Australian Franchises

Michel's rated best tasting coffee chain in Australia by Choice Magazine

Written on the 23 July 2010

Michel's rated best tasting coffee chain in Australia by Choice Magazine

Coffee chains dominate our shopping centres, airports and main streets, but which serves the best cup of coffee?

Our experts tasted espressos we made from the standard beans used in each of the 10 tested chains. Then for a comparison of how the coffee actually tastes at the outlets themselves, one of our experts sampled coffees at Gloria Jean's, Michel’s Patisserie and Starbucks. What we confirmed is that there's more to a good brew than simply a good-quality bean.

Michel’s Espresso beans were a clear winner, with a taste test score of 80%. Our experts commented on the “good colour” of its crema, its “smooth” flavour and “pleasant” aftertaste, with “no detectable bitterness”. Beans from Starbucks and Gloria Jean’s, on the other hand, received the lowest scores of 45% and 40% respectively. Starbucks had a “very light” crema that disappeared quickly, while Gloria Jean’s was criticised for its “thin” crema, “strange aroma” and unpleasant flavour. Both were marked down for their “watery” mouthfeel and “bitter” aftertaste.

Factors affecting your coffee

There are many factors, beyond the beans, that can affect how your coffee tastes, including the grinder setting and milk temperature. Most are determined by the barista or, more broadly, the quality control measures the café or coffee chain has implemented.

For a snapshot of the consistency in quality of coffee served by chains, Matthew Gee, one of our experts, visited three outlets of each of Gloria Jean’s, Michel’s and Starbucks. In each shop he ordered a cappuccino – the most popular coffee order, according to our recent online poll – and recorded his observations on appearance, temperature, taste and consistency across the three.

Despite the fact all outlets in the same chain used the same brand of machine, coffee beans and milk, Matthew found quality was variable - a fact he puts down to the skill and knowledge of the barista.

“The barista’s key input lies in the adjustment of the grinder to ensure that a constant 30mL shot is extracted in about 25 to 30 seconds, and to a lesser extent, the pouring technique,” he says.

It’s not unusual to need to change the grinder setting up to eight times a day to keep the extraction rate consistent; this is dependent on a range of factors including air temperature, humidity, a new bag of beans being opened and so on. But seven of the nine outlets Matthew visited produced shots that were either under- or over-extracted (meaning that water has passed through the ground coffee too quickly or slowly), so their coffee did not stand a chance of being outstanding.

Consistency is the key

In our small sample, US giant Starbucks came out on top for consistency. Matthew attributes this to an established tradition; in the 1950s, the Americans introduced consistency as a key element of the then-new restaurant chain concept, McDonald’s.

He warns that “if you favour a stronger, bolder flavour, the Starbucks consistency isn’t necessarily going to yield you a great-tasting coffee.”

By contrast, Gloria Jean’s exhibited extraction rates that were all over the place, which Matthew says possibly indicates a lack of knowledge about how the grinder works and its importance to taste. One Gloria Jean’s barista didn’t use a thermometer and the milk wasn’t hot enough (ideally, it should be 65ºC).

On average, Michel’s Patisserie coffees were the best-tasting in our sample and, according to Matthew, “were most likely to appeal to those of us who favour a coffee with strength”. Michel’s high average score was bolstered by an excellent coffee in one establishment, whereas the other two outlets produced coffees of much poorer quality.

Coffee with a conscience

Much of the coffee we drink comes from regions such as Africa and Central and South America, where poverty and the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are major concerns.

The aims of certification schemes such as organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ include ensuring equitable trading arrangements for disadvantaged farmers, improving basic working conditions, improving the health and safety of workers, reducing or better managing the use of agro-chemicals and the restoration of native vegetation. So buying coffee certified by these schemes can have a positive impact on people, communities and the environment in regions where the bulk of the world’s coffee is grown.

Six chains on test use certified coffee beans as standard in their machines, and most have certified options on the menu. Standard offerings from

  • Michel's Patisserie is 100% organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified
  • Coffee Guru, Hudsons and Jamaica Blue aren’t certified.
  • Coffee Guru’s decaffeinated blend is 100% organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified.
  • Hudsons and Jamaica Blue have a 100% organic Fairtrade blend on the menu.
  • Gloria Jean’s Special Espresso Blend, served in all its coffee houses, contains 66% Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee beans, and its default decaf espresso blend is 100%   Rainforest Alliance Certified.
  • Muffin Break is the only chain not to have a certified option on offer.

Coffee chains compared

We purchased coffee beans from chains with a presence in three or more states, with 20 or more outlets in total. The beans we bought are those used as standard in the chain’s coffee machines. Our tester, Peter Horvath, brews each coffee in the same way, using an ECM Giotto espresso machine.

Three experts score the espresso coffees for the colour and thickness of the crema (the tan-coloured foam on top of an espresso), aroma, flavour, mouthfeel (creaminess or wateriness) and aftertaste. The coffees are presented in random order identified only by numbers, so the experts don’t know which brands they’re tasting.

In addition to the taste test, surveys are sent to each of the coffee chains requesting information about their company, coffee (including prices) and policies (if any) regarding quality control and issues of sustainability and the environment.

View the results here

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