Coffee chains dominate our shopping centres, airports and main streets, but which serves the best cup of coffee?
CHOICE conducted a two-part test to see how the coffee of these major chains stack up.
1. We asked the 10 chains what coffee beans they use as standard. We then purchased these same beans. Our experts tasted and rated espressos we made from the beans, using our own coffee machine here at CHOICE.
2. Then for a comparison of how the coffee actually tastes at the outlets themselves, one of our experts sampled coffees at Gloria Jean's, Michel’s Patisserie and Starbucks. Our taste test confirmed that there's more to a good brew than simply a good-quality bean.
The coffee beans used by Michel’s Espresso were a clear winner, with a taste test score of 80%. Our experts commented on the “good colour” of its crema, its “smooth” flavour and “pleasant” aftertaste, with “no detectable bitterness”. Beans from Starbucks and Gloria Jean’s, on the other hand, received the lowest scores of 45% and 40% respectively. Starbucks had a “very light” crema that disappeared quickly, while Gloria Jean’s was criticised for its “thin” crema, “strange aroma” and unpleasant flavour. Both were marked down for their “watery” mouthfeel and “bitter” aftertaste.
Factors affecting your coffee
There are many factors, beyond the beans, that can affect how your coffee tastes, including the grinder setting and milk temperature. Most are determined by the barista or, more broadly, the quality control measures the café or coffee chain has implemented.
For a snapshot of the consistency in quality of coffee served by chains, Matthew Gee, one of our experts, visited three outlets of each of Gloria Jean’s, Michel’s and Starbucks. In each shop he ordered a cappuccino – the most popular coffee order, according to our recent online poll – and recorded his observations on appearance, temperature, taste and consistency across the three.
Despite the fact all outlets in the same chain used the same brand of machine, coffee beans and milk, Matthew found quality was variable - a fact he puts down to the skill and knowledge of the barista.
“The barista’s key input lies in the adjustment of the grinder to ensure that a constant 30mL shot is extracted in about 25 to 30 seconds, and to a lesser extent, the pouring technique,” he says.
It’s not unusual to need to change the grinder setting up to eight times a day to keep the extraction rate consistent; this is dependent on a range of factors including air temperature, humidity, a new bag of beans being opened and so on. But seven of the nine outlets Matthew visited produced shots that were either under- or over-extracted (meaning that water has passed through the ground coffee too quickly or slowly), so their coffee did not stand a chance of being outstanding.
All chains tested told us they run barista training programs for franchisees and/or employees; however, the results of this training appear to be varied.
What to look for in a coffee
For your best shot at getting a consistently good cuppa every time you buy, check that:
- The beans used are locally roasted and fresh (ask if you’re not sure) and that they are ground in-store (look for a grinder near the coffee machine).
- The flow of your espresso shot looks like honey dripping off a spoon, is brown in colour and should come through in about 25 seconds (time the shot
if you like).
- A thermometer is used to ensure the milk hits the right temperature.
- All equipment and surfaces are clean and tidy.
See our review of ground coffee for more coffee tips.