If coffee could be a pair of pants, Starbucks® Pike Place® Roast would be your favorite weekend jeans. It’s the everyday brew 365 days a year in more than 28,000 stores in 75 countries around the world, and at 35,000 feet on every flight on Delta and Alaska airlines. It’s a smooth, easy-to-drink cup of coffee that is so consistent and harmonious that no single characteristic dominates – or disappears.
But its story is anything but ordinary.
In 2007, the Starbucks coffee team hatched a plan to reimagine brewed coffee. Back then Starbucks rotated all its brewed coffees weekly – or even daily, with offerings varying from one store to the next. A tall drip coffee at one Starbucks® store could be a floral, lemony Ethiopia Sidamo, while across town it was a spicy Guatemala Antigua. At the same time, some customers perceived Starbucks signature roast as “burnt.” The team set out to create their first coffee specifically developed for drip brewing, rather than a coffee press or espresso, one with an approachable balance of flavor and acidity when served black or with cream and sugar. They kept their project secret, even from Starbucks senior leaders. The code name: Consistent Brew.
Andrew Linnemann, Starbucks vice president of Global Coffee, Tea and Roastery Operations, led the development of the new blend.
“Brewed customers come in for the ritual, and tend to order the same thing each time,” Linnemann said. “We wanted to give them something they could count on every day, that was uniquely Starbucks, but might have a softer approach.”
Meanwhile, Peter Torrebiarte from Starbucks ethical sourcing team was spearheading the effort to make Pike Place Roast the first Starbucks® coffee to be labeled as 100 percent sustainably sourced, verified under C.A.F.E. Practices ethical sourcing guidelines. The company had been working with Conservation International on its ethical sourcing program for nearly ten years and was purchasing nearly two-thirds of its coffee under the program, but it was a key milestone toward its new goal of 100 percent sustainably sourced coffee throughout the supply chain.
“With Pike Place Roast, we were making a statement in terms of coffee and craftsmanship,” he said. “But if we want it to show Starbucks coffee at our best, we have to not only source the highest quality coffee but do it a responsible way.”
Linnemann and the team tried dozens of coffee blends from different origins. But finding the right combination of beans was only half the puzzle. They turned to Starbucks roasters to explore a new kind of roast.
“The coffee team realized that it was something beyond a recipe, we would have to roast it differently to a make completely different flavor,” said Brad Anderson, a 27-year partner and master roaster. “It took a lot of testing, experimentation and exploration to figure out a roast curve that would achieve all that flavor without the roasty intonations.”
Roasting coffee is an artform – a delicate dance of temperature and time. After two months of testing, tasting and trying, the team created a new roast curve for Consistent Brew with a shape that climbs more steeply than the signature curve before flattening out as the beans are released in the cooling tray.
“With the new roast, we softened the edges a little bit,” said Linnemann. “You get the full aroma but the smoky roasty bite is not so overwhelming,”
‘We want to reinvent brewed coffee in America’
When Howard Schultz came back as chief executive officer in January 2008, Linnemann and his team were ready to unveil their breakthrough brew. Schultz recalled the moment in his book, “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul.”
“I put my nose to the cup and inhaled deeply before bringing the liquid to my lips,” Schultz said. “My eyes opened wide. The taste was significantly different from anything Starbucks had ever brought to market.”
They chose the name Pike Place Roast, as a nod to the company’s heritage at its first store at Seattle’s Pike Place Market with a launch set just a few months away. It would signify more than just a new brew, but a new brewed coffee philosophy to ensure freshness and flavor. Instead of using pre-portioned ground packages of coffee, baristas would scoop and grind each batch of beans just before brewing. Hold times for all brewed coffees were shortened from an hour to 30 minutes.
It was a seminal moment for the company. Starbucks was struggling in the midst of a global financial crisis and needed to recapture the romance and theater of its coffee heritage to regain customers who were being lured away by cheaper prices.
“The United States is our largest brewed coffee market. We had brought espresso here, but we weren’t always known for our brewed coffee,” Linnemann said. “We hoped Pike Place Roast would help us gain more universal acceptance.”
On April 8, 2008, Pike Place Roast made its debut across the United States and Canada. The marathon day began at 6 a.m. at a life-size replica of the Pike Place store in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, where green-aproned partners passed out thousands of steaming cups of Pike Place Roast as temperatures hovered in the 40s. Anthony Carroll from the coffee team stood just outside the replica store, doing TV interview after interview – starting with Albany, N.Y. and ending hours later with Portland, Ore.
“Of course I remember it, it was a crazy day,” said Carroll, who has worked more than 20 years for Starbucks. “It was also freezing outside so I had to be wrapped up in a tablecloth in between shots.”
Coast-to-coast coffee tastings were held in more than 7,100 Starbucks stores, with more than 110,000 cups handed out by baristas wearing shirts that declared “bold,” “smooth” or “fresh.” Schultz made his pitch directly to customers gathered in Bryant Park and on the morning talk shows.
“Pike Place Roast is nothing less than our reinvention of brewed coffee,” Schultz said that day.
By afternoon, the team had flown back to Seattle for another launch with luminaries at Seattle’s Pike Place store. By then, there was already a buzz growing for Pike Place Roast that would grow in the weeks and months ahead.
“On the five-hour flight we took time to consider why Pike Place Roast seemed to be working so well so we could apply what we learned to future projects,” Schultz said in his book. “It was right for and engaged our partners. It was right for and met the needs of our customers. And it was right for the business.”
The legacy of Pike Place Roast
What started 10 years ago is now the most popular brew in Starbucks stores around the world. It quickly became the top-selling whole bean coffee to brew at home in Starbucks stores and grocery channels and a mainstay in Starbucks VIA® Instant since its launch in 2009. It is also one of Starbucks best-selling single-serve coffees, starting with K-Cup® pods for Keurig brewers in 2011 and Verismo pods in 2012. A bottled version called Black Coffee Pike Place Roast has been on grocery shelves in Japan since 2015.
But its legacy goes beyond a blend, or even a way of brewing. Its creation was like a moon shot that ushered in a new era of innovation for Starbucks.
“We learned a lot about our own roasting capability and knowledge,” Linnemann said. “We always had this high performance roasting approach, but we didn’t quite fully understand the capability we had a do something different.”
Pike Place Roast also marked an important milestone in Starbucks sustainability journey. Over the past 10 years, the company has opened seven new Farmer Support Centers and a new Global Agronomy Center at Hacienda Alsacia, and donated more than 30 million new coffee trees.Since 2015, the company’s coffees have been 99 percent ethically sourced. And the company is leading a collaborative effort through the Sustainable Coffee Challenge to help make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product.
“We learned so much from the launch of Pike Place Roast,” said Torrebiarte. “Even though we were still building our ethical sourcing supply chain, we put a stake in the ground. We showed that sustainably sourcing our coffee is just as important as the quality. We proved that Starbucks is serious about this.”
Pike Place is a registered trademark of The Pike Place Market PDA, used under license. Keurig, Keurig HOT, K-Cup and the K logo are trademarks of Keurig Green Mountain Inc., used with permission.