Inspired in part by Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, I decided recently to take a trip to McDonald's, for a little first breakfast -- I was meeting up with Helen for coffee a couple hours later, but I had to eat something before then.
My focus on the trip, however, was the coffee as opposed to the food. I haven't been to McDonald's in a long time, since I put them on my banned list in the spring of 1988. I even typed them a letter, on my father's old college Corona, explaining (using both the black and red ribbons, for emphasis) how I disagreed with their use of polystyrene containers for most of their food.
Earth Day can have a profound effect on a six-year-old.
Anyway, I'd heard that Le MacDo has swapped over to "Premium Roast" coffees in the past couple of years, and felt that, as a big coffee fan and national coffee corporation employee, I ought to try it out. Furthermore, I've read that the blend that McDonald's describes as "a blend of Arabica beans grown in Brazil and the mountains of Colombia, Guatemala and Costa Rica" is sourced from Seattle's Best Coffee -- at least in the Pacific Northwest (Ed Note: Searching for a citation for this information, as well as information of McD's suppliers of coffee in other regions).
I've only liked coffee whatsoever for about four years, now, when I learned how much I enjoyed hanging out at cafes to read, study, and generally live the life of a Cascadian. Up to that point I drank only tea, and I decided that it was somehow morally wrong to pay two bucks for something that is literally identical to what I can make at home for a quarter. But I didn't want to be at home, you see. So I started drinking coffee beverages, mostly simple cafe Americanos.
Skipping ahead a bit, I'll actually decide between, say, Guatemalan and Indonesian beans to drink, depending upon my mood and what I'm eating, so I though I'm still fairl new in my coffee journey I thought I'd give the joe that's apparently giving SBUX a run for its money.
First of all, let me talk about the money. People give coffee shops a hard time about their prices. In Seattle, at least, that means bagging on SBUX their "expensive coffee." I suppose I agree that it's pretty easy to create a drink that costs as much as a fast-food meal (whatever THAT is worth), and I am surprised that plenty of people buy these on a daily basis. That's not coffee, though, and you know it. Shoot, people who are concerned about paying five dollars for a drink of any kind haven't been to a bar lately, that's for sure.
Anyway, the McDonald's Premium Roast cost $1.39 for a twelve-ounce cup, which is a bit more than I expected considering the same at Starbucks is $1.55. I expected there to be more than a negligible spread in price. I didn't ask specifically, but I don't believe that there is a cheaper option, a non-premium roast, or what have you. Also, for a light breakfast, I bought two of McDonald's hash brown patties. I noticed with a bit of suprise that they had pancakes, biscuits, and other things that would make a "full breakfast." Still, I couldn't quickly sort out the menu, there was no line, and, hey, two for a dollar, right?
So, let's see what we have.
First of all, this cup is pretty high tech; a far cry from the styrofoam coffee cup I'm sure I'd have gotten if my six-year-old self had ordered one in 1988. At Starbucks, a single cardboard cup with brewed coffee is too hot to comfortably touch. With a corrugated cardboard cup sleeve, it's fine, but you can still feel the warmth through the paper. The Mcdonald's cup is some kinda sleeve-cup creation. It's not just thick carboard, that wouldn't insulate right -- I think it has an air pocket built in. Click to see the large version of the picture, you can notice a "lip" at the bottom of the cup where this perma-sleeve joins the main cup body. My hand can barely feel that there is hot liquid inside.
For all we've heard about the famous hot-coffee lawsuit, McDonald's brew wasn't noticably hotter than at any other cafe. Now, Yours Truly is famously able to tolerate very high-temperature drinks, so I might be a poor judge, but I'm guessing they lowered their brew temp to what I understand is an industry-standard 195 degrees. I'm told they previously used overheated water, all but boiling, to get the most extracted coffee per pound of beans.
These are the areas I was curious about most in McDonald's souped-up coffee, since without correct proportion, grind, water, and most of all freshness, you'll never get a decent cup.
On to the coffee itself: how was the drink that Consumer Reports declared defeated Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and Burger King? Well, it was fine.
That about sums it up.
Okay, I'll give you a bit more. For someone who drinks many of Starbucks' brews on a regular basis, and is a great lover of Stumptown and Vivace when I can afford the indulgence, it was extremely mild. However, it lacked the sparkle and liveliness that a solid breakfast coffee ought to have -- there was only a little acidity. Likewise, though it had hints of the nutty aromas typical of Latin American beans, certainly it was but a fleeting memory of the rush of walnuts and hazelnuts I enjoyed in the Guatemalan I had at Stumptown some weeks ago.
What it also didn't have is anything offensive, whether the heavy, earthy notes of a solid Sumatran coffee that might be off-putting to an occasional coffee drinker, or the bitterness of an over-extracted batch. It was fresh, hot enough, and delivered with an 85% genuine smile. Clearly the men behind the arches designed this as a brew that takes all comers, since being underwhelmed is certainly better for a fast-food restaurant than being disgusted would be.
In conclusion, there's absolutely nothing wrong with McDonald's Premium Roast coffee, but I wouldn't seek it out.