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January 10, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Starbucks brews up something mild. Will customers prefer Blonde?


Starbucks, so identified with dark-roasted coffee that haters call it “Charbucks,” is brewing up a new category of coffee. Starting today, look for a milder “Blonde Roast” brewed coffee in all U.S. stores. The new “mellow and approachable” light-roast beans will also be sold in its stores and on grocery shelves.

Yes, the company’s tried lightening up before, as far back as its 1998 Breakfast Blend. However, “while we thought it was light, (customers) were really telling us it wasn’t all that light,” said Andrew Linnemann, director of coffee and tea quality and formulation. Coming up with the new products took the roasters out of their comfort zone.

“We had to look at it in a completely different way without that roast element,” he said. “It wasn’t part of our normal pattern either, so we had to learn a lot about ourselves and our customers, how do we do this so we’re not delivering something that’s under-roasted and raw and not tasting like anything.”

Eventually (after some 80 iterations, according to a company press release), he thinks they got it. The Veranda blend has a soft balance, “a touch of cereal, a little bit of grain, a little bit of milk chocolate,” he said. The other Blonde roast, dubbed Willow, has “a touch of crisp acidity, light bodied, light intensity, but flavorful and very approachable.”

All the company’s beans will also now be categorized by intensity; either as blonde, medium, or dark. (That’s similar to the Tully’s way, notes Seattle Business mag).

The new addition is a play for an enormous market of potential new customers. Announcing plans for the new roast in the fall, the company cited research that 40 percent of coffee drinkers preferred lighter roasts, and that 70 percent of premium coffee sales in grocery stores were of light and medium-roasted beans. But Linnemann said the new products might appeal to existing customers as well; that plenty of people will come to the stores regularly and yet hadn’t used Starbucks beans for their home brew, considering it “too dark, too intense” to start their day.

Would a customer like me like the new options? When I buy Starbucks beans, I go for Sumatra, which they classify as a dark roast. “You might and you might not (like the new products),” Linnemann said. They wouldn’t necessarily be his own go-to daily coffees either, but “I’m not the customer we’re looking for”.

Curious? Judge for yourself, starting today. The company will also do in-store taste tests Jan. 12-14 comparing the three roasting categories and giving out samples and coupons.

An early Seattle taster, blogger Melody Overton, reported that, while she’s a fan of bolder coffees, she thought the Willow would be wonderful iced, that it “had a tremendous amount of origin flavor, and so the citrus-y notes African beans are known for were quite pronounced.” She found the Veranda boring, but predicted it would win fans anyway; “(i)t is a taste profile that many Americans know and love: the distinctive acidity and bright flavor of a washed Latin American coffee.”

For the most entertaining scoop, watch the ever-informative Starbucks Gossip website for inside comments from baristas and customers. The few early remarks included one on the Veranda blend, saying that “personally being a bold-coffee drinker i hated it. I can see though how it is going to attract a new market of people”. The early buzz also included one complaint that the company was attempting “to go after the lowbrow Dunkin-drinking market,” (justasec there,) and an employee’s judgment that he wouldn’t go out of his way to buy either of the Blonde blends, and that everyone in his focus group feared that the name would bring on endless jokes. Don’t even say it; they’re already dreading it: “I’ll have a tall Blonde”.

Photo courtesy of Starbucks



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