Starbucks has a team that taste tests up to 500 cups of incoming coffee to make sure the company wants to buy the full shipment of beans. From left: Lennon Fediw, coffee quality specialist, and Mark Brown, director of green coffee quality, show the operation in action.
SEATTLE — Inside the Starbucks headquarters, there is a room. And inside that room there are about a half-dozen people. And inside those people are some of the most refined palates in the world.
Every day, they gather here and put their skills to the test.
Before them, inside a room that feels like a laboratory, are four steel tables that get filled with a total of about 500 cups of coffee. Their mission? Taste test the latest shipments of coffee to make sure there are no defects.
Over and over, they sip aggressively out of a spoon, letting the coffee rest on their palate for a second or two before spitting it out into a bucket.
They taste the latest batch of coffee beans — chosen by a purchasing team based in Switzerland, and shipped from one of the nearly 400,000 farmers they deal with — and make sure it tastes as it should. Starbucks has 15 days to evaluate the beans and, if they're not up to snuff, choose not to purchase them.
If the beans are bad, the whole distribution will be off. This, inside this room, is the first line of defense.
Here, they talk about what your "desert island coffee" would be. They watch what they eat (no fatty foods in the morning, which would coat the mouth and prevent subtle flavor differences; Thai food is a definite no-no for lunch). They work in pairs in case someone is having an "off" day.
And they debate flavors the way most officemates might talk sports or politics.
"We have quite heated discussions about what things taste like. 'That doesn't taste like vanilla to me! It tastes like butterscotch!'" said Andrew Linnemann, the vice president of coffee quality and engagement. "But we have to write something to give people a sense. Every cup of coffee has a story, and a richness to it. We have to capture that."
And, yes, they do sample the competition. Like a chef would go into another restaurant.
"We just want to try other things and see what other people are doing," said Amanda Juris, a coffee quality specialist. "I don't think of it as evaluating the competition. I like trying new things."
Earlier this year, Juris won the US Cup Tasters Championship, which means she earned the right to call herself the best coffee taster in the country (the competition involved going through eight sets of triangles where one coffee is different from the other two; she got all eight sets correct, and faster than anyone else). She came in second place in the World Cup Tasters Championship in Melbourne, Australia, narrowly losing to a contestant from Taiwan.
The crew here tastes coffee five days a week, usually lasting from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. The rest of the day involves roasting samples and preparing for the next day's coffee tastings (and chief executive Howard Schultz will often ask for a batch of his favorite brew, the aged Sumatra, which are beans that have been aged for three to five years before being pulled out and roasted).
"Everyone has their own way of relating to coffee," Linnemann said. "Some of it's edgy punk rock. Some of it's a Phish concert. Some of it's easy listening."
"For me it's colors," Juris says. "I think pinkish, salmony for some things. Papua New Guinea is a darkish purple because of the herbals. It's a deep purplish blue for natural Sidamo. The Sumatra is a mossy green."
The coffee tasters definitely have their own preferences (for Juris, her "desert island coffee" is probably a brew from Mexico). But they are supposed to check those at the door.
"We all have personal preferences," Linnemann said. "But the end of the day we have to decide, based on expectations, not personal preferences."
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.