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.

"Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring," Balzac once observed. He might as well have been describing me. To talk about the subtleties of macchiato, wince at a friend's homemade brew, come late to an appointment because of long lines at the siphon bar—all things I've done in recent months—will guarantee you'll have a place in coffee heaven and be totally insufferable on Earth. The good news is that even sanctimonious coffee bores must lapse: The flesh is weak, the day is full, and Starbucks is just half a block away.

Recently, some unusual parties have stepped in to indulge the nation's fallen (or just time-pressed) gourmets. Dunkin' Donuts, a chain more closely associated with psychedelic frosting and the intriguing "glazed cake stick" than with fancy coffee, has been trying for years to woo caffeine fiends with downscale prices. Now is its moment. To gain a toehold in the tight recession market, Dunkin' offered, for a time, what seemed to be  the cheapest latte anywhere. McDonald's, meanwhile, has unveiled its McCafé line of elaborate drinks, supposedly its biggest launch since the game-changing Egg McMuffin in 1977. The two chains' leading competition, and the target market share, is Starbucks, which first showed the world that sheer ubiquity—along with caffeine, sugar, and colored aprons—could generate its own commercial mandate.

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

Which coffee is best? Where should the time-constrained gourmet head in a pinch? To answer this question and others, I recently convened a congress of six Slate staffers, all notorious coffee addicts, for a private taste test. Gathered in our conference room, we tore through a slew of samples from Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and McDonald's and, together, found a winning brew.

Methodology
Our tasting panel sampled both black coffees and cappuccinos from all three chains, cleansing our palates with water between each taste. (Contrary to some colleagues' hopes, epicurean spitting was not permitted.) To keep the tastings blind, each cup was served in an "overcup" that obscured its original branding.

Taste (30 points): A sip of good coffee combines several flavors—the bitterness of caffeine, the sweetness of its caramelized sugars, the distinctive taste of oils released during roasting—into a balanced and compelling whole. To take this nuance into account (and because a cup of coffee is nothing if it tastes bad), flavor represents half of all possible points.

Consistency (10 Points): Was the black coffee smooth? Or was it oily, turbid, or obscured by dregs? Was it unpleasantly acidic in the mouth? What about the cappuccino, that intricate beverage? Ideally, the cappuccino's cap is neither foam nor froth but "microfoam"—a creamy, light, and pourable mixture created by minuscule air bubbles. This upper layer is designed to help the drink stay warm; beneath it, the sipper should find darker, espresso-tinged microfoam and, finally, an inner mixture of milk and espresso.

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Presentation (10 points): A good cup should be easy on the eyes. Iridescence, froth, or particles floating on the coffee's surface are enough to spoil the mood and prime the gag reflex. A successful cappuccino should not only be visually alluring; it should bear a distinctive chocolate-colored ring around its white cap—a hallmark of proper preparation.

Process (10 points): How often was coffee brewed? Did it sit uncovered on a hot plate or was it kept warm in a more controlled environment? Were cappuccinos (correctly) made with milk steamed by hand and espresso drawn from freshly ground beans, carefully tamped? Or was it spewed directly into the cup by an automatic, push-button machine?

The results, from worst to best:

Starbucks cappuccino.

Starbucks The story of Starbucks is a story of America writ "tall": Men and women seeking freedom from the dominant culture settle in an insular harbor community, practice a new faith with creepy rigor, and take up the ideas and locutions of the Old World. The ideas catch and then go national; a new culture is born. With that new culture, though, comes industrial exigencies: the need for growth, the need for speed, the need for scones with exotic patterning. Factories are created, and product spin-offs. Soon the new culture has morphed into an international commercial enterprise. This is when people start freaking out. The products are now corporate, mechanized; the furniture is cheap; what once was fresh and chic has become fast food. How do we get back to the time when we were purer, local, and did everything by hand? And, wait, what happened to the boom years?

On those terms, then, the national forecast is abysmal. Comments following my colleagues' first sips of Starbucks' black coffee included "Oof!" "Yeesh!" and—most tellingly, I think—"Blawl!" The flavor was bitter, the dark liquid acidic on the tongue. One taster described it as aggressive "in the manner of drain cleaner." An iridescent oil slick capped all our samples, looking like something spewed out behind a maimed petroleum tanker. "This tastes like the mornings when my incompetent roommate wakes up first and tries to make coffee," griped a normally kind and imperturbable Slatester. We liked Starbucks' cappuccino more in flavor and consistency, though there was sharp division over whether the drink's most prominent feature—an enormous pouf of stiff white foam—was a charming ornament or a gaudy perversion of everything a cappuccino is supposed to stand for. Someone described the experience as "like drinking a cloud." Whether you enjoy this beverage will depend on whether that sort of activity seems like a good idea.

The chain earned points for process, however: Although espresso is squirted from a push-button machine, the milk is steamed by hand. There's currently no fixed timetable for preparing new batches of drip coffee, but the chain recently announced it would brew fresh-ground beans on a regular schedule. I gave a couple of extra points for this seeming proof of good faith.

Starbucks' Coffee
Flavor: 5.3
Consistency: 3.3
Presentation: 3.0
Process: 8.0
Total: 19.6 (out of 60)

Starbucks' Cappuccino
Flavor: 14.5
Consistency: 6.5
Presentation: 4.6
Process: 7.0
Total: 32.6 (out of 60)

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