I picked up a cup of coffee from Starbucks on my way in to the office this morning.
My office has free coffee in the kitchen. Starbucks coffee, in fact. We have boxes and boxes of "Starbucks House Blend" grounds, and a big carafe-style drip brewer and pots.
I admit that it feels wasteful to spend the buck-and-change at Starbucks when I can nominally get the same thing gratis down the hall. Nominally.
After a few months of switching back and forth between what my colleagues like to refer to as "house" (brewed here) and "industrial" (brewed at Starbucks), I can say with authority that industrial is much better coffee.
I can see how this would be in Starbucks' best interest — they make more money on serving coffee than selling grounds or beans, I'm sure, so they want to keep you coming back — but how do they do it? A few possible explanations for this phenomenon come to mind. Clearly, the point at which my office's house coffee diverges from Starbucks' industrial coffee could occur at any stage in the coffee-making process, which goes, for the uninitiated, like this:
1. get some coffee beans;
2. grind the beans to get grounds;
3. brew the grounds in hot water to get coffee; and
4. serve the coffee.
A divergence at stage 1 would imply that the beans Starbucks uses when they make their coffee are not the same as the beans they sell for other people to use when making their coffee. This would be an unconscionable (read: evil, but clever) thing for Starbucks to do, but you never know. Unfortunately, it's also untestable — it's unlikely that I'll get my hands on any un-brewed Starbucks beans or grounds from behind the counter. For the sake of further speculation, we're going to have to assume that this is not the case.
The issue at stage 2 is not so much a matter of whether there is a divergence, but of the significance of the divergence. It is a fact that Starbucks grinds their beans immediately prior to brewing their coffee, whereas ours were ground and packaged an unknown amount of time prior to brewing, and it is a fact that fresh-ground beans make better coffee. The question is: can this account for the drastic taste differece? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I seriously doubt it.
There are two possible discrepancies at stage 3: the grounds-to-water ratio and the brewing method. Any sort of definitive analysis here is going to be tricky.
The grounds-to-water ratio is not known for either case, and while it could be directly measured in the house case, the industrial case is hopeless. Furthermore, experimentation is limited by the fact that the grounds-to-water ratio is not easily adjustable with large, automatic brewers. The method by which the brewer determines the rate at which it should add water to the grounds is unknown, and if the rate is fixed, as seems likely, then an increase in the amount of grounds in the filter could lead to an Overflow Issue. If there is an optical sensor or something, then it would probably work out fine... but what are the odds of that? I could use my personal Brewing Device (the small french press) and play with the grounds-to-water ratio, but french press coffee is sufficiently different from drip coffee that the results of such a test would be difficult to interpret.
Regarding the brewing method, the industrial situation is again unknown. Here, however, simple Covert Observations and/or Questioning of Barristas could prove fruitful. I will investigate this issue further, and report back.
And this brings us, at last, to stage 4. Perhaps it's all mental. Maybe it's more satisfying to trade hard cash for one of those classic Starbucks disposable hot-beverage cups filled with steaming coffee than to simply pump your mug full and walk back to your desk. Then again, maybe they're slipping a little something into the half-and-half.
I intend to continue my investigation, but in the end, I think, it is a moot point. Even if they did taste the same, sometimes you just need to go to Starbucks.