SEATTLE — On a recent Friday here, the Starbucks headquarters was a hive of activity. A group had gathered on the ninth floor, crowded around a table where three super-sized French presses awaited.
There were nearly two dozen employees, dressed in jeans, sweaters, and open-collared shirts with Seahawks T-shirts peaking through.
“What’s Friday?” called out Aaron Robinson, who is part of what Starbucks calls the “coffee engagement team.”
“Save the bean!” nearly everyone said in unison.
What do they mean?
Every Friday, there’s a session for any of the nearly 4,000 employees who work here to come and taste coffee. It’s coffee that would otherwise go stale. Robinson reminds the group about the company’s freshness limits. Coffee must be consumed within 34 weeks of being sealed, within seven days of opening the bag, and within 24 hours after grinding the beans.
He talks about the delicate nature of coffee, and the qualities of roasting.
“We are one of the best, if not the best, at roasting,” Robinson says. “It’s a delicate balance and our master roasters have been doing it for 20-plus years.”
D. Major Cohen is also in the crowd today. He’s a Newton native who later helped develop the Starbucks market in the Boston area.
“It’s almost impossible to say how complicated it is,” Cohen, who is the company’s senior project manager of global coffee engagement, tells the gathered crowd. “If you change the temperature by 5 degrees, you get a completely different taste. It changes everything. That’s the game the master chef has to play every time.”
The headquarters is in an old Sears distribution plant. Starbucks occupies all nine stories, and there’s even a coffee plant growing coffee beans (probably not very good beans, given the climate, but the effort is nice). It’s where they oversee store design around the globe. A seasoned group is constantly tasting and evaluating new coffees. Another group tries to figure out new blends.
(And if there are any plans for a Dunkin’ Donuts takedown, I didn’t see them. Then again, while competition between the two is fierce elsewhere, there’s not a Dunkin’ within 50 miles of Seattle).
Starbucks had a place in my coffee journey, an important place. There was a time when I drank it twice daily. At least. There was a time when I’d spend hours there, in a “third place” that wasn’t my home or office. Starbucks, in many ways, made me love coffee. I loved sampling the new single-origin coffees, brewed with a clover machine, at their Beacon Hill store.
But I’ve moved away from Starbucks a bit, for a variety of reasons. Some of it is the large corporate feel that the company now has. Their coffee, for me, has lost some of its allure, and their business has grown so much that they’ve focused on things like food, tea, flavored drinks, and instant coffee (which, while remarkably good for instant coffee, is not my cup of ... nevermind). The stores now often feel like a long way from the original store, which is a tiny location with strong aromas from the bags of coffee scattered about in the Pike Place market here.
I still go there, usually when I’m in search of something familiar. You know what Starbucks will taste like and feel like, whether you’re in Seoul or San Francisco. There’s a comfort to that, but increasingly I find myself in search of something unique and unexpected. There’s room for error — and I’ve had some terrible cappuccinos along the way — but it’s fun.
But a visit here made me realize this: These people here love coffee. They are passionate about the taste, and their eyes glimmer when they tell you the stories about the farmers who grew the beans. And you may disagree with their roasting profile, that their beans are too dark, that they deserve the derisive nickname “Charbucks.”
But there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. There’s a lot of education going on among employees, and the company seems to be trying to move back to its coffee roots. They’re pushing their “reserve blends,” and they’re planning on opening a new line of stores, starting in December with one in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district.
Fifteen minutes after the tasting session began that Friday, it was over. Everyone went back to work.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.