Coffee by the Numbers, or How Starbucks has Given Up on America

I was at the grocery store to pick up a bag of coffee last week, only to be deeply disheartened by what I saw.

Let’s start with a disclosure; at my last job I worked on the Starbucks and Seattle’s Best Coffee accounts as a copywriter, particularly in the grocery channel.  I loved working on both of these brands, because they were passionate about their products, the way craft brewers are these days about their beers. Starbucks and Seattle’s Best were striving to bring a love and understanding of good coffee to the masses, something I could totally get behind.

While it appears they are still trying to help folks fall in with good coffee, they seem to have given up on educating people altogether.  Instead it’s now coffee by the numbers, which makes me sad. 

Take a look above at the picture I snapped in the aisle.  What you see on the top row are five selections from Seattle’s Best Coffee.  You wouldn’t know that by looking at them, because they’ve given up their festive red-colored bag for a color coding system, with each bag featuring a large number.  That number corresponds with the “intensity” of each coffee contained within; 1 being the lightest and 5 being the most intense, in this case their tasty French Roast.

Look one shelf below, and you’ll see Starbucks has gotten into the dumbing-down act as well, which makes sense, as both brands are owned by the same company. In their case it’s light, medium and dark, but the message is the same: We’ve given up on you, American consumer, and no longer trust you to process anything larger than a single number or a six-letter word. Forget reading a label.  Forget curiosity. Forget finding an unexpected gem.  Fire and forget, ‘murica!

And it’s a shame, because when these companies rolled into the grocery channel, they were on a mission to bring a passion for good coffee to your local store. Now it’s crystal clear that the bean counters have won at Starbucks, and they’ve decided their once-precious offerings should now simply be slapped with a number or dumped in one of three bins.

Think of when really good craft beers first began to appear at grocery stores, that sense of excitement and promise you felt, like the world was finally catching on to the fact that there’s more to life than mass-produced macro crap brewed by massive corporations. That’s what it was like when Starbucks came to the store, with their special booklets, interactive kiosks and jazz bands.  They were going to change the world, and instead, it now appears that the world has dragged them down.

Gourmet coffee is ahead of craft beer by about a decade in this regard, and if what Starbucks has stooped to is any indication, in ten year’s time we can look forward to Victory or Avery or Sierra Nevada having coding system as well.

1=lager, 2=pilsner, 3=pale ale, 4=porter, 5=stout.

At this rate Idiocracy will be a reality before you know it – I’m just waiting for Hulk Hogan to run for President.

Shame on you Starbucks.


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Categories: Beer, Off Topic


Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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36 Comments on “Coffee by the Numbers, or How Starbucks has Given Up on America”

  1. March 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    haha, i love how the numbers are also out of order. 1, 3, 2, 4 & 5….

    • March 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

      The whole damn thing is out of order!

      But good catch – I din’t notice that myself…

  2. beercommdood
    March 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    I was just whinging on Twitter about this a couple of weeks ago. Seattle’s Best actually contacted me, and told me to go to their number system web page to see if it made more sense. It’s downright laughable:

    Their entire website is horrible now. Rather than bringing awareness of distinction and variety to the masses, they’ve completely sold out to mass-marketing vanilla messaging. Sad that Starbucks is doing the same with their move to “mild”, “medium”, and “strong”.

    • March 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

      They are both owned by Starbucks, so it makes sense that they both sell out like this, but it makes me sick. When I worked on the brand, ideas or creative were rejected if it wasn’t “Starbuckian” in nature, something I actually apreciated and mastered (mostly).

      This is not Starbuckian. It’s Folgerian.

      • March 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

        Taster’s Choice-esque.

      • frischer
        March 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

        Starbuckian… had totally forgotten about that term
        also remember that humor has now place in the world of Starbucks, nor do Yaks or any sort of mysticism

        • March 13, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

          No humor, NO COUPONS, and no fun! But the yaks were all Tazo tea, remember?

  3. Michael
    March 13, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    Drink Folgers and spend the savings on craft beer.

    • March 13, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

      As with beer, I’d rather drink water than that cardboard-tasting crap!

      • beercommdood
        March 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

        Agreed, and I do drink water instead of cheapo garbage I won’t enjoy.

  4. March 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    This is a stretch. One can read this change marketing the way you have or one can look at it in different ways. For one, color- and number-coding may be an acknowledgement of different literacies, not better or worse, just different. Also, it might be deducted that success of these two coffee producers might have reached a point where the need to educate consumers is not as necessary. Either way, we’re a long, long way from craft beer going this route.

    • March 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

      I agree – about 10 years away. 🙂

      And if people “got it” now and education was no longer necessary, they would need the numbers.

      But you may be on to something with the “coffee for illiterates” thing…

      • March 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

        No, I didn’t say illiterate. I said different literacies. There’s a difference.

        One should also consider the context. A grocery store is not the place for consumers of high-end coffee. I would expect more in an actual Starbucks or Seattle’s Best.

        • March 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

          If you suffered through all the trainings, conference calls and brand bludgeoning I had to in the name of bring the essence of Starbucks to the grocery store, you’d know that this is an almost total reversal of what the brand stood for at the grocery store. This is them giving up on finding enlightened consumers and diving for dollars.

          Once craft beer hits full saturation and growth slows, I think some brewers we all respect now might feel pressure to do something like this.

