The Battle of the Big Boys

1

November 15, 2012 by Beans Ahoy

UPDATE

Okay, a quick update. I have revised the score for Pret down. I had a sneaking suspicion that the score Pret received was a bit of a fluke. It really was considerably better than I had had expected, but when I retried it at a different branch they were back to the more ‘usual’ taste from them. Like I said, there is sometimes quite a lot of variation on taste, strange that this time it came from Pret who are usually pretty consistent.

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Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero, and Pret a Manger. The vast majority of coffee in the UK is usually sold through these outlets. They are giants in the food and coffee world. So really it begs just one question…which has the best coffee?

Now it might seem strange to include Pret a Manger in that list of coffee sellers because of course they are mainly food retailers, but bare with me, because I think Pret has the goods to run with the other guys.

On the face of it, all would seem very similar. They all produce massive volumes of coffee, they all use blends, and all the coffee is invariably over roasted so that it’s swimming in its own oils. To truly understand the coffee being used you have to opt for the espresso, no double caramel macchiato double pump anything here. Just the coffee, no milk, no sugar. Many gag at the idea of drinking espresso in this way, but that’s just the point. Coffee readily available in chains is usually foul. People drink it because it is either tamed with lashings of milk, or because they are utterly addicted to the stuff. Either way, what the drinker is tasting is usually not the coffee itself, but the roast the roaster has used. It is pretty easy to get all coffee to taste the same when it is all burnt, and it is what people have come to expect from coffee. Let them taste coffee as it is supposed to be roasted, and they think there is something wrong with it.

So just how do these companies stack up, and if you are going to spend your money on them, which should you opt for?

Starbucks

Let’s start with the big boy on the block. Starbucks is a worldwide multinational with nearly 20,000 stores. They really did pioneer the way for high street coffee, and every way they have moved, smaller competitors have followed. In fact it is probably Starbucks that is to blame for peoples taste for ultra acidic, strong coffee. There beans are black and pouring with oil, and as any chef will know, when foodstuffs are black, they’re burnt.

Starbucks effectively burns their beans. They operate a very short roasting process which cremates the bean so that the flavour is uniform, and that flavour is charcoal. Little actual flavour of the bean remains, with a bitter, astringent taste overwhelming the drinker.

For this reason, assessing the actual taste of the Starbucks blend is quite difficult. They say they use 100% Arabica beans, but really they could be using walnuts for all you can tell from the charcoal taste. For this reason Starbucks can uniformly burn their coffee to achieve consistent taste so there is a high chance that Starbuck’s coffee is predominantly coming from the three biggest producers of coffee: Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia.  

It is difficult to be objective about the quality of Starbucks coffee because of the method of roasting, but looking at the coffee in isolation the score for Starbucks coffee would have to be: 4.0/10.0

Costa Coffee

The second biggest company in our comparison and a believer in the ‘Italian Roast’. What the Italian’s have to do with the development of coffee I am not sure, but it seems that sticking the word Italian before something asserts an air of arty quality. Contrary to belief, the Italians do not roast coffee very well and have taken to burning the coffee to achieve that bitter, charcoal taste you get from Starbucks. Italians traditionally roasted their coffee with Chicory to bulk the weight and it has given us the typical taste we now find in most coffee. While most companies don’t use Chicory roasting anymore, the desire for heavily roasted coffee remains.

Costa, bizarrely, blends their coffee 6 parts Arabica and 1 part Robusta. The Robusta is used to increase the strength of the flavour and bitterness. The reason for this bitterness is the higher concentration of the organic compound, Pyrazine. Robusta bushes also grow in lower quality soil and require less care and are therefore ideal for coffee growing in places like Africa.

Many prefer Costa citing the stronger flavour as a reason, so it is perhaps no surprise that Costa has opted to blend their coffee with this lower quality Robusta bean. Nevertheless Costa is marginally better at roasting than Starbucks, not burning their beans quite so much.

All-in-all, Costa ties with Starbucks. They do roast slightly better, but their use of Robusta is just odd. Their coffee also has an incredibly strong taste of tar. So much so that if you drink a large Costa coffee on an empty stomach you are likely to feel a little queasy. My score for Costa would be 4.0/10.0

Caffe Nero

I have found Caffe Nero to have quite a varying taste to their coffee depending on location. They have perhaps the most inconsistent coffee out of the group. That is not to say it is bad though, but it is strong. Of all the coffee stores being reviewed, their coffee was the strongest. It is likely that the quantity of coffee they use for espresso’s is higher and when combined with this blasted ‘Italian Roast’ makes the experience a potent one.

Having said however, the experience is not nearly as trying as Starbucks or Costa. Their espresso has a tendency to be fuller but with less taste of carbon. The roasters have certainly given the beans a little more time to develop in the roaster, and whilst the beans are usually slightly oily, they never attack the surface of your tongue in the cup.

Caffe Nero also blend with Robusta beans to give it what they refer to as a ‘kick’, but again their slightly more careful roasting means that they usually achieve better results.

Caffe Nero is a difficult one to assess because of the inconsistence between braches. Overall however, the times I have visited have been good, and for the purposes of this review, my espresso was really quite pleasing, even if it was capable of stimulating an elephant. The crema of the coffee was also thicker, more pleasing, and longer lasting. It might have just been my espresso on the day, but I would have to give Caffe Nero a 5.7/10.0

Pret a Manger

I have included Pret because over the years I have been getting some decent cups of coffee out of them, and their coverage in London is now such that one is almost certainly close by.

Out of all the coffees, Pret has the most amount of bean flavour. The roasting is certainly lighter, and they do try to ensure that the roasted coffee hasn’t been sitting around too long. I would disagree with a few people on the interweb that Pret is just another coffee like any of the others. I have been unable to find what their coffee blending is, but it certainly tastes like a 100% Arabica, with noticeably less bitterness than either Costa or Caffe Nero.

Pret is certainly not a ‘coffee shop’. Their focus is on food predominantly, but their coffee wins this challenge in my mind. I have tasted very constant results out of them, and there is a noticeable lack of overt bitterness or astringency in their coffee that you get from Starbucks or Costa. For this reason it scrapes into the sixes with a 6.2/10 (Updated: 5.8/10)

Conclusion

None of these coffees are ‘good’ coffees. They are all substandard in the world of specialty coffee, but that isn’t really the point. High Street coffee is here to stay, and sometimes when we don’t want to be bothered with the hubbaballoo that is specialty coffee, it is nice to be able to pick up an overpriced cup of caffeine.

I have deliberately not included tasting notes, because to do so would be pointless. You are not going to get the flavours of the bean extracted to their full potential out of these coffees, and neither would you want to. Most of the production will be of sun grown, mass production coffee with little in the way of unique experience. All of it will be the taste of the roast, not of the bean, and for that reason you cannot expect a fine culinary experience.

What you can expect from these stores though is what Starbucks started back in the 1970’s, which is a lifestyle. It is very deliberate that these premises all look the same and serve the same food. It is about a feeling you get when buying coffee with familiar surroundings. For many, no matter where you are in the world, it is like coming home. The fact that they serve coffee is almost incidental.

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One thought on “The Battle of the Big Boys

  1. Bernadette says:

    Really interesting, well done!

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