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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.
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.
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."