Light(weight) Roasts from Peet’s and Starbucks

Third Wave coffee is all about lighter roasts. Boutique companies like Stumptown of Portland and Ritual of San Francisco source quality beans (usually from an individual farmer on a single coffee estate) and roast them carefully so nuances of aroma and flavor come through, in contrast to the deep-char flavor of darkly roasted coffees from the Second Wave companies that became famous for the style decades ago.

Now the two biggest Second Wave companies, Starbucks and Peet’s, are finally following Third Wave roasters into the light—the lighter roasting style, that is. Both companies recently added lighter roasts to their dark-roast portfolios.

In February, Starbucks released two coffee blends tagged Blonde Roast, Veranda and Willow. (Starbucks has long offered what it calls Medium Roast, including its all-popular Breakfast Blend.) And last summer, Peet’s delivered two medium roasts—Café Domingo and Café Solano—to nearly 11,000 grocery-store customers nationwide. The beans just recently showed up in Peet’s coffee bars; baristas at my local shop are sporting buttons reading “Meet the Lighter Side of Peet’s.”

Well, after meeting the lighter side of Peet’s and Starbucks, all we can say to the owners of Stumptown and Ritual is this: Dudes, don’t sweat the competition.

For anyone accustomed to the earthy warmth, green-herb vibrancy, or citrus acidity of single-origin beans from a sensitive roaster, these mass-market lighter roasts are boring. Steeped in a French press in the CHOW Test Kitchen, the Café Domingo from Peet’s (a Latin American three-bean blend) had muffled flashes of green spice and a hint of potting-soil sweetness, but the burnt taste of the roast still predominated (I mean, it is a medium roast, after all), though with a lot less char than the company’s signature dark roasts have.

Meanwhile, the Starbucks Veranda blend seemed as dull as an interminable afternoon spent on the back patio in some beige subdivision. There was little acidity and even less aroma. This is a coffee whose reason for living is to be a hot neutral, a dark liquid in need of milk and a couple of sugar packets to achieve anything close to character. Sort of like the mass-market coffees from Dunkin’ Donuts or Green Mountain.

Funny I should mention that. Turns out the lighter roasts from these coffee behemoths don’t mark a Third Wave conversion for Peet’s and Starbucks—nobody’s seriously thinking that a Stumptown drinker is suddenly going to give up her Bolivia Buenavista to go hang out on Starbucks’s Veranda. “Believe me, Starbucks isn’t apprehensively looking over its shoulder worrying about us,” says James Freeman, founder of Third Wave roaster Blue Bottle, based in Oakland, California. “They spend more on 8-ounce lids in California alone than our entire revenue for the year.”

The new lighter roasts from dark-roast heavyweights? A niche the lightweight coffee consumer—the Dunkin’ drinker willing to pay a little more for the privilege of upbranding—might enjoy hanging out in. As long as there’s cream and sugar in there.

Photo by Christopher Rochelle / CHOW.com

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