Second crack, Starbucks, consistency, and customer experience

This morning I got an advance taste of the Starbucks Reserve roast of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. I was most delighted by the lack of that starbucksy flavour that pervades most of the rest of their bean lineup, including most of their Reserve line (their small batch single-origin beans).

When I say starbucksy, I mean a roasty ashy flavour that’s very present in all of their dark roasts, and to some extent in their medium roasts. I think part of that is achieved by their careful selection of beans that match their preferred flavour profiles, and the rest of that is done by roasting to second crack.

When you roast beans, there’s a point where they suddenly expand, cracking open, kind of like popcorn. That’s the first crack. And just like popcorn, not all the beans crack at once. The beginning of that first crack marks when the beans are lightly roasted. Keep roasting, and they hit a second wave of sudden expansion. If you roast until all the beans have stopped cracking the second time, that’s charcoal. From the beginnings of first crack through the tapering off of second crack is the full range of roasts.

The lighter the roast, the more of the beans’ distinct flavour you keep in the coffee. Hipster coffee shops that focus on single-origin coffees favour light roasts for this reason. But these also have higher acidity, so the coffee tends towards the sour side.

The darker the roast, the less of the individual personality of the beans you retain, and the more the flavour becomes dominated by the roast.

One popular pessimistic theory I’ve heard is that Starbucks roasts dark because so many of their customers use milk and sugar, and it’s the only way to ensure the coffee flavour pushes through all that.

I prefer to think that they roast dark because that’s the only way to maintain consistency across such a broad scale of operations. Sacrificing the unique personality of the beans lets them blend coffees from various farms across regions to keep a single flavour profile for each product.

When you get a cup of Sumatra from a Starbucks in Vancouver, fly to Berlin, and get another cup of Sumatra there, they should taste identical. That consistency makes up most of the Starbucks brand, along with a consistent atmosphere in their stores and graphics, and a consistent take on customer service. Say what you will about their coffees, I’ve had some amazing customer service moments at both busy and slow Starbucks locations.

In flavour, this Jamaican Blue Mountain is almost off-brand for Starbucks, though I still think I would have liked it better slightly less roasted. But the experience was everything Starbucks strives for. I ordered one thing, but got into a conversation with the barista, who suggested I try what’s not on the menu yet, for the same price. Then while he prepared the coffee, we had a great conversation about the beans, the aromas after grinding, the process, how we each got into coffee, and more. And he made extra to offer samples to others who wandered past while we talked. Though we’d never met, I felt like an old friend let in on a secret. It made my day.

Prior to working at Starbucks, he told me, he drank coffee, but hadn’t really appreciated it. I know more than a few people who became enthusiastic about coffee because of Starbucks, which slowly moved them from cream-and-sugar people to just-black-please people.

I don’t think Starbucks offers the kind of coffee that will blow you away with a seminal experience that will change your mind about coffee forever. But I do think they offer a very consistent product, and a subtle pathway for producing people, both customers and employees, who are enthusiastic about coffee.

You may not have a memorable coffee, but you may just have a memorable experience. And the next location you visit will smell and look and feel a lot like the one where you had that great experience.

That’s the power of consistency.

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