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Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Published: Tuesday, 2/6/2007

Say it ain't so; McD's java is No. 1

Oh, hey. Feel that? There. That's the Earth tipping even further off its axis. People, the nation's best-known independent product-testing organization says the coffee at McDonald's beats Starbucks.

Yeow! The world as we knew it to no longer exists. Are we not now obligated to rethink everything?

In this corner, it's the original purveyor of assembly-line food. In the opposite corner, it's the originator of mass-consumption haute coffee. And here comes Consumer Reports, holding high the triumphant hand of McD's for coffee that's not only better, but cheaper.

(You probably already guessed that, but here's the thing: It's not that much cheaper. Consumer Reports testers paid $1.35 for a cup of coffee at the Golden Arches, while they shelled out $1.55 at Starbucks.)

The coffee raters, a professional taste tester plus employees from Consumer Reports' food-testing department, tried the brew at two locations of each chain. At each store, they bought medium-sized black coffees (no sugar, no cream, no hazelnut goo) and based their pronouncements thusly.

McDonald's coffee was declared "decent and moderately strong," and even if "it lacked the subtle top notes needed to make it rise and shine, it had no flaws." Starbucks' offering, meanwhile, was "strong but burnt and bitter enough to make your eyes water instead of open."

That, I believe, should remind us that "taste" is subjective. Besides, isn't there more to coffee than the taste? As a trenchant posting on digg.com put it:

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the whole point of coffee that it is bitter and doesn't taste good, but it has the stuff to keep you awake and make the headaches go away? Honestly, if it has zero calories, tastes bitter, and still sells like hotcakes, it's gotta be the drugs."

Personally, I love coffee. Adore it. Worship it. Think it tastes very, very good. Cannot live without it. Tried once and almost lost of my mind.

Drug, indeed

But the actual lesson here has nothing to do with coffee and everything to do with rising American expectations. A good friend of mine calls it her Baked Potato Theory.

"A baked potato by itself," Robin once explained to me, "is a pretty good thing. But then you add a little butter. And some sour cream. And then some cheese, and then some bacon. And after that, you don't ever want a plain baked potato again."

That's why McDonald's doesn't even really sell "coffee" anymore. It sells "premium roast coffee."

And that's why, as our coffee expectations keep rising, Starbucks has taken to selling CDs and such; gotta diversify somewhere if the market's coming after your core product.

Hey, we're Americans. We excel at creating consumer need where once there was only desire. I rail against all this - at the same time I'm first one in line for "good" coffee (though I'd rather go to a place like Downtown Latte, which is independently owned and brews only fair-trade coffee).

The triumph of McDonald's coffee over Starbucks' might come as a surprise.

But it's really the triumph of our growing belief that everything in life, including something as humble as java, should be subject to upgrade.



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