        • March 13, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

          I haven’t had to suffer such meetings, Jim. I consider myself fortunate.

          I’m with Zac on this that Starbucks is trying to expand their customer base by making it easier for those that want Starbucks but didn’t know where or how to start.

          Everyone starts knowing nothing. Some stay there. But, if others just need ‘training wheels’ to move up, I see nothing wrong with giving them the help.

        • March 14, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

          Also, Jim, have you ever gone grocery shopping with your kids in tow? I luckily only have one kid, but the time it takes to read about Sumatran farmers picking my coffee beans is nonexistent when my three-year-old wants my attention. Grocery shopping is generally a grab-and-go activity. I have no problem with this. As long as more households stock up on better coffee, my chances of getting a decent cup of Joe increase.

  5. March 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    I love starting my day with a big, bold Number 2.

    • March 13, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

      That’s actually a watery #2, but it’s better than no #2 at all!

      • beercommdood
        March 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

        I don’t think Alex was talking coffee. 😉

        • EricH
          April 10, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

          I think Jim knows exactly what Alex was talking about

  6. March 13, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    If Jesse “The Body” (sic) Ventura, to say (almost) nothing of the Sperminator, can be governor then Hulk Hogan can be president.

    • March 13, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

      Vote for me, brother!!

  7. March 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    11 bucks for a pound of coffee? Man am I glad I spend my money on beer.

    • March 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

      I spend that much on coffee, but mainly Peets, which is awesome. It breaks down to 2 bucks a pot, which covers my wife and I for the day. You can barely get ONE cup of coffee out in the world for that, so I don’t feel so bad.

  8. The Wookie
    March 13, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Yet another reason why I don’t drink coffee (except in Breakfast Stout form).

    As for beer I think we are already there. We had a back and forth a few weeks back with Total Wine after I blasted how they organize their craft beer singles in their retail stores. They reported, and I am paraphrasing, that based on focus groups that they organize singles by a few limited types to help new consumers make easier decisions based flavors they like. Fine in theory but it is essentially the “Me likey pale ale, Me try pale ale right next to it” method of beer selection. Never mind that Yuengling Lager and Oscar Blues’ Dale’s Pale Ale were presented in the same section as “similar beers”.

    I weep for the future!

    • March 13, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

      I prefer my beers organized by ABV. This way I can simply start at the far end and work my way back to 10%… 🙂

      • The Wookie
        March 13, 2012 at 7:41 pm #


      • March 14, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

        Organized? Beer? I just buy what sounds good to me at the moment. Life is too short to worry about organizing beer (or coffee.)

  9. March 13, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    Jim – I gave up on Starbucks long ago. I moved into buying my own beans and roasting them myself and then grinding what I want as I brew and drink to my hearts content. What I found is flavor profiles that I never experienced with Starbucks. Depending on the bean of choice for a particular roast, I vary the roasting time to produce a broad spectrum of variety. I’ll never go back to retail coffee.

  10. March 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    Interesting observation. I have to admit I never became a Starbucks customer because I didn’t feel like learning a whole new language to get a cup of coffee. I see a lot of correlations though to craft beer since you ‘splained it a bit!

    Anyway, for the beer, I don’t see how it could happen at the micro end considering how each brewery likes to keep its own identity and whatnot, but I definitely could see the macro guys doing this somehow. Produce a line of ‘craft beers’ from 1 to 6 and call it a day.

  11. BPM4
    March 14, 2012 at 10:57 pm #

    Baltika Brewery from Russia already has a number coding system for their beers, running the gamut from No. 0 (non-alcoholic) to No. 9 (8% ABV strong lager). Then again, Baltika is owned by Carlsberg and the second-largest brewery in Europe, so they aren’t exactly in craft beer territory.

  12. March 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    This dumbing down of the product packaging has been tried with wine. I still see it from time to time. Worked on some brands that tried this concept. One bottle design I recall had 3 big flavor profile lines/indiators on the back that gave you an indication of what flavors were inside the bottle. I’m not sure it worked so well. For wine anyway. It signified that this bottle of wine was for a less educated (about wine) consumer. I’m not sure consumers want to be identified as less educated. I also think there is a risk of the consumer to question, “if you’re dumbing down the packaging for me, are you dumbing down what’s inside?” I don’t recall these wine brands ever taking off. Craft beer isn’t that different. And I’m not sure it would work too well for beer, either.

  13. March 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    For a good example of how you can indicate flavor profiles without dumbing down your packaging, take a look at any Great Divide Brewing bottle label. To the left and right of the style indication are a word or two that sums up the flavor of the beer. They do a fabulous job at label design and communicating what’s inside that bottle on the label.

  14. BeerBear
    March 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    I’m with Greg, we buy green beans and roast them at home. There is a great deal of beans available from any country that grows coffee. The initial capital outlay is well worth it. The only time I am even tempted by Bigbucks coffee is in an airport.

  15. Mark
    March 19, 2012 at 8:54 pm #

    My monthly order from Peet’s arrived today. All is not lost.

  16. March 21, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    I honestly drink exponentially more coffee than beer. I feel very fortunate to have many, many roasters with blends that are far superior to Charbucks available to me. I’ve never had anything from Charbucks that I’ve thought was even half decent.

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