Monday, June 10, 2013

Starbucks Reserve Cameroon Mt. Oku

Name: Starbucks Reserve Cameroon Mt. Oku
Origin: Mt. Oku, Cameroon
Roaster: (unknown)
Roast: (unknown)
Varietals: Bourbon; Java
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

Well, that time has come. It is hardly inevitable, and yet it has a way of seeming inevitable. To the American coffee reviewer, nothing else could seem like such a trite capitulation to the baser forces of our culture, and like such a keen opportunity to air some strong opinions about an important facet of that same culture, both at the same time. I refer, of course, to a review of Starbucks coffee.

Let me say, I do not dislike Starbucks coffee generally. It is certainly palatable, and indeed I frequent a Starbucks near my day job. It affords a welcome cup of warm caffeination as well as a pleasant atmosphere in which to pass my lunch hour with a book or some homework or what have you.

But see, there is the thing. As much as anything else, what Starbucks has to offer is a coffee atmosphere. It is an ingenious hybrid of Beatnik coziness and corporate professionalism, bringing all types together with what is perhaps the world's most complete menu of coffee preparations, along with treats to eat, a slew of serving options and conveniences, and a consistency both ubiquitous and universal. And the coffee is alright.

But it is not gourmet. It is not craft. Nor could it be. There cannot be corporate efficiency and artisanal roasting in the same ethos. Such huge quantity demanded cannot be satisfied with small-batch crops. The masses cannot be all appealed to with rare, exotic flavors. Certainly, all of that cannot be brought to fruition at Starbucks level profits. Somewhere, sooner or later, something has got to give. Where will the compromise be?

I should have gotten my first clue before even taking the bag off of the shelf. There did not seem to be much point in reviewing one of Starbucks's standard blends, but I noticed lately that they have a line of "Starbucks Reserve", presumably their attempt at craft coffee. I picked up a bag of the Cameroon Mt. Oku. Most bags of gourmet coffee list the date on which the contents were roasted; this coffee had a "use by" date, and let's just say that it was many months in the future. Strike one. The bag also failed to list any varietals other than to assure that it is arabica (the website has the varietals listed), and it does not state any roast profile. Strike two.

Here, I might have thought, "Eh, forget it." If I were just out to get myself something to sip at home, then I certainly would have. But I was determined to see it through with the Starbucks experiment, and this was as good a chance as I was going to get to find a decent bean from them. Best to let it happen. So I brought it home and brewed it. Strike three.

What came out was the most charred coffee I have ever had. One would think that with all of the ado about their "Reserve" coffees, Starbucks (or whoever is roasting it for them) would have at least attempted to find a roast profile that flatters the beans. At least a try. But that did not happen here, at least not with the Cameroon. I can only infer that somebody decided, somewhere along the line, that it would be alright to fall back to the tried-and-trite darker roasting for which Starbucks is known, and then somebody accidently set the roasting machine to "rocket booster" and pressed "take off". It was like brewing and sipping what is left on the underside of a grill's grate soon after a barbecue.

This is a shame, too, because I swear I detected some potential, though it is not easy to say for sure. Sneaking out from behind the rich, mealy charcoal, which utterly dominates 99% of the coffee and all but obliterates any trace of terroir, are: a whiff of florals and nuttiness on the nose; a dab of spice on the tongue; and a hint of fruitiness that, by the finish, is just full enough to identify as white grape. It would not be unlike an Ethiopian if it were roasted properly, and frankly it might well be a very good coffee at that, for all we know.

But it was not roasted properly; it is like a super dark roast except without the usual tannins, smokiness, nuttiness - any flavor at all, really. It is barely identifiable as coffee, even less so as arabica. I would rather have Starbucks's Pike Place, or trendy Verona, or whatever, any day of the week.

But then, unless I am looking for any old convenient coffee while I pass an hour's lunch break, I would rather not go to Starbucks in the first place. The place is not so much for coffee people as for coffeehouse people, because it does not do coffee as well as it does coffeehouses. It does coffee creatively, it does it efficiently, and it certainly does it profitably, but it does not make the actual coffee much better than average. This attempt at putting a pretty label with a fancy tagline on a poor, poor product, and calling it craft coffee, is a shockingly blunt reminder of the fact.


  1. I posted this article onto LinkedIn, and somebody brought up a great point. Below is his comment, followed by my response.

    "Take that, Starbucks... The sad thing is, everyone knows it but are too afraid to speak up. And educating people about good coffee (the way it should be roasted) is at best an uphill battle. Starbucks succeeded in drawing from a crowd that wants to distance itself from the Dunkin' Donuts crowd, and make the whole experience seem hip. In that aspect, they have succeeded. As you said, they have that boho feel and it makes people feel good about themselves (hey look, I can speak Italian...). I hope you get a refund for your bag of Cameroon, or at least a tour of the roasting department on the house."

    My response:
    "Denis, thank you for the comment. I never got any such thing from them, but to be fair, that is probably because I have not asked.

    "Educating people about coffee (or about anything, really) is indeed an uphill battle, but the irony here is, Starbucks is better poised than just about anyone else to make it happen. Success depends on its own approach. One approach is to append a product to its existing offering, wrap it in marketing, and seek a profit. There is nothing wrong with that – as a business student, I would have a lot of explaining to do if I thought that there were – but it really is not much of a stretch to say that they ought to have done a much better job of backing it all up with a product that is actually good. In any event, that approach means that the rest of us are going to have to get over the fact that they did not do our educating for us, which is much more legitimately our problem than theirs.

    "Another approach is to set up a program to educate consumers about coffee. A few ideas for that that occur off the top of my head and in no particular order include: pamphlets/flyers/etc. to accompany bags of coffee sold; a Starbucks-sponsored coffee institute; public cupping classes (which Toby’s Estate in Brooklyn actually does, and quite nicely at that); taking more advantage of their rotating darks and lights to educate consumers; enhanced webpage details of their coffees; encouraging their roastmasters and other in-house experts to write articles and books about their craft (more like Kermit Lynch in “Adventures on the Wine Route” than Howard Schultz in “Onward”); and a million other things. These bear some expense – in fact, it is likely that a concerted effort in this direction would result in a net loss – and it is certainly not incumbent upon Starbucks to go about any of them. However, it may benefit in other ways, such as a strengthened brand image not only as projected to customers, but also as projected to the talented coffee craftsmen, tradesmen, and other professionals, who not only are increasing in number, but also have more and more career options in front of them. And, of course, we coffee snobs can be all the happier about the world. (I sure would be.)

    "Really, my complaint is not that Starbucks is actually just a sleek corporation with imperfect coffee after all. We all knew that already, and quite frankly, who cares? Starbucks clearly fulfills an important and universally desired function the world over. My complaint is that the Cameroon in particular is, on the one hand, singled out as being of particularly keen character, and, on the other hand, horrible in just about every aspect. The coffeehouse kitsch and corporate efficiency that characterize Starbucks did not cause this failure. Rather, the same forces that created the former two led to the latter. They are sister phenomena. And I think that Starbucks, for its own sake as much as for everyone else’s, ought to choose a path for itself as a corporation (in business-speak, it ought to settle on a single brand image), and go down that path as best as it can. The Cameroon Mt. Oku was clearly a half-assed effort at best, and it has thusly been harmful to its customer base, to craft coffee connoisseurs, and most of all, to Starbucks itself."

  2. I'm not surprised by your findings .. the vague description of the region and the villagers already is an indication that Starbucks was just spinning words and claims. Unfortunately, they have taken good and potentially awesome coffee and "killed" its important good attributes. It would be good to review the same coffee roasted by an artisan or knowledgeable roaster.