discard the flawed ones. They also add that, during the production process, 114 checks are made. From Nespresso, we received a reply by their technical & quality manager Alexandre Bolay (perhaps they smelled the rat?). He said that all throughout the production line there are quality inspections and tasting sessions. The daily production is benchmarked against a reference production: blind testing is done and if the correspondence between the sample and the reference product is lower than 60%, corrective measures are applied to the recipe.

These were their replies. Said this, our test was mainly on the external relations of these companies. The interesting thing to note is that from at least two thirds of the companies we had no useful reply. Actually, Tchibo, Sara Lee, Dotour and Segafredo have not replied at all. We thought this was a bit odd given that quality is the battle field of a wealth of marketing and communication initiatives. In particular, Starbucks vague reply comes as a surprise: they said that, due to the volume of queries they receive, they cannot give interviews or reply to requests for data or provide information on the company other than what is already in the public domain. This comes in a moment when Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, is fighting against what he defines as a weakening of the Starbucks experience.

In general, talking about the absent companies, and they did this deliberately, we get the impression that their marketing is still based on the assumption that the consumer is passive. They do marketing strongly focusing on promotion rather than information. The point is that now the consumer, when choosing the product, relies on means like other people’s opinion and the Internet which are not that sensitive to the sort of imposition-based marketing style.