Coffee wars: Taste test of Starbucks, McDonald's, 7-Eleven and Dunkin' Donuts coffee products

TAMPA

The headlines earlier this spring were dire: Starbucks' profits were down. Way down. A whopping 77 percent decline in the second quarter.

Clearly the public was cutting back on its daily venti skinny half-caf caramel macchiatos. Maybe the average Joe was forgoing his morning joe altogether, or cranking up the old Krups at home again. On the other hand, it was the perfect opportunity for other big players to move in, leaving Starbucks only the dregs. Thus brewed the great Coffee War of 2009.

It's been percolating for a while.

McDonald's started tinkering and tast-testing its coffee in 2005, and in 2007 Consumer Reports declared McDonald's premium roast "cheapest and best." But it was in May that the golden-arched giant launched a $100 million ad campaign touting its new McCafé espresso-drink concept. Meanwhile, Dunkin' Donuts started some "mud" slinging of its own, staging free iced coffee promotions in a bid to corner some of the specialty coffee market.

Starbucks responded to the high-octane hubbub by announcing that it would drop the price of iced coffees. Even 7-Eleven, the first retailer to offer fresh-brewed coffee in to-go cups, started working its mo-joe, offering new premium blends and budget-priced iced coffee drinks and launching a slightly salacious marketing campaign about cup sizes.

This rising tide of coffee raises the question: Who's on higher grounds? We put together a blind tasting of the goods at McDonald's, Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts and 7-Eleven, assembling a team of five java junkies. In two rounds, we tasted hot black coffee, followed by an iced mocha drink from each. In order of preference, here are our findings.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293.

Hot coffee

Unanimous favorite: Starbucks Pike Place

Size: venti, $1.95.

This new blend was launched last year in response to people who complained that Starbucks' regular roasts were too bitter. A milder brew, yes, but still the richest and most robust that we tasted, with a medium roast and nice nuttiness.

Second place: Dunkin' Donuts Original Blend

Size: large, $1.89

Not nearly as dark a roast as the Starbucks, but it still had a classic, mellow flavor with a little toastiness and a smooth finish. One taster said it tasted "greener" and more acidic than the other coffees. It was one taster's least favorite because of its relatively high acidity.

Third place: 7-Eleven Brazilian Bold

Size: 20 ounces, $1.59

A new, darker blend for 7-Eleven, the panel still described it as weak in flavor. One taster said it was "benign, but lacking in interest," and several tasters commented on its thinness. On the positive side, the hot beverage bar at 7-Eleven now features a choice of specialty blends as well as flavored syrups, toppings (cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate and minimarshmallows), flavored creamers and other add-ins.

Last place: McDonald's Coffee

Size: large, $1.69

With a strange bitterness like it had cooked on a burner for a while, this was our least favorite. One taster said it was astringent, while two tasters agreed that its chief flaw was its weakness and lack of nuance.

Iced mocha

Favorite: McDonald's Iced Mocha

Size: large, $2.99

With fairly intense coffee flavor, we felt this one had the best balance of chocolate and coffee, refreshing and not too sweet. A blob of whipped cream gave it a rich texture, and it had a satisfying, lingering aftertaste.

Second place: Starbucks Iced Mocha

Size: venti, $3.95

Iced coffee drinks are a summer boon, quenching and energizing. This one was so thick, dark and rich that it seemed bitter and leaden. Two tasters said it was too strong. Not particularly sweet, its cocoa and intensely extracted coffee flavor left us reaching for water.

Third place: 7-Eleven Iced Mocha

Size: large, $1.49

Four out of five tasters complained about the chemical taste and intense sweetness of this one, and most found the fake, almost coconut-y aftertaste off-putting.

Last place: Dunkin' Donuts Iced Mocha Original Blend

Size: large, $2.29

With scant chocolate flavor, this one was particularly weak, tasting like ice cubes had diluted a hot cup of coffee. One taster described it with a shudder as "office coffee."



The Tasting Team

Steve Stark, associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa

Coffee habits: One big mug in the morning at home, then a grande Americano (that's espresso diluted with water) at Starbucks in the afternoon. He prefers Starbucks Indonesian Komodo Dragon Blend to Pike Place, and keeps track of local stores' coffee-of-the-day schedules.


Jennifer Marshall, program director of Family Child Care PLUS, Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA

Coffee habits: A former Seattle resident who says "Starbucks was for when nothing else was available," she drinks two cups in the morning at home and then a double or triple latte in the afternoon. She pines for Seattle's Tully's Coffee.


Erin Lange-Vandello, physician assistant, Family Care at Tampa Palms

Coffee habits: Known by her friends as a serious coffee fiend. She brings a Thermos to work each day and goes through "probably four cups a day — well, and sometimes there's an additional Starbucks run in the afternoon." Still, when buying beans, she says Starbucks' are too darkly roasted.


Cheryl Burkey Wilson, nurse practitioner at Brandon Family Medical Care

Coffee habits: The only regular decaf drinker in the group, she enjoys a single cup of coffee in the morning at home and then, as a treat, a latte or frappuccino in the afternoon.


Laura Reiley,
St. Petersburg Times food critic

Coffee habits: Although in college she could drink coffee until bedtime, she's down to one big cup in the morning, sometimes using a French press if her husband promises not to make it too strong.

Coffee wars: Taste test of Starbucks, McDonald's, 7-Eleven and Dunkin' Donuts coffee products 06/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 1:00pm]

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