Why Starbucks Coffee Tastes So Bad to Critics

Starbucks is an undeniable giant in the coffee industry, with a market share of over 40% among U.S. coffee shops and a global brand value of $11.7 billion as of 2020. The company‘s green-and-white logo is one of the most recognizable emblems in the world, becoming synonymous with grab-and-go coffee culture. Starbucks‘ meteoric rise since its founding in 1971 has made it the largest coffee chain on the planet, with over 32,000 stores across 80 countries.

But Starbucks‘ mass popularity and market dominance doesn‘t necessarily translate to a quality product in the eyes of coffee aficionados and a growing wave of specialty coffee critics. In fact, among self-proclaimed coffee snobs and purists, Starbucks has earned a notorious reputation for serving bitter, burnt-tasting coffee at inflated prices. What is it about Starbucks‘ coffee that draws such ire from connoisseurs, and are the criticisms warranted? I took a deep dive into the world of Starbucks and consulted with industry experts to find out.

The Bitter, Burnt Taste Comes From Over-Roasting

The most common and visceral complaint about Starbucks coffee is that it tastes burnt. There‘s a distinct charred, ashy flavor to Starbucks brews that many find off-putting and unpleasant. This trademark "Charbucks" taste, as critics have dubbed it, is a result of the company‘s uniquely dark roasting style.

Roasting is the process of heating coffee beans to create the rich brown color and bold flavors that define coffee as we know it. Most coffee companies and roasters have a "signature" roast level somewhere between light and dark that balances acidity, flavor, and body. Starbucks, however, is known for roasting on the extreme dark end of the spectrum. Their aptly-named Espresso Roast clocks in at a 480 degrees F, well above the typical 430-450 F for a dark roast.

"Starbucks roasts their beans at a higher temperature than most roasters in order to achieve a consistent flavor profile across their thousands of locations and variations in bean quality," explains Paul Haworth, Head Roaster at Cartel Coffee Lab. "The problem is, when you roast a coffee too dark, it destroys many of the unique flavors of the beans and replaces them with a generic ‘roast‘ flavor. Dark roasting can cover up unpleasant flavors in low-quality beans, but it also covers up the natural sweetness, acidity and complexity in high-quality beans."

In essence, Starbucks‘ beans undergo a longer and hotter roasting process than most other brands, to the point where the original flavor of the coffee gets overtaken by burnt, charred notes. Whether you enjoy that smoky taste is a matter of personal preference. But for many coffee drinkers, it leaves a bitter taste in their mouth – literally.

Overcompensating for Consistency

Starbucks‘ inclination towards the darkest of dark roasts is directly tied to its scale. As the largest buyer of coffee in the world, Starbucks sources beans from a wide variety of regions across multiple continents to fulfill its massive supply needs. This global supply chain makes it challenging to maintain a consistent flavor profile, since different coffee-growing regions produce dramatically different tasting coffee.

Starbucks‘ solution to this consistency challenge has been to over-roast its beans into uniformity. Dark roasting to the point of bitterness and char erases the unique regional flavors of coffee – along with defects and variation in quality.

"When you buy coffee from all over the world and you want it to taste the same across every cup, you‘re going to roast it darker," says Karl Wienhold, Director of Roaster Operations at Ceremomy Coffee Roasters. "It‘s almost like they‘re intentionally making bad coffee so that it‘s consistently bad."

Critics argue that Starbucks leans on the crutch of dark roasts to create a dependable product for the masses, optimizing for approachability and consistency over quality and nuance.

A Divisive Dessert-Forward Menu

The bitterness of over-roasted coffee beans may seem like an unpleasant thing to inflict on customers. But it‘s also key to Starbucks‘ winning formula: sweetened, dessert-inspired drinks. An astounding 87% of Starbucks beverage sales are in sweetened drinks like Frappuccinos, flavored lattes, and iced teas, while only 13% are in actual coffee. The bitter, burnt taste of the coffee gets buried under layers of sugar, syrup, whipped cream, and toppings.

"Starbucks essentially took their weakness, which was over-roasted coffee, and turned it into a strength by using it as a base for sweet drinks," says Asser Christensen, founder of The Coffee Chronicler. "The bitterness and intensity of the dark roast cuts through all the milk and sugar, so you can still tell it‘s coffee and not just a milkshake."

While Starbucks‘ sugary concoctions have become massively popular, this dessert-forward menu has drawn criticism from coffee purists who feel it detracts from the integrity and artistry of coffee itself.

"When your menu is mostly candy bars in a cup, it says a lot about your priorities as a coffee company," says Wienhold. "Starbucks is a lot closer to Dairy Queen than it is to a respected specialty roaster."

Data shows that Starbucks drinks average 3-4 times more sugar than the American Heart Association‘s recommended daily limit. A single venti White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino contains 85 grams of sugar – about the same as 7 Krispy Kreme donuts. For critics, the fact that these syrupy sweet blended beverages are Starbucks‘ biggest sellers is proof that the coffee itself is nothing to write home about.

