Ask The Consumerists: Wood Filler In Coffee?

Greg wonders:

My friend is a Starbucks “partner”. During his indoctrination…err…training, they told him that mega-mart coffee contains wood fillers and that’s why that coffee is so bitter.

I’ve done about an hour’s worth of internet searching on terms such as filler, bulking, sawdust, and chicory but haven’t found anything conclusive. So, are the major coffee manufacturers filling our coffee with sawdust, or is Starbucks filling their employees heads with lies?”

We bid you, research monkeys, snopesers, and former barristas, what’s the straight scoop on this poop?

Comments

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  1. Roy Jacobsen says:

    I would be greatly surprised if that isn’t a load of flapdoodle: the U.S. has some pretty strict laws about food adulteration, and sawdust isn’t an acceptable “ingredient.”

  2. Falconfire says:

    Total bullshit, its in how you make your coffee that it turns out bitter. Most people actually use too LITTLE coffee. More coffee doesnt make it bitter, its using too little that does as the good flavor gets leeched out leaving the bitterness for the rest of the water to take.

    I can thank Alton Brown for teaching me how to make a good fucking cup o joe.

  3. Ben Popken says:

    Dan writes:

    “I’m a former barista and I’ve never heard the thing about the wood
    filler in the coffee.

    Even if I wasn’t a former barista…how would that work, exactly?
    There can’t be wood in the coffee bags on the shelf — too
    noticeable. If wood is used in the roasting process or something,
    fine, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as long as
    you’re not feeding wood to your customers. And what is putting wood in
    the coffee supposed to accomplish? This person’s friend should learn
    to question things that sound too odd to be true.

    It sounds silly.”

  4. AcilletaM says:

    Or they are stuck in civil war times (from http://brazilbrazil.com/coffee.html)

    Any book on the Civil war will mention the fact that the first sound in the camps at dawn were hundreds of Union soldiers stomping and grinding their beans into powder. The government had to issue whole beans rather than ground coffee because the suppliers always would add sawdust or dirt to the powder to increase their profits

    But everything I’m finding says wood makes the flavor ‘woody’, not bitter.

    Oh, and bitter is usually used with Starbucks coffees.

  5. Falconfire says:

    There is a good reason, just about every Starbucks I have seen has oil residue on its equipment. Coffee oils turn rancid very fast, and thus imparts a bitter flavor.

  6. AcilletaM says:

    This also seems to match the terminology used by Greg. It talks about mass-market coffees taste like they are brewed with sawdust. It is pro-Starbucks also.

  7. gypsychk says:

    Think it might be chicory? I’ve heard it referred to as “chicory bark,” though it’s a flowering plant whose roots are ground and used as a coffee substitute or filler.

  8. spanky says:

    Most cheap canned coffee is made from stale Robusta beans, which tastes like liquid rust.

    Starbucks coffee, OTOH, is made from burnt Arabica beans and rancid oils, and thus tastes like a tire fire with an aftertaste of ass.

    If those are my choices, I’ll have the sawdust, thanks.

  9. AcilletaM says:

    I looked at chicory as a possibility. There’s a place in New Orleans that is famous for the chicory coffee, Cafe Du Mond, I believe. Anyway, chicory seems to be a selling point, people advertise it’s in the blend. Plus it actually being cultivated as a very effective sweetener, like a sugar beet, so again I don’t see it being added to coffee instead.

    Also, the rest of the plant from the chicory root is endive. Hey, look at that, we’re all gourmets now! Learn something new everyday.

  10. Bruce says:
  11. Sephira says:

    As a former barista of several coffee shops, I can tell you it’s an out and out lie. Sawdust is definitely not an acceptable ingredient.

