ONCE STARBUCKS GETS its beans, a staff of nearly 2,000 in downtown Seattle -- in a spacious headquarters covered in art from the suppliers’ countries -- spreads Kurtz’s gospel by roasting, sipping, and selling coffee blends across the globe. It would be fair to imagine maybe a third of that staff dedicating its energy to tasting coffee and formulating new blends.
In actuality, though, about a dozen people define Starbucks’s worldwide flavors.
“It’s pretty casual here,” says coffee quality manager Doug Langworthy with a laugh. That’s a little hard to believe, given that the guy chips in on up to 100 cuppings -- rapid-fire tastes of new coffees to gauge flavor -- on any given day. The secret to avoiding caffeine overload? Spittoons.
At Starbucks’s cupping central, neat rows of small black cups of coffee stretch across 15-yard-long tables, and a thick crust of coffee grounds forms on the top of each cup. Tasters break the crusts with a small spoon and then sip, swill, and spit in one smooth motion -- all while the other hand preps the next sip. Dozens of sips are taken in seconds, typically with taste opinions muttered between each.
Here, cups are prepared every morning with two opposite goals: to maintain old, popular flavors in the face of inevitably changing beans and to develop new flavors. The tasters charged with the latter work hand in hand with the roasting process, using miniature roasters to experiment with combinations of coffee beans and roasting profiles. In small gas-powered cookers scaled down to mimic the company’s largest processing centers, fire and pressure blast small batches of beans, resulting in Starbucks’s famed “two pops” roasting process: loud, scattered popcornlike blasts followed by smooth crackling (think puffed cereal in milk). The second popping, Starbucks asserts, loosens a bean’s oils in a way unlike any other major coffee seller does, revealing an ultimate flavor balance between acidity and body.