Where to get a good cup of coffee in a hurry.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Aug. 4 2009 9:30 AM

Coffee Talk

Which chain brews the best cup? Starbucks, McDonald's, or Dunkin'?

Also in Slate, Michael Idov recalls his disastrous experience of opening an independent coffee shop.

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McCafe cappuccino.

McDonald's The name McCafé is meant to convey—well, what, exactly? Its chief slogan ("Give it up for the accent mark") shamelessly targets the study-abroad crowd. Fair enough. But why the "Mc"? It's hard to shake the suspicion that the golden-arches version of a sidewalk cafe would look a lot like one of McDonald's outdoor-seating areas—a pleasure garden for wild-eyed old people, crack addicts, and the suicidally obese.   Its cappuccinos, moreover, were manufactured by an automated beast that looked related to a Mister Softee machine. I asked my cashier-cum-barista how often the drip coffee was made. "Half of these cups were just brewed," he said cryptically, packing my six coffees and six cappuccinos into as many plastic bags. Sprinting back to Slate headquarters amid heavy Sixth Avenue traffic, I had a nightmare vision of being struck down by a passing van cab and discovered, in my last moments on Earth, toting an embarras de richesses of McDonald's products. Whatever stigma the brand carries hasn't been obliterated by "the accent mark."

Even so, McDonald's cappuccino was, almost unanimously, our favorite. Our critics thought the McCafé cappuccino had the "most coffee taste" with more (albeit the most bitter) espresso flavor. We admired its proportions of coffee to steamed milk, which seemed nearest the real thing, and also the brown ring it displayed around the cap (though the McCafé swirl was unsettlingly consistent across our samples). McDonald's drip coffee elicited a weaker response: Tasters variously described it as "watery" and "unripe," and some light oil-slicking was observed. I rated it the lowest of the bunch. "It tastes like they started to make it hazelnut-flavored and then stopped," one of my colleagues said.

McDonald's Coffee
Flavor: 4.8
Consistency: 4.1
Presentation: 5.6
Process: 5.0
Total: 19.6 (out of 60)

McDonald's Cappuccino
Flavor: 18.6
Consistency: 6.3
Presentation: 5.5
Process: 3.0
Total: 33.5 (out of 60)

Dunkin' Donuts cappuccino.

Dunkin' Donuts Frequenters of Dunkin' Donuts will know the chain has something of a lactose complex: getting into bed with Baskin Robbins, putting cheese on everything that can hold it, and trying, constantly, to add cream to your coffee. The Slate agent who visited a nearby Dunkin' shop specified several times that our drip coffee should be black, yet after uncapping the cups back at our offices, we found each one to be the hue of milk chocolate. Replacements were sought.

Dunkin' Donuts' eagerness to put flavor-obscuring agents in its "joe" is ironic, because the chain's drip coffee was our tasters' favorite. (Dunkin' also earned our highest score overall.) Although we found the coffee more watery than we would have liked, it was the least oily of the three samples and—more to the point—the least unsettling to behold. ("This one is all presentation," someone said—an odd observation about something delivered via a paper cup and one that gives a loose sense of our grading curve.)

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Dunkin' Donuts' cappuccino scored lower: The drink was thinly and gratuitously capped with froth, much too milky, and generally lacking in anything that resembled personality or flavor. The unobtrusiveness that made the Dunkin' coffee passable, in other words, struck us as less endearing in the higher-stakes game of steamed milk and espresso.

I docked process points for inconsistency (some Dunkin' chains hold their java in large dispensers; others, in open pots on hot plates) and because when I asked how often the coffee was brewed, the cashier stared down at the floor and mumbled something unintelligible. Like Starbucks' cappuccinos, Dunkin' Donuts' are made with machine-dispensed espresso and hand-steamed milk.

Dunkin' Donuts Coffee
Flavor: 6.8
Consistency: 4.6
Presentation: 7.3
Process: 5.0
Total: 23.8 (out of 60)

Dunkin' Donuts Cappuccino
Flavor: 13.3
Consistency: 4.8
Presentation: 6.1
Process: 7.0
Total: 31.3 (out of 60)

Conclusion
If you want a decent cup of joe, head to Dunkin' Donuts. For that cappuccino date, swallow your pride and meet at McDonald's. Or don't: It's worth noting that all three chains scored less than half of all possible points (and that the price difference between a cappuccino from McDonald's and one from some of Manhattan's most rarified espresso shops is less than $1). If convenience trumps all other considerations, though—and in matters of coffee, it often does—consider this: A giant muffin and some sweetener can hide all sorts of crimes.