Finding the best coffee

Our taste test results reveal the best – and the rest - of 10 coffee chain beans.
 
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01 .Introduction

Cup of coffee

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.

 
 

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In our small sample, US giant Starbucks came out on top for consistency. Matthew attributes this to an established tradition; in the 1950s, the Americans introduced consistency as a key element of the then-new restaurant chain concept, McDonald’s.

He warns that “if you favour a stronger, bolder flavour, the Starbucks consistency isn’t necessarily going to yield you a great-tasting coffee.”

By contrast, Gloria Jean’s exhibited extraction rates that were all over the place, which Matthew says possibly indicates a lack of knowledge about how the grinder works and its importance to taste. One Gloria Jean’s barista didn’t use a thermometer and the milk wasn’t hot enough (ideally, it should be 65ºC).

On average, Michel’s Patisserie coffees were the best-tasting in our sample and, according to Matthew, “were most likely to appeal to those of us who favour a coffee with strength”. Michel’s high average score was bolstered by an excellent coffee in one establishment, whereas the other two outlets produced coffees of much poorer quality.

Coffee with a conscience

Much of the coffee we drink comes from regions such as Africa and Central and South America, where poverty and the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are major concerns.

The aims of certification schemes such as organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ include ensuring equitable trading arrangements for disadvantaged farmers, improving basic working conditions, improving the health and safety of workers, reducing or better managing the use of agro-chemicals and the restoration of native vegetation. So buying coffee certified by these schemes can have a positive impact on people, communities and the environment in regions where the bulk of the world’s coffee is grown.

Six chains on test use certified coffee beans as standard in their machines, and most have certified options on the menu. Standard offerings from

  • Coffee Guru, Hudsons and Jamaica Blue aren’t certified.
  • Coffee Guru’s decaffeinated blend is 100% organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified.
  • Hudsons and Jamaica Blue have a 100% organic Fairtrade blend on the menu.
  • Gloria Jean’s Special Espresso Blend, served in all its coffee houses, contains 66% Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee beans, and its default decaf espresso blend is 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified.
  • Muffin Break is the only chain not to have a certified option on offer.

We purchased coffee beans from chains with a presence in three or more states, with 20 or more outlets in total. The beans we bought are those used as standard in the chain’s coffee machines. Our tester, Peter Horvath, brews each coffee in the same way, using an ECM Giotto espresso machine.

Three experts score the espresso coffees for the colour and thickness of the crema (the tan-coloured foam on top of an espresso), aroma, flavour, mouthfeel (creaminess or wateriness) and aftertaste. The coffees are presented in random order identified only by numbers, so the experts don’t know which brands they’re tasting.

In addition to the taste test, surveys are sent to each of the coffee chains requesting information about their company, coffee (including prices) and policies (if any) regarding quality control and issues of sustainability and the environment.

table

Our experts David and Matthew Gee are from Barista Basics Coffee Academy in Sydney.
Fiona Mair is CHOICE’s home economist; she has extensive experience in food and beverage judging.

Using the table

Score See how we tested, above.
Certified FT = Fairtrade (www.fta.org.au), RA = Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org), UTZ = UTZ Certified (www.utzcertified.org).
Price is for takeaway coffees taken from survey responses in April 2010. Espresso prices are for a single shot. Cappuccino prices are for smallest takeaway cup size, which ranges across chains from 225mL to 300mL and is called “small”, “8oz”, “regular”, “short”, “medium” or “mini”, depending on the chain. Some chains provide only a price guide to franchisees, so actual prices may vary from store to store. Where a price range was given, we’ve shown the lowest price.

(A) This coffee chain chose not to participate in our survey. Information about the chain has been taken from the company’s website and within stores.


Resize-coffee-bean

It’s generally accepted that consumption of less than 600mg of caffeine a day won’t harm most adults, and may even have some benefits. But people vary in their sensitivity to caffeine, and it can affect the nervous system causing irritability, nervousness and sleeplessness. In small children, toxic effects may be observed with much smaller doses.

Consuming high amounts of caffeine may make it more difficult to become pregnant and could increase the risk of miscarriage or having a baby with low birth weight, so pregnant women and those wishing to conceive are advised to limit their daily caffeine intake to less than 200mg a day.

So how much caffeine is in our daily brews? As a guide:

  • Espresso coffee 40mg-90mg / 30mL shot
  • Percolated or drip coffee 60mg-120mg / 250mL cup
  • Instant coffee 60mg-80mg / 250mL cup
  • Tea 10mg-50mg / 250mL cup
  • Energy drink 80mg / 250mL can
  • Cola drink 49mg / 375mL can

What does your choice of coffee shop say about you?

Results of a four-year study of Melbourne coffee-drinkers show chains are:

  • Preferred by young females
  • Frequented by customers seeking brand recognition
  • More popular with people born overseas

By contrast, independent cafés are:

  • Popular with older coffee-drinkers
  • Preferred by Australian-born customers

Find out how much caffeine you consume each day.

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