Freshness and Cost Concerns

Another common gripe about Starbucks coffee is its lack of freshness, especially compared to smaller local coffee shops that roast beans in house. Because Starbucks roasts its beans in such large volumes to supply thousands of stores, the coffee can be weeks or months old by the time it reaches the customer‘s cup. Coffee beans begin losing freshness and flavor within days of roasting, so the staleness is apparent to discerning palates.

"There‘s no way Starbucks can deliver coffee as fresh as a local shop that‘s roasting daily," says Wienhold. "I don‘t care how well you store it or package it, coffee that‘s been sitting on a shelf for a month is going to taste flat compared to coffee that was roasted yesterday."

Adding insult to injury, Starbucks coffee also carries a notoriously hefty price tag. Even a basic latte or cappuccino can cost upwards of $5, significantly more than comparable drinks at local cafes or other chains like Dunkin‘ Donuts or McDonald‘s. In fact, McDonald‘s and Dunkin‘ have consistently beat out Starbucks in blind taste tests over the years, despite their drastically lower prices.

"You‘re essentially paying a premium for subpar coffee," says Christensen. "I can get a much better tasting latte at my local third wave shop for the same price or less than Starbucks."

Missing the Third Wave

Perhaps the biggest criticism lobbed at Starbucks is how sharply it contrasts with the "third wave" coffee movement that has swept the specialty coffee industry over the last decade. Third wave coffee shops and roasters prioritize lighter roasts, single-origin beans, and more nuanced flavor profiles that highlight the inherent qualities of the coffee. Customers are meant to appreciate the coffee itself, not just the milk and sugar dumped into it.

"Starbucks is pretty much the antithesis of everything the third wave stands for," says Christensen. "It‘s dark roast, blended beans, sugar bombs, and a focus on consistency and speed over quality and craftsmanship."

Starbucks‘ massive scale and appeal to the masses makes it fundamentally incompatible with the artisanal, micro-roasting ethos of third wave shops. A single independent third wave roaster may source and roast just a few thousand pounds of carefully selected coffee per year. In contrast, Starbucks buys over 500 million pounds annually – an amount that would take a specialty roaster thousands of years to process.

These dramatically different business models and target audiences lead to divergent priorities and products. A third wave shop can afford to focus on the highest quality, most flavorful and complex coffees in tiny batches. Starbucks must settle for coffees that are available in extreme bulk and will offend the fewest people.

"Starbucks couldn‘t sell the bright, acidic, floral light roasts that are popular in third wave shops even if they wanted to," says Wienhold. "The flavors are too polarizing and niche for a global audience."

Many Still Enjoy Starbucks Experience

Despite the vocal criticism from coffee experts and connoisseurs, Starbucks remains immensely popular around the world. Millions of people enjoy Starbucks‘ bold, roasty flavors and decadent sweetened drinks every day. The ritual and experience of a daily Starbucks run is comforting and convenient for scores of dedicated fans.

It‘s also worth acknowledging the crucial role Starbucks has played in building a mainstream coffee culture and moving specialty coffee from a niche market to the masses. Before Starbucks, most Americans‘ exposure to coffee was limited to low-grade diner swill and instant coffee. Starbucks introduced the country to espresso drinks, higher quality arabica coffee, and the idea of coffee as a destination experience rather than a cheap caffeine delivery mechanism. In many ways, Starbucks paved the way for the vibrant coffee landscape we have today.

"Starbucks isn‘t trying to be a nuanced specialty roaster and that‘s okay," says Christensen. "People like what they like, and Starbucks has clearly tapped into a massive market of people who enjoy their style of coffee. No one is under any illusions that it‘s the best coffee in the world, but that doesn‘t make it invalid."

So while Starbucks may not thrill coffee purists seeking out the most bright, complex, and flavorful coffees available, that doesn‘t mean their legions of customers are wrong for enjoying the company‘s signature roasty brews and dessert-like drinks. The beauty of the modern coffee landscape is that there‘s room for both ends of the spectrum, from cheap gas station coffee to meticulous pour-overs with tasting notes of honeysuckle and bergamot.

However, for those looking to move beyond Starbucks and explore the wider world of specialty coffee, there are plenty of alternatives to discover. Finding a quality focused local roaster or third wave cafe is a great place to experience lighter roasts, single origins, and more nuanced, craft-minded interpretations of coffee. Online retailer Trade Coffee curates subscription selections from top roasters around the country, offering a convenient entry point to the expanding market of artisan shops that have arisen in Starbucks‘ wake.

Ultimately, while it‘s easy for connoisseurs to write off Starbucks coffee as bitter, burnt, and inferior, the company‘s cultural impact and consistent appeal to the masses can‘t be denied.

"Starbucks may not be for everyone, but they‘ve undoubtedly made specialty coffee more accessible and changed the way mainstream culture thinks about coffee," says Haworth. "That‘s a huge accomplishment, even if their coffee isn‘t winning any awards."