Starbucks Coffee Co. said Tuesday it will introduce its first light-roast coffee products early next year.
The new “Blonde” roast, to debut at U.S. Starbucks locations on Jan. 10, aims to attract the estimated 40 percent of American coffee drinkers who say they prefer a lighter roast flavor, according to the company’s research.
“We feel like that’s been an underserved customer group,” said Rossann Williams, Starbucks senior vice president for the sunbelt region, who unveiled the new product in Los Angeles, at one of five press conferences held at Starbucks locations across the country Tuesday.
Additionally, an estimated 70 percent of consumers who buy packaged coffee in grocery stores purchase a light to medium roast, Williams said.
For more than 40 years, Starbucks has positioned its dark roast, bolder flavored coffees as a premium alternative to lighter brews.
The introduction of Starbucks Blonde will level the chain’s playing field with such competitors as McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, which offer coffees and specialty drinks that favor lighter roasts.
“This is a significant opportunity for Starbucks to gain a greater share of the brewed coffee market — both in our stores and down the coffee aisle,” Cliff Burrows, Starbucks president of the Americas, said in a statement.
Starbucks Blonde will be brewed at the chain’s locations. It will also be sold as a whole bean and ground coffee offering in grocery stores, as well as a version of VIA Ready Brew instant coffee and a single-serve K-Cup.
The company will unveil new packaging for all its coffees in grocery stores in January. The designs will categorize flavors as blonde, medium and dark, based on roast.
“Not only does Starbucks Blonde Roast provide Starbucks with an opportunity to reach a new category of coffee drinkers within the $5.6 billion U.S. packaged coffee category, but by organizing our coffees by Blonde, Medium and Dark, it makes it easier for our customers to find the taste that appeals to them,” Jeff Hansberry, president of channel development for Starbucks, said in a statement.
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The system is similar to the labeling system used by Seattle’s Best Coffee, which ranks packaged coffee on a scale from one to five, depending on its intensity. Seattle’s Best is owned by Starbucks.
The light-roast coffee is scheduled to debut in Canada in February, the company said.
Andrew Hetzel, founder and director of coffee industry consulting firm Cafemakers, based in Hawaii, welcomed the news of a lighter Starbucks roast.
“A lighter roast allows consumers to taste the actual coffee and less of the carbons” that can occur with darker roasts, he said. “Coffee purists tend to prefer a lighter roast.”
Starbucks’ longtime strategy of using darker roasts has been beneficial for two reasons, Hetzel said.
It has allowed the company to purchase coffee beans at a wider range of price and taste because dark roasting can hide defects.
Starbucks also tends to sell coffee drinks with milk and flavorings, which would overwhelm a lighter roasted brew.
However, Hetzel said the rollout of yet another new Starbucks product will be a challenge as climate change continues to hurt coffee production. At the same time, global coffee consumption has been rapidly climbing.
Partly because of the concerns about the effect of climate change on coffee-producing regions, rumors have circulated in recent weeks that Starbucks was planning to move into the juice bar business.
The company has hired Yohana Bencosme, former manager of New York City juice bar Liquiteria, officials confirmed Tuesday.
At the Los Angeles press conference, Starbucks’ Williams declined to comment on a rumored juice bar, but said the company is always looking for opportunities for innovation.