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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Total: 19.6 (out of 60)
Total: 32.6 (out of 60)
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.
Total: 19.6 (out of 60)
Total: 33.5 (out of 60)
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.)
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
Total: 23.8 (out of 60)
Dunkin' Donuts Cappuccino
Total: 31.3 (out of 60)
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.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.