Starbucks VS Specialty Coffee: What's The Difference?
Some people won’t like what I’m about to say.
But I believe this topic is an important one for anyone who loves stellar coffee.
I’m tempted to be over-simplistic, to frame Starbucks as the “bad guy” in this comparison automatically, but the real answer to the question is more nuanced. We need to be careful about how we talk about it.
Starbucks vs specialty coffee. Are they the same? Are they different?
Yes. Also no. And maybe. We’re going to have to take a deeper look to really discover the truth.
First, What Even Is Specialty Coffee?
Let’s start with the basics and slowly get more specific and nuanced.
In our blog, What Makes Specialty Coffee Special?, we define specialty coffee as…
“... an approach to coffee that is fueled by globally conscious ethics, a rich appreciation for quality and diversity, and a thriving community that spans the globe.”
Of course, that’s honestly pretty vague - and we made it that way intentionally.
Specialty coffee looks different around the world. We wanted to emphasize the mindset and attitude of specialty coffee, rather than the specific attributes. We believe the approach - not the snobbery or brew methods - is the key to specialty coffee.
However, did go another layer deeper in that same blog:
- Specialty coffee prioritizes relationships. This leads to ethical sourcing, and sustainable practices on and off the farm. Coffee purchases aren’t impersonal transactions - they’re relational.
- Specialty coffee pursues quality. We seek incredibly grown and processed coffee, roasting practices that highlight the best flavors, and brewing devices that produce the most flavor and balance.
- Specialty coffee is a community. We are made up of a global network of people who want to make coffee more ethical, sustainable, and delicious. Though we may source, roast, and brew differently, our basic communal goals are the same.
These definitions are more meaningful, but we can still go deeper. Let’s look at a very precise definition for specialty coffee.
Specialty-grade coffee beans are beans that score 80-100 points using a relatively objective scoring system outlined by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and have little to no defects.
There we go. Clear, defined, and fairly objective.
But, on a practical level, how do we tell if a company exemplifies these values and upholds these definitions? I’ll show you how I do it.
Common Specialty Coffee Tests
A company can claim to be a part of the specialty coffee community, but that doesn’t mean they actually have the same values and approaches as the wider industry.
Here are a few “tests” many of us use to identify how deeply involved in the specialty community a coffee company is (compared to the regular commodity industry).
- The coffee origin test. Does the coffee packaging transparently give you information about the coffee’s origin region, processing method, or farm? Usually, the more information a roaster gives you, the more proud they are of their high-quality partner farms.
- The roast date test. Does the coffee packaging give you an exact date that the coffee was roasted, or a vague “best by” date? Honesty about the specific roast date indicates that the roaster prioritizes freshness and isn’t trying to trick you into buying stale coffee.
- The flavor descriptor test. Does the company describe their coffee with detailed flavor notes, or are the descriptions bland and general? Specific flavor notes tend to indicate higher quality, more nuanced coffees.
- The roast level test. Are the beans brown and not oily, or are they closer to black with an oily sheen? Roasting to a lighter level and maintaining flavor balance is more difficult than just roasting all the flavors away in a dark roast, so lighter beans tend to indicate that the roaster’s up for the challenge.
- The baristas test. Do the baristas at the coffee shop have a sense of pride for their coffee? Do they brew and serve coffee with passion and care? Passionate baristas are often a clear indicator that the coffee is high-quality enough to fascinate and motivate them.
Note: a company doesn’t have to pass all of these tests to be considered “specialty” by the community. However, the more tests a company fails, the more skeptical the community becomes.
Let’s catch up real quickly.
- You’ve seen three layers of definitions of specialty coffee
- You know some of the main ways we identify specialty coffee companies
And now it’s time to ask the big question of this blog...
Is Starbucks Considered Specialty Coffee?
To many, Starbucks doesn’t meet the standards we just discussed.
- They don’t publish specific roast dates on coffee bags
- They don’t usually publish specific information on the coffee origins
- They tend to have more general flavor notes
- Their baristas are usually passionate, but not always about the beans themselves
So they usually don’t pass these tests… at least not as clearly as we would like.
Does that definitively mean they’re not specialty coffee?
Not necessarily. Here’s why.
Before There Was Specialty Coffee, There Was Starbucks
The idea of “specialty coffee” is a relatively new one.
The phrase didn’t really start appearing until the late 1980s when a few coffee roasters and cafes started roasting coffee lighter, brewing coffee via manual methods, and being more transparent about their coffee sourcing.
But before specialty coffee, before light roasting was mainstream, before manual methods became ‘in’, before origin transparency - there was Starbucks.
