Near as I can remember, I had my first sip of coffee before I entered kindergarten. So, really, I think I can fairly state that I’ve gone through a few coffee phases in my life.
As a teen, I was so used to the church-basement swill of percolated Folgers puddle-water that my first experience with Starbucks beans – brought back as a gift from my dad after an out-of-town trip – was a revelation. The beans (Yukon Blend, if memory serves) had an intensity of flavour, a boldness to the taste that announced itself proudly as not just any old coffee from a stale supermarket tin. While some coffee drinkers disliked the dark roasts that defined Starbucks, I appreciated it. Like any zealous Starbucks convert, I assumed that all good coffee had to be roasted to an inch of its life.
Until, that is, I started to taste other really good specialty coffees. Some beans, I learned, take a dark roast reasonably well, while others are much better served by a lighter treatment. Roasting is key to a coffee’s overall taste, which is why most coffee drinkers base their decision more on medium versus dark than Indonesian versus Kenyan.
If you truly want to get the most out of quality beans, you don’t want the roast to bury all the coffee’s subtle notes with a layer of thick, smoky bite. To bring out a bean’s unique flavours – the reason you’re paying so much for a pound of the good stuff in the first place – a lighter roast can allow berry, citrus and chocolate notes to emerge in the cup. With dark roasts, you taste more roast than the unique qualities of the bean. Would you order a $30 plate of pork medallions in a berry balsamic reduction, then ask for a bottle of ketchup? Because that’s what over-roasting beans is akin to.
All of this is to say that I don’t intend to judge Starbucks harshly for introducing a lighter roast to their lineup. A younger me would have pronounced Starbucks a traitor for abandoning their signature roast and pandering to a market of coffee drinkers who don’t like their coffee dark; an older me understands that not all beans are well served by their signature roast.
And so, before my first sip of Starbucks Willow Blend, I’m willing to give Starbucks the benefit of the doubt. I’m hoping the decision to introduce a new “Blonde” roast to their cafes has more to do with bringing out the best of the beans than catering to the gas-station-coffee crowd.
The Pitch: “We’ve gently coaxed the sparkling flavours out of this blend of Latin American and East African beans with a unique lighter roasting style. Starbucks Blonde roast was developed by our master roasters especially for those beans whose delicate flavours reach their pinnacle at a shorter roast time. The bright, crisp flavour and subtle complexity shine through beautifully to create a breezy, deliciously easy-to-drink cup.”
The Look: The bag is of the bland sameness that Starbucks recently adopted for all of their bags (I’m not a fan). The beans themselves are a nice cocoa brown, without any shiny oil on the surface. I’m not a professional coffee roaster, but this doesn’t look anything like a light roast; on a colour scale, they’re closer to what other roasters would place in the medium range. The beans are of varied size, reflecting the different coffees that went into the blend. Also, side by side, one pound of Willow is smaller in bulk than a pound of darker Starbucks beans (see photo). This is, I’m guessing, due to the fact that coffee beans expand during the roasting process. The longer the roast, the more the beans plump up. Shorter roasting time equals less expansion from the beans. If you use a scoop instead of a scale to measure your beans, you might find your brewing ratios are a bit off.
The Taste: Not entirely sure what I should be tasting here, but I’m not getting any dominant notes of anything. It’s just a nice, well-balanced coffee with a light acidity and clean, unassuming taste. Maybe a bit of mineral and some light fruit. (Apricot?)
The Strength: Note that I brewed my Willow Blend with my regular coffee/water ratio and grind setting. I’m not sure if Starbucks has changed their in-store brewing ratio for Blonde coffees, but the two cups of Veranda Blend, the other Blonde offering that I found on tap at a downtown Calgary Starbucks, were far more weak and thin than I’m used to from the ‘Bux. Any baristas care to shed some light on this?
RATINGS AND DETAILS
Cost: $16.95 for a pound of Willow Blend beans at a Starbucks in Calgary. Another Blonde blend (Veranda) is available for $15.95, if the dollar difference would be a deal-breaker for you.
Value for cash money: Par for the Starbucks course.
Availability: Canada and the U.S. Elsewhere? I don’t know.
Nutrition?: It’s coffee.
Decaf?: There’s a decaf version of Willow available. While I haven’t tried it yet, I plan to check it out once my decaf stocks are depleted.
The verdict: Not bad at all. Much better than typical office coffee, but that’s not saying much. I’m sure it’ll serve its purpose of providing Starbucks a new revenue channel by catering to people who say, grumpily, “I don’t like Starbucks because the coffee is too strong.”