Name: Starbucks Reserve Cameroon Mt. Oku
Origin: Mt. Oku, Cameroon
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.