McDonald's? Tim Hortons? Who makes the best brew?

The Globe and Mail

(Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Call it the revenge of the burger titans. For most of Canada’s history as a nation of drip coffee drinkers, only the desperate bought their daily cup at a fast food hamburger joint – we’ve tended to go to doughnut shops or specialty coffee chains for our fix. McDonald’s struck back in 2009 with the introduction of its McCafé brand – which it’s now rolling out across Canada. The company also revamped its drip coffee blend; it expects to serve 200 million cups of it this year, and its share of the country’s $3-billion quick-service (counter-service and drive-through) coffee market is growing.

Story continues below ad

Where as recently as 2007 McDonald’s accounted for just 3 or 4 per cent of all quick service coffees sold in Canada, today it claims nearly 11 per cent, said Kenric Tyghe, an analyst with Raymond James Ltd. who follows the coffee world. And that’s just the brewed stuff – now you can also get espresso-based drinks at 870 McDonald’s locations across the country, and growing; a representative said that number could hit 900 by next week.

Now Wendy’s has entered the game with a new, custom-roast and freshly ground brew that it launched at 100 Canadian locations late last month. Tim Hortons, meantime, lost sales in this year’s second quarter, and only launched its espresso line last week.

The stakes are enormous: Canadians bought 1.5 billion cups of quick service coffee last year, making it the nation’s most popular beverage, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm (brewed coffee was still far more popular than espresso, though that is quickly catching on).

And unlike cheeseburgers or caramel nut fudge sundaes, which require relatively expensive ingredients, quick service coffee – even the so-called “premium” stuff – is incredibly cheap to serve. There’s a load of profit in every cup, in other words. And coffee drinkers tend to crave it at times that are typically quiet in the food business – morning and mid-afternoon. Exactly when fast food purveyors need customers the most.

But whose brewed coffee is the best?

We assembled a highly caffeinated panel of java experts to find out, people who spend their days obsessing about roast characteristics, flavour balance and ideal extraction. Peter Adamo is a co-owner of Toronto’s Sense Appeal Coffee Roasters, Madeleine Pengelley is the owner at Birds and Beans, an independent roaster and coffee shop in Etobicoke, Ont., and Ezra Braves is a coffee roaster and educator, and owner of Ezra’s Pound, a coffee shop in Toronto.

To be sure, there’s an enormous gulf between the micro-batch, single-origin coffees they roast and serve every day and what the national chains serve; while they’re focused on bringing out the unique and ephemeral nature of their beans, mass market coffee, by definition, is geared to low cost, consistency and populist taste.

But all three have fond memories of the joe they drank before they got into the specialty coffee business. And so they parked their biases as best they could and sipped, sniffed and swirled (but did not spit) a random sampling of locally purchased coffees.

The results? Probably not what you’d expect.

How they stacked up

Wendy’s Redhead Roasters Coffee

What the panel said:

“It’s roasted a bit darker, and I think that’s its saving grace. I think in the long run that coffee will hold up better to any dairy and sweeteners. Out of these four, it’s the best coffee that we’re trying. Slightly smokier, but still medicinal.” (E.B.)

“It’s bland, but not bitter or horrible in any way. It is perhaps slightly maltier than sample number one [Tim Horton’s] More balanced, and there’s not any single flavour or attribute sticking out.” (M.P.)

Rank: 1st

McDonald’s

What the panel said:

“The best I’d say is that it tastes a bit malty and cocoa, but it’s very bland.” (P.A.)

“It tastes like a combination of damp forest and uncleaned coffee maker. It’s really not offensive. If I was on the side of the road and I was falling asleep at the wheel, I would make it work.” (E.B.)

“Standard coffee aroma. Maybe a bit malty.” (M.P.)

Rank: 2nd

Tim Hortons

What the panel said:

“It tastes sour. Citrus. Soapy. Dirty teapot.” (M.P.)

“Sour. The flavours are very underdeveloped. There are no varietal characteristics to the coffee whatsoever. It’s very flat, it’s hollow. But that sourness – when you put two creams and two sugars in there, it’s pretty much gone.” (P.A.)

“I’m so brought back to a hockey rink right now. It’s just a very easy drink, it’s not confrontational, it’s not a poet’s cup of coffee, but it’s still holding together.” (E.B.)

Rank: 3rd

Starbucks House Blend

What the panel said:

“Bitter. Burnt toast. This is so bad. It’s the antithesis of coffee. It’s like taking a piece of Kobe beef and cooking it well done.” (P.A.)

“Charred. You can take any bean you want and char it and guess what? It’s going to taste charred. So if you’ve told your customers, your coffee’s supposed to taste charred, you can put whatever bean you want into that roaster and just turn ’er on and let ’er rip. That’s what this tastes like to me.” (M.P.)

Rank: 4th

Topics: