Tuesday marked the release of Starbucks' new Blonde Roast coffee, the lightest roast profile to be offered in the chain's 40-year history. The milder brew is available in two new flavors — the "mellow and soft" Veranda Blend (singled out as the favorite on the company web site), and the "bright and clean" Willow Blend, which is also available in decaf.
The new product line is designed to appeal to the reported 40 percent of American coffee drinkers who favor a lighter roasted coffee — potentially translating to a $1 billion opportunity. What's more, the new roast profile will allow Starbucks to compete with companies like McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, who already specialize in a lighter roast style. (And presumably to ditch that not-so-affectionate "Charbucks" nickname it's had to carry around for so long.)
We asked three different types of coffee drinkers to sample the Veranda Blonde Roast and weigh in with their opinion of the new brew. Our tasting panel included a "coffee geek," a frequent coffee drinker with a serious knowledge of the category; a habitual Starbucks consumer who enjoys the chain's traditional bold, dark-roast profile; and a regular coffee consumer who mainly orders the drink for the caffeine content. For comparison purposes, we also provided tastes of Starbucks' Bold coffee, as well as their medium-roast Pike Place, and all three were served black.
What the "coffee geek" had to say: "I normally drink dark, intense espresso, but I don't mind light, aromatic coffee. That is, I'm not prejudiced against light-roasted coffee. But I have to say, this is very boring coffee; there's not much depth of flavor. Normally, light-roasted coffee is supposed to better show the drink's nuances — you don't get that here. It's not the lightness I'm objecting to, but rather the lack of character. Kind of makes me wish I had cream and sugar... and I never take either in my coffee."
Verdict: A boring cup with very little depth of flavor and character.
What the "Starbucks regular" had to say: "Usually, I like drinking Starbucks' Bold coffee with a little milk and sugar. I really like to taste all of the different notes and nuances in my coffee and the Blonde just falls flat. There's nothing light or flavorful about it — it's coffee water!"
Verdict: No thanks, just tastes like watered-down, leftover coffee.
What the "person who just drinks coffee for the caffeine" had to say: "It's definitely weaker than the Pike Place brew I normally drink from Starbucks, but better than your typical deli coffee. I think that when Starbucks doesn't scorch the coffee, the medium-roast Pike Place is pretty flavorful and this one seems a little less complex. But I'd choose it over Starbucks' Bold, for sure, as well as over coffee from McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts."
Verdict: Wouldn't choose it over the medium-roast coffee, but wouldn't be upset if it was the only option available to drink.