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Coffee News, 3-13-2015

Starbucks to Overtake McDonald's?

The Chicago Tribune reports that Starbucks will be worth more than McDonald's by 2025. That shouldn't come as a surprise to fans of either company. The trend is due at least in part to the fact that McDonald's has been in a state of slow, steady decline in the last few years, fueled in part by a shift toward healthier eating, and partly bcause the chain is having difficulty competing against slightly more up-market brands like Chipotle, Five Guys, and Shake Shack. The company's case isn't helped any by its failure to innovate; many of its moves, like the shift to McCafe branding for its coffee, and introducing that coffee to store shelves, seem like half-measures.

But Starbucks' overtaking of McDonald's, when it happens, won't be laid entirely at McDonald's feet. After all, for all the flak the company has taken (including, it should be said, in this space), they've succeeded on each of the fronts where McDonald's has specifically faltered. There's their higher pay rates relative to the rest of the food service sector; there's a strong brand that's generally associated with quality; and there's the fact that, whatever else one might say about them, Starbucks has never been content to rest on its laurels.

Some proof of that has come recently with its Starbucks Reserve line, a move toward the kind of artisanal approach to coffee that had previously been the province of Third Wave roasters (and its accompanying Reserve subscription service). There have also been experiments with moving away from the Starbucks brand, with a small series of off-brand local shops that allow the company to experiment with new ideas. And, most recently, the company has announced that it will be introducing small-batch cold brewed iced coffee to its stores. It's hard to imagine McDonald's doing any of these things, much less to do them at the pace, and with the boldness, with which Starbucks has been willing to tinker not only with its products, but even with its brand. The results, at least at this point in time, suggest that Starbucks' series of calculated risks is paying big dividends.

SxSW: Music, Interactive, and... Coffee?

Since its inception in 1987, South By Southwest (SxSW) has grown from a niche music festival to a cultural juggernaut that encompasses music, film, interactive, and education that draws tens of thousands yearly. Every year brings its share of breakout stars and surprises. 2015 is no exception.

First up is a panel from SxSW covered on Austin 360. A panel consisting of Invergo Coffee founder Cameron Hughes, Counter Culture Coffee's Erin Meister, and Food & Wine senior digital editor Lawrence Marcus took up the intersection of coffee and technology.

The internet has opened up new vistas to coffee drinkers everywhere, while machines like the Keurig, and updated roasting and brewing processes have elevated coffee to craft status. The availability of better coffee beans and methods of brewing doesn't necessarily mean that the masses will want better coffee. For one thing, making good coffee can be a process of trial and error, which is a bit of an adjustment given that most people are stubborn creatures of habit. For another, as Meister notes, “People know what good hamburgers taste like, but they still eat McDonald’s.”

Those in attendance did get some pointers on making better coffee, however, with the biggest takeaway being a willingness to change what isn't working. Small adjustments to grind size, the amount and temperature of the water, and the brewing time can pay big dividends. One of the biggest technological impacts? Anyone with an internet connection and a few extra dollars has access to a plethora of beans, brewing techniques, and tips to make some of the best coffee they've ever tasted.

Yahoo! Tech reports on another interesting development out of SxSW, a demonstration by a group calling themselves Stop the Robots. Stop the Robots are a group of UT Austin undergrads who'd like you to know they aren't Luddites. Rather than abolishing technology, the group seeks to draw attention to its dehumanizing aspects and find ways to keep a healthy dose of humanity in the software sphere. The group's unofficial spokesman, Adam Mason (who, it should be noted, is a CompSci major), underscored this point during a conversation over coffee with Jason O. Gilbert, saying, “Everyone thinks it’s an anti-technology group at first glance, and that’s kind of what we’re going for. But we’re actually for technology. We’re technologists that love technology and we foresee a future where technology is necessary for mankind.”

While it's a bit soon to determine whether the group will be a success, they have at least succeeded in drawing attention to the intersection of humanity and technology, earning press from USA Today, TechCrunch, and Fox. While the group is focused on the symptoms rather than the cure at this point, their awareness-raising comes at a good time. As people begin to consider the impact of their activities on the planet (and on each other), a conversation about the consequences of our technology on our jobs, our food and our lives seems long overdue.

Just for Fun: A Collection of Oddball Coffee Mugs

The folks over at Small Business Trends have a list of "20 Weird Coffee Mugs to Inspire You and Brighten Your Day." Many of us (present company included) find that a cup of coffee helps get the day off on the right foot, and sometimes drinking from a cheerful, offbeat, or downright bizarre mug helps start the day with a smile. We've seen a few of these (like the ceramic copy of the ubiquitous "We Are Happy To Serve You" paper coffee cup, and the camera lens mug, which comes in both Nikon and Canon variants) elsewhere, but there are a few genuine surprises here as well.