Who Serves the Best Fast-Food Coffee?

Burger King is the latest franchise to upgrade its brew. Three expert snobs pick a winner

Interviews by Keenan Mayo and Venessa Wong

“If you’re looking for caffeine, grab a soda instead,” says Bell | “I like that they gave it a roasting company name; it’s very clever,” says Rubinstein

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ADRIAN GAUT FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK; GETTY IMAGES(5)

The Judges

Sarah Leslie

Regional manager and trainer at Ithaca (N.Y.)-based Gimme Coffee, a Barista Guild Academy-certified barista, and lead instructor for the Specialty Coffee Association of America

Caroline Bell

Co-owner and operator of Café Grumpy in Brooklyn, N.Y., licensed as a Q-Grader by the Coffee Quality Institute

Jonathan Rubinstein

Owner of Joe, a chain of nine coffee bars in New York and Philadelphia, named one of the country’s 10 best coffee shops by Food & Wine

Burger King

In February the burger franchise upgraded to a new “smooth blend” from Seattle’s Best Coffee, “characterized by sweet, nutty, and chocolaty notes.”

Small cup: $1.40

PRESENTATION Rubinstein: “This is the least classy. It looks and feels like a convenience store cup. I like the fact that they say, ‘gently roasted.’ That means, ‘We’re not looking to over-roast and burn our coffee.’”

AROMA Bell: “Smoky, earthy, herbal.”

TASTE Leslie: “Strong milk chocolate and peanut butter, which are the Brazilian coffee flavors. It didn’t exceed my expectations.”

BODY Bell: “Thin. I can’t imagine how this cup could hold up if anyone added milk.”

OVERALL GRADE C

Wendy’s

In 2011, Wendy’s launched the Redhead Roasters brand, a “rich” and “full-bodied” blend of “100 percent arabica beans.”

Small cup: $1.08

PRESENTATION Bell: “I was impressed by the quality and design of the paper cup. The cup held up as the drink cooled. Nice red lid.”

AROMA Leslie: “It has an interesting, earthy smell — more like a tomato earthy or red-pepper earthy.”

TASTE Rubinstein: “It tastes extremely oily and burned. I find it offensive. It feels like it’s designed to be covered with milk and sweetener.”

BODY Bell: “Very thin. So thin it was difficult to get any tasting notes.”

OVERALL GRADE D+

McDonald’s

The chain introduced its McCafé line in 2009, promising a “Premium Roast Coffee made with 100 percent arabica beans and freshly brewed every 30 minutes.”

Small cup: $1.09

PRESENTATION Rubinstein: “A perfectly fine, brown cup. I like that there are areas to check what the drink is, which is very independent coffeehouse-like.”

AROMA Leslie: “Pleasant, dark cocoa with some red fruit notes. It’s very fruity and sweet, which is what I like in a coffee. I would have expected more of a French roast. I’m surprised.”

TASTE Bell: “Brown sugar, bitter-sweet chocolate. I call this ‘rest stop coffee,’ drinkable and inoffensive, but not strong or dynamic.”

BODY Leslie: “It’s heavy and creamy and smooth. Actually not that bad.”

OVERALL GRADE B

7-Eleven

The store’s longtime Regular Exclusive Blend is billed as “well-balanced, medium-bodied” with “a nutty, slightly sweet flavor.”

Small cup: $1.62

PRESENTATION Leslie: “It has that look of a cup that is just an invitation to add cream and sugar.”

AROMA Rubinstein: “It smells like chemicals but also has a sugar sweetness to the aroma.”

TASTE Bell: “There are tasting notes of sweet milk chocolate and vanilla. The temperature of this coffee when it was dispensed was good. It’s drinkable; I could finish a cup if I had to.”

BODY Leslie: “It’s juicy and nice. It has that special thing that makes you salivate.”

OVERALL GRADE B

Subway

In 2009 the chain began brewing Seattle’s Best-Coffee “featuring a sweet, lively, snappy flavor with an incredibly smooth finish.”

Small cup: $1.09

PRESENTATION Rubinstein: “I like it. It pops. It kind of straddles the independent coffeehouse feel. It’s an attractive cup.”

AROMA Leslie: “It’s earthy, like wet stones. It’s not what I’m looking for in coffee. I think from the moment I smelled it I knew what I was in for.”

TASTE Rubinstein: “Thin and watery. Perhaps they used too much water when they brewed it, so it’s a little weaker tasting. It’s slightly offensive.”

BODY Bell: “It has a light to medium body.”

OVERALL GRADE D

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