Coffee taste burnt lately? Here's why

Roasters are sneaking cheaper robusta beans into their blends to save money. Will coffee drinkers revolt?

By Kim Peterson Jun 20, 2012 2:38PM
Image: Coffee Beans (© Purestock/SuperStock)Have you noticed that your coffee tastes different lately? A little bolder, perhaps even bitter? Does it seem to have more caffeine?

Coffee companies are sneaking more robusta beans into their grounds as the price of the higher-grade arabica beans has spiked, Reuters reports. Very few roasters are actually admitting to doing this, but the evidence is as plain as day: U.S. robusta imports soared by 80% in the first quarter, while arabica fell by nearly a third.

Higher-quality arabica beans have a milder, more delicate and complex flavor than robusta. They're harder to grow and more expensive. Coffee experts say robusta, by contrast, tastes like burned rubber. Robusta also has a lot more caffeine.

Robusta coffee has been dismissed for years. In fact, U.S. coffee merchant COEX Coffee International never traded robustas five years ago, Reuters reports. Now the company said 40% of its business is robusta.

That raises a big question: Who's using all that robusta? Reuters guesses it's the national retail brands sold in supermarkets. Only one major roaster has admitted to using more. Massimo Zanetti, which makes the Chock Full o'Nuts and Hills Bros. brands, said it upped its robusta content by more than 25%, according to Reuters.

Everyone else is quiet.

There's only so much robusta Americans will take in their coffee blends. And roasters seem to be pushing the limit -- an understandable move, given the wild increases in coffee prices in recent years.

But coffee prices have come way down. Arabica futures hit a two-year low this week, in fact. So will the roasters that switched to robusta return to higher-quality arabica now that costs have settled? Unless there's a consumer backlash, the answer is no.

Shoppers on tight budgets are trading down to less expensive coffees, willingly accepting a slightly harsher taste in order to save a few dollars. That means robusta's popularity is probably here to stay, and the coffee industry is adjusting to this new reality. That's good news for Vietnam, the world's biggest grower of robusta.

How does a coffee bean make it to your cup? The following video traces coffee's journey.

Jun 20, 2012 9:44PM
LOL... never understood the interest in Starbucks. Terrible overpriced coffee. As for mine, I still buy the bean and grind it myself. Free Trade.
Jun 20, 2012 4:40PM
They could sell Robusta as such, clearly marked and cheaper, and let those who want it buy it. There will be a percentage of people who are willing to accept nasty tasting coffee to save a few bucks. People will be willing to fork over a few more bucks for expensive beans as long as they know they aren't getting cheated.
Jun 20, 2012 8:11PM
Another failed attempt by Starbucks to add Tea, Juice's  and toying with beer and wine to the bottom line......Why pay 8.00+ for a cup of tea? Why pay 8.00+ for a cup of coffee? I do not know why perfectly hip and status hungry individuals would be willing to throw away their money in such fashion. It  was hip and fashionable two year's ago to be seen with a Starbuck cup in your hand, it meant supposedly you had money to burn with a 240.00+ a month coffee allowance fashion statement. I attribute it to trying to be hip and following the rest of the people wasting their money or daddy's money on a statement. The statement was; I am disconnected from reality or I am connected to non accountable people that just do not care (simply a mirror into our society) at the time. I see that crowd penny less in the future and all for the sake of self indulgence and hipness...Thank God that fad and stage is over for most! Move over Starbucks your day in the sun is over..!
Jun 20, 2012 7:29PM
The last time I drank a Starbucks Coffee, the National Guard had to dispatch a HazMat team to remove that toxic emergency from my mouth. 
Jun 20, 2012 10:23PM
It's becoming a tasteless World since corporations formed a symbiosis with government and took part in the ritual of corrupt practice. Another aspect is the population explosion creating shortage of food supplies and competition between super powers. It would be wise for more people in our population to join the start-up small farming communities for self sufficiency and not rely on Corporate food supply. It would also be much healthier. Included, should be a return to "canning" or preserving produce in glass jars for future consumption. Back to your roots Americans. Maintain your freedoms.
Jun 20, 2012 7:28PM
Who knows what other stuff is in that grind, like sawdust or some rubber bands. I notice all the stuff people put in their coffee at places like Starbucks, so they wouldn't be able to taste the real coffee anyway.  
Jun 20, 2012 6:12PM
I have noticed the burnt taste off and on for awhile, yuk!  I wondered if it was my coffee maker or just something i did wrong when putting the coffee together even though i do it the same way when i make it .  glad to know it wasn't me, but not happy to know we've been "swizzled" by the coffee industry...why not, everyone else has been doing it to us...
Jun 20, 2012 6:44PM
Yes I have noticed and it tastes more like Cigarette butts to me.  You can't make that stuff taste good no matter how much sweetner and creamer you put in it.  My husband has just about given up buying coffee any where.  We are really careful what we buy.  Usually make our coffee at home and we don't buy the cheap stuff. 
Jun 20, 2012 8:42PM