Starbucks, along with a few smaller companies, created America’s coffee culture. Before, everyone drank cheap, low-grade black coffee from pots at home.
Starbucks popularized espresso, got people excited about coffee from different countries, and introduced a whole new realm of drinks that were considered at the time - ironically - “specialty” (think flavored lattes and other creative coffee drinks).
Starbucks pioneered cafe culture, opened the door to more expensive and higher-quality coffees, and paved the way for the modern specialty coffee industry.
Without Starbucks, we wouldn’t have specialty coffee.
Because Starbucks was the forerunner for specialty coffee.
Why Starbucks Doesn’t Pass Many Tests
As you know, Starbucks isn’t a small chain of shots. They’re a global empire.
When we look at how Starbucks developed, it’s easy to see why the company fails to pass many of the specialty coffee tests that we’ve developed in the last few years.
- Starbucks grew at an incredible rate. They prioritized consistency and customer experience, which meant they had to source more coffees from more farmers to keep up with demand (meaning they had to buy beans that weren’t A-Grade to keep up).
- Starbucks prioritized a consistent customer experience. To keep flavors as consistent as possible between states and countries, they had to roast the beans fairly dark in a way that would destroy some of the nuances but create a more uniform flavor.
- Starbucks targeted mass appeal. To reach to a broader market and not scare people away, they never published very specific flavor notes to avoid being labeled a brand for snobs.
In order to grow, they had to cut potential for quality, nuance, and diversity. However, we have to remember that they were still at the forefront of transparency and quality at the time.
The Few Tests Starbucks Does Pass
Starbucks still has some attributes that make people wonder if they still fall within the specialty coffee umbrella.
For example, Starbucks is still considered by many a leader in ethical sourcing.
- 99% of their coffee is labeled “ethical” according to Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices, a system established by sustainability organization SCS Global Services.
- Their sourcing’s impact on the environment and local economy can be measured, graded, and quantified.
- The standards laid out for farmers are even more rigorous than they are in the Fair Trade Initiative and UTZ Certification.
Though there are definitely legitimate concerns about the effectiveness of this approach, it’s at least a system that encourages some measure of accountability.
Starbucks rides the fence in a few other areas:
- Starbucks follows the specialty coffee trends. Their cafes are filled with drinks and brewers that are beloved by the specialty coffee community, such as cold brew coffee, french presses, and pour over brewers.
- Starbucks still gets people excited about coffee origins. Even if they’re not very specific about the regions or farms they work with, they still are a source of fascination for many. Sometimes their flavor notes go beyond the usual generic ones as well.
- Starbucks is a community participant in the specialty coffee industry. Their scientists speak at coffee events, their baristas compete in high-level competitions, and they even sponsor the big SCAA trade show every year.
- Starbucks is directly pursuing specialty coffee lovers. Starbucks has its own (small) chain of “Reserve” coffee shops that look much more like geeked out specialty shops with siphon brewers, fancy manual espresso machines, and creative coffee mocktails.
So…. Is Starbucks Specialty Coffee Or Not?
Well, I can’t exactly answer this question for you. People I respect in the coffee world sit on both sides of the table. However, I will give you my own personal thoughts:
Starbucks is a key global player in the coffee world. They pioneered coffee culture in the United States and paved the way for specialty coffee. They are an environmentally-conscious coffee buyer and are generally respected for ethical approaches to sourcing. They have long been considered “specialty coffee” even before the specialty coffee industry became a thing.
That being said…..
I don’t like their coffee. I believe they sacrifice quality for scale. And while I’m sad about it, I understand. I’m grateful that Starbucks made specialty coffee possible and that they slowly follow and validate the trends of the specialty community.
For these reasons, I only give Starbucks an honorary “specialty” label.
But, like I said, I don’t like their coffee. It’s over roasted, lacks nuance, and isn’t selected with nearly as much scrutiny as coffees are chosen from other specialty coffee companies.
I’d pick JavaPresse coffee over Starbucks coffee anyday.
Our beans are meticulously sourced from some of the best farms in the world with rigorous environmental and quality standards. We then roast the beans with precision and ship them to you on the same day.
We tell you all about the origin farms. We give you the exact roast date. We share our detailed tasting notes with you. We give you all this information so that you can enjoy your daily brew to the fullest.
If you’d like to taste the difference between Starbucks and more quality-centric specialty coffee, I highly suggest checking out our JavaPresse Coffee Club.
You’ll never want to buy stale Starbucks beans from the grocery store again.