Congratulations, Starbucks, you’re only about a decade or two behind the curve.
Coffee roasters and shops have been experimenting with light-roast blends (or lighter-roast blends) and single-origin beans for espresso since at least the mid-to-late 1990s, almost as a knee-jerk response to the hegemony of dark Italian roasts, which had been the espresso standard for decades.
Yet despite the third-wave movement’s devotion to high-grade beans, lighter roasting techniques and other innovations, Starbucks had been largely content with its second-wave conventions, which were a significant step up from the coffee of the Folgers generation. Sure, Starbucks introduced a Blonde roast coffee in 2012, but the chain had remained committed to dark-roast blends for espresso drinks.
Last year, however, Starbucks introduced its “Blonde Espresso” — a blend of Latin America and East African beans, roasted lighter to bring out each bean’s unique qualities — to the Canadian market, to an apparently warm reception. This week, the espresso blend made its way into Starbucks shops across the United States. You can order the blend as a shot or as part of an espresso-based drink. The regular dark-roast blend remains available for espresso drinkers, too.
So how does Blonde Espresso taste? As a shot, it’s quite satisfying, even if drinking it out of a paper cup is not. The blend goes down sweet and citrusy, with this dark-roast note lurking in the background. I would have preferred to gulp the espresso from a demitasse, its rim warm and its weight a pleasure to hold. But Starbucks doesn’t do glassware. As such, I felt as if I were drinking a Grand Cru from a Dixie cup.
As part of a tall latte, however, the Blonde Espresso drowns under a sea of steamed and frothed milk. All the characteristics that defined the blend as a shot were diluted beyond recognition. By contrast, a tall latte prepared with Starbucks’s standard espresso blend offered the scorched, char-heavy flavors of beans roasted to death. No amount of milk can stop these flavors from bobbing to the surface.
If you want to understand why Starbucks and other coffee shops have historically relied on dark-roast blends for espresso, this is part of the reason: Lighter roasts don’t stand a chance against the sugar, milk and chocolate found in lattes, mochas, cappuccinos and the rest.
“I don’t think [lighter roasts] work so great in milk-based drinks,” says Chris Vigilante, founder of Vigilante Coffee Company, “because they lose their taste.”
But there are other reasons dark-roast coffee has dominated espresso bars for so long. Some light-roast coffees just don’t produce the thin layer of foam, or crema, necessary for a good shot of espresso. Some taste way too sour, as if the coffee’s citrus-like acidity had been transformed into a caricature of itself via the espresso machine. And some have a hard time with the fine-grind settings required for espresso: They grind unevenly, leading to under-extracted shots, at once thin and devoid of complexity.
It can take a lot of trial and error for roasters to create a light-roast blend that works for both individual shots and espresso drinks. Truth is, even the lighter roasts used for espresso often lean toward the medium end of the spectrum, experts say. Take the Four Mile Espresso blend from Swing’s Coffee: Each of the three beans — Brazilian, Costa Rican and Sumatran — is roasted individually and then blended into a coffee that Swing’s labels as a “medium” roast, says owner Mark Warmuth.
And the Four Mile Espresso is lighter than the Espresso 90, a blend that Swing’s introduced in 2006 for the Washington roaster’s 90th anniversary. Espresso 90 was, in fact, Swing’s first attempt to break free of the dark-roast blends that had dominated the company’s espresso bar.
“When we made the decision to go light, it would have been driven, in part, by the third-wave movement, which was moving in that direction already,” Warmuth says.
Over at the Wydown, with locations on 14th Street NW and H Street NE, the brothers behind the shops will introduce a new Peruvian coffee from Passenger next week. Chad and Alex McCracken have such faith in this high-altitude coffee that they plan to use it for both their drip coffee and for their espresso, a rare double duty. Chad McCracken says it’s the lightest roast the brothers have ever used for espresso, though it’s still closer to a medium roast.
“If you go too light with espresso, it can be like an acidic bomb,” Chad McCracken says. “Some baristas might like it, but it’s probably not a crowd-pleaser. . . . You want to roast it light enough to taste good on its own, but dark enough to stand up to milk.”
Which leads us back to Starbucks and its new Blonde Espresso, a blend that the chain is hyping to a deafening pitch. Three D.C.-area shops that I visited on Tuesday were plastered with Blonde Espresso marketing materials. One of the window treatments read: “Starbucks’ Blonde Espresso Breaks Rules.”
On one level, Starbucks is correct with this promotional swagger: The Blonde Espresso does go against the chain’s self-imposed rule of using only dark-roast blends. But on another level, the slogan is downright comical in its braggadocio: Smaller, more innovative roasters have been breaking the espresso rules for nearly two decades.
Starbucks says the Blonde Espresso is a permanent menu item. But roasters like Joel Finkelstein over at Qualia Coffee wonder why Starbucks would even bother with such a blend: “Is there actual demand for that among Starbucks customers?” he asks.
It’s a good question. And here’s another: Will the demand remain once customers realize their Blonde lattes are now little more than caffeinated cups of milk and froth, with little evidence of the burned-coffee flavor that defined the drink for decades?