First they dropped the “Donuts.” Now, in its ongoing quest to convince the country that America really does “run on Dunkin’,” the Massachusetts-based chain has unleashed its most antagonistic product possibly ever: A new espresso that is so enjoyable, Dunkin’ execs say, “you don’t have to go to Starbucks.”
Grub loves coffee drama, and a direct shot across the bow of the world’s biggest coffee chain is enough to get our attention. So we tapped three coffee experts — Erika Vonie of Trade Coffee, Ezra Baker of Oren’s Daily Roast, and Kayla Baird of Joe Coffee — to put these claims to the test. The plan: hit a Dunkin’, a Starbucks, and one objectively good coffee shop, and compare their shots of straight espresso to see whether the doughnut chain’s new espresso lives up to the hype.
The Great Coffee
We wanted to establish some quality parameters, so we went to Everyman Espresso, one of the very best coffee shops in New York. The baristas happily informed us that they were using a single-origin coffee from Guatemala for the shop’s espresso and the shots themselves were served in porcelain cups. Perfect shots require excellence at every step of the coffee-making process: growing, roasting, grinding, and extraction. There’s a reason people call them God shots. Everyman’s may not have been truly life-changing, but the shots were superb nonetheless. Vonie from Trade noted that Everyman’s espresso was “immediately sweet and creamy, with a really nice raisin note that lingered and a warmly spiced graham-cracker taste that took over as it cooled down.” It was difficult to imagine Dunkin’ living up to that.
After waiting in line at a nearby Dunkin’ and ordering our coffee, our experts were immediately surprised to see a relatively nice crema atop three of the four shots. They noted, however, that there was zero sweetness to the Dunkin’ espresso. “There’s not even any acidity,” Vonie said. “It has a really nice body, but it’s super bitter and it kind of rips all the moisture out of the center of my throat because the beans have been torched.”
“It tastes like charred vegetables,” Baker said. “It’s like drinking smoke.”
There is one upside to such an aggressive flavor profile: our tasting panel agreed that this espresso “would probably hold up pretty well in a latte and make it taste like coffee ice cream.” (It’s also worth noting that the total for all four shots was less than $5, making it by far the cheapest of our three stops.)
Unlike the Dunkin’ espresso, the Starbucks shots carried a sharp, almost burnt smell. The (presumed) culprit: over-extraction. According to Vonie, one-third of a coffee bean is water-soluble and only about 22 percent of that third produces good flavor. When the coffee grounds get over-extracted, the drying and astringent elements of the beans get mixed in with the sweet and creamy elements that make coffee taste good. The final assessment: Over-extraction meant the Starbucks espresso was “real bad,” and it was immediately clear why the chain tends to sell its espresso with loads of dairy and syrups.
According to our panel, Dunkin’s espresso is indeed better than what you can find at Starbucks — but barely. “It just comes down to the extraction,” Baker said. “And Dunkin’s was better extracted than Starbucks’.”
“You can have a lower quality coffee,” Vonie explained, “but if you make it better, it’ll taste better.”