The lead-time on the introduction of Starbucks Blonde Roast puzzled a local TV reporter, since the product won’t hit Starbucks and grocery stores until January 2012. (Even more puzzling was the until-10:30 a.m. embargo in an era of live-blogging. Maybe it had something to do with the new coffee roast being announced in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago today as well.)
But having tasted a sample at Starbucks HQ in SoDo, I can vouch for the truth behind their statement that it is a new roast profile, and that, to Starbucks, is a very big deal. Dub Hay, SVP of Global Coffee Authority of Starbucks, is quoted as saying they tried out 80 variations. It’s pleasantly strong, not watered-down, but missing that trademark acidity–a little nutty, more caramel. Very drinkable on an empty stomach, as it turns out.
News stories already out have boiled down what’s at stake: Reuters makes it the lede: “The world’s biggest coffee company is known for its dark roasts, which have prompted some critics to say the chain’s coffee tastes burned.” The Blonde Roast “could help the company win over potential customers who complain that Starbucks coffee tastes burned,” says Seattlepi.com.
Hearken back to March of 2011, to this New York Times story, which included the term “Charbucks” and asked whether Howard Schultz had learned the humility necessary to win back customers. Up to now, Starbucks had always insisted people who complained about the taste were mistaken about what burned beans taste like, rather than addressing the underlying “DO NOT WANT!” subtext.
So as I sipped the sample-size cup of Blonde Roast, I reflected on what a change it represents for a company that’s so proud of bringing people to coffee, rather than the other way around. (That attitude is far from unique to Starbucks, of course. Most independent coffeehouses in Seattle are thrilled to tell you what’s wrong with your palate.)
What price humility? The packaged coffee category is worth some $5.6 billion, and, as Starbucks has noticed, almost three-quarters of premium coffee sales in the grocery store are for light-to-medium roasts. Enter a seductive blonde.