Starbucks coffee has been burnt and bitter since day 1

NOT because of robusta

because they think " dark roast " is supposed to taste that way

finally many americans walked away

so they introduced blond

lastes like swill

i have been drinking Lavazza " Milano Roast " for 25 years

it is a light roast ( the ground coffe is light brown color ) so you know it is not burnt

Lavazza suddenly discontinued Milani Roast and substituted " Premium House Blend "

it is NOT as good

i tried Dunkin Doughnuts " Original Blend " and found it to be quite nice !

i am now " runnin on dunkin !


Jun 20, 2012 7:36PM
Ignatz is right about fresh grinding.  That's why I invested (a lot) in a system that has infinite coffee settings for volume and strength (and type of grind) and then grinds each cup before it brews.  It also makes milk-coffee drinks (but I don't do those) - and though it cost a lot, I have really terrific coffee any time of the day at home.  The best "toy" I have, and it certainly has paid for itself over the years.  I have several friends that only drink coffee when they are at my house.  One last thing about roasting your own beans:  doing it outside on a Saturday morning (on top of the BBQ grates since there is some smoke and chaff coming off the beans) my neighbors have all told me the smell of fresh roasting coffee that lasts for a few minutes is a little extra pleasure for them on a nice Spring morning.
Jun 20, 2012 7:19PM
Benjoh, unless you're grinding each cup before it's brewed (and brewing properly to begin with), you're drinking stale swill. If it's pre-ground more than several hours, it's stale.
Jun 21, 2012 11:49AM
NICE, MSN! 45% of the POSTS are SPAM!!......keep up the good work MODERATOR!!
Jun 21, 2012 10:30AM
Jun 20, 2012 7:16PM
Jerry's right. Unless you've roasted your own beans before, you have no idea what *fresh* coffee tastes like. And if you've been drinking that swill served by Starbucks, you're tastebuds have been ruined. You will *never* know the taste of a *good* cup of coffee.
Jun 20, 2012 6:11PM
So . . . it sounds as if the only beans Starbucks has ever used are robusta beans. I wondered, the three times I ever drank it (1991, 1995, 2007 - all Seattle shops), why the coffee tasted so "burnt."
Jun 20, 2012 7:11PM

I roast my own beans - not because it's cheaper (although it is a lot cheaper) but because I can control the taste.  I pay about $5 a pound (in bulk) for top quality beans.   All you need is a stainless steel wok (some people even use a stainless dog dish) and a heat gun.  Others use popcorn poppers, etc., but a heat gun is faster and lets you precisely control the amount of roast.  For dark, oily french roast it takes about 15 minutes a pound - lighter roasts are 12-13 minutes. After the roast I hit the beans with a hair dryer that blows cold air for a few minutes to stop the roasting process.  Done. Although I personally use a pretty sophisticated brewing system, it's not necessary.  Just buy a good burr grinder and you can have your coffee any way you want.  Green (raw) beans can be bought on eBay (I buy mine from - excellent quality and low prices).  There are many tutorials online re roasting.

Jun 21, 2012 1:28PM
I wondered what happened to my Yuban! I'd been drinking it for years,and all of the sudden,it tasted like it had ashes in the grounds.I quit drinking coffee,and now I know why.My wife will be glad to hear she's not crazy.
Jun 20, 2012 5:16PM
Yes, we've tasted the difference in our Peet's brand. The Italian roast is harsher than before, so we went down to French roast. But we eat out a lot, and when a restaurant uses Illy, boy can we tell the difference! Illy has kept their quality up, and frankly, we're thinking of switching our home brand to them. Expensive, yes; but worth it.
Jun 20, 2012 5:09PM
While the article holds some merit.  The coffee connoisseur knows to seek out a fire roasted coffee, then count the male to female bean ratio, culls and pee beans. 

The burnt bitter taste comes from the culls and pee beans (because they are over cooked (burnt)).  While the flavor and aroma comes from the male bean.

The electric roast evaporates oils (ie. Starbucks).   While a properly turned fire roast (without the problems identified above) gives you the perfect cup of coffee.  Of course this assumes you have the perfect blend of beans to begin with.  I enjoy (100% Arabica from Private Plantations) in balance of these 5 flavors (blended) Colombian Medium Roast, Mexican, Guatemalan, Costa Rican, for a well-rounded flavor, and medium acidity and French Roast blend for the perfect cup of Joe.  This is a morning, noon and night blend.
Jun 20, 2012 5:44PM
I get my first cup of coffee about 4:50am at WaWa and sometimes I get a burnt taste because the coffee has been sitting on the burner for 8 hours. Ruins my day.
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