Studies on the health benefits and hazards of caffeine seem to veer from miracle wonder drug to possible silent killer every year or two. No matter what the latest finding is, though, we Americans love our coffee — and drink massive amounts of it.
Nearly half the coffee Americans consumed in 2017 was purchased outside the home, according to the National Coffee Association. This figure comprises regular old drip as well as espresso-based drinks like lattes, cappuccinos, flat whites, and milkshake-like, thousand-calorie-packing behemoths.
Starbucks, for its part, won’t say exactly how many espresso drinks customers order per year. But representatives do say that 73 percent of sales include “a good portion” of espresso. Meanwhile Stumptown recorded over 1.1 million shots of its Hair Bender espresso pulled in 2017. La Colombe sells an average of about 6,300 espresso shots per day, or nearly 2.3 million per year, at its retail locations.
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If you’re among the millions ordering frothy lattes or cortados as a morning pick-me-up or Saturday afternoon indulgence, choose your shot wisely. Here are 10 national coffee chains ranked by quality of espresso shot to help you make a decision the next time you’re craving a fix.
10. Dunkin’ Donuts
Soon to be simply “Dunkin‘” at some locations, Dunkin’ Donuts began as a regional brand, mostly familiar to those who lived in the Northeast. (Its “time to make the donuts” commercials were legendary.) Some people, particularly in Massachusetts where Dunkin’ was founded, still feel fierce loyalty to the chain. These days there are outposts all around the country, as well as in Europe and South Africa. Dunkin’ sells lots of donuts (duh), but there are also myriad coffee drinks, including espresso made from a blend of Arabica beans from Central and South America. But really, who’s coming here for espresso? It’s time to eat the donuts.
9. Coffee Beanery
Coffee Beanery got its start in Dearborn, Michigan, a place not exactly known as an epicenter of coffeehouse culture. Today there are more than 100 locations across America, as well as overseas in Kuwait and the UAE. The chain has had some franchising issues over the years, with a couple of lawsuits thrown into the mix. But the brand still slings Arabica coffee and mediocre espresso shots, along with a whole bunch of flavored roasts for coffee amateurs and lightweights, which, let’s face it, is what you are really coming here for anyway.
Tully’s is like Starbucks’ talented-but-often-ignored younger sibling. The chain got its start in Seattle, eventually opening stores in a few others states and licensing its name to shops in Asia. After filing for bankruptcy in 2012, former “Grey’s Anatomy“ star Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey offered to purchase it with his investment group, Global Baristas (he subsequently dropped out of the deal). Nowadays, Tully’s is trying to rebuild its brand. You can still find a decent shot of espresso (if you manage to actually find a store) made from a blend of Arabica beans from “the world’s best coffee-growing regions,” according to the vaguely worded website. This isn’t the world’s best espresso shot, but in a pinch, it’ll do.
7. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf
The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is an often overlooked but pretty respectable coffee chain. (Sorry, New Yorkers: All locations here closed in 2016.) Its headquarters are in LA, where it was founded in the early ‘60s. Arabica beans are selected from East Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific and roasted in Southern California to create flavor profiles ranging from “light and subtle” to “dark and distinctive.” These sound like bad online dating profile descriptions, but the results actually yield decent coffee. And the espresso is good here, whether on its own or in a cappuccino, latte, or Caramel Coconut Latte (basically, a milkshake).
Peet’s is a product of Bay Area immigrant business savvy. Dutchman Alfred Peet opened his first store in Berkeley back in 1966. Years later, there was a Starbucks tie-in for the brand, as one of the founders purchased it and entered into a limited non-compete clause in the Bay Area. Those days are far behind, with hundreds of Peet’s locations now across the country. Many are in airports. The espresso here is tasty and not too acidic, and featured in drinks like the Golden Cappuccino made with ginger, turmeric, and honey.
Ever heard of Starbucks? It’s a little chain that has over 20,000 locations around the world. You can find Starbucks competing against Starbucks literally across the street from each other, a ubiquity that does turn some people off. But plenty of people love the stuff; whatever you think of this mega-coffee chain, there’s a good reason why it’s been so successful. You can tailor your order exactly how you want it, the baristas are usually pretty good at their jobs, and if they screw it up they’ll remake it for you with minimal stink-eye. Earlier this year, Starbucks unveiled Blonde Espresso, its first new espresso roast in over 40 years. Blonde Espresso is pretty tasty, with balanced acidity and fewer bitter notes than the regular Dark Roast.
4. La Colombe
La Colombe is a Philadelphia-based coffee roaster with cafes in several cities, including Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The company has done some interesting things over the years, including collaborating with Icelandic brewery Einstok on a coffee pale ale. At its cafes nationwide, a variety of coffee types are available, from single origin to cold brew on tap. The espresso here is made from their Nizza blend, a well-balanced medium roast. There are also single-origin espressos available on a rotating basis, all of which are very good.
Stumptown was founded in Portland, Oregon in 1999 with a single roastery and café in the southeast part of the city. In 2015, it was acquired by Peet’s and currently has cafes in Portland, Seattle, New York, New Orleans, and Chicago. The name of its popular Hair Bender espresso blend comes from the beauty salon that once existed in its original Portland location. This makes for an excellent espresso shot, but don’t sleep on other offerings such as the Cold Brew on draft, perfect on a hot summer day.
Hailing from Chicago, Intelligentsia’s first location opened in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood in 1995. There are now several shops in the city, as well as branches in Boston, LA, and New York. Intelligentsia serves carefully sourced, roasted, and blended coffee across the board. The brand’s Black Cat Project Espresso is comprised of single-origin and seasonal varieties that make for velvety, flavorful shots on their own or with some steamed milk.
1. Blue Bottle
Blue Bottle is another excellent upstart coffee roaster that was recently acquired by a larger company — as of this fall Nestle is a majority stakeholder. Founded in Oakland, California in the early 2000s, Blue Bottle currently has stores in the Bay Area, New York, LA, Washington, D.C., Miami, Boston, and Tokyo. Espresso comes in a variety of blends, including 17ft Ceiling, Hayes Valley, and Opascope — each offering different flavors and intensity. The coffee is excellent, and the shops’ aesthetic is always clean and sleek. And, if you aim to buck trends in 2018, there are also lots of cool gadgets available to purchase to help you make your own really good coffee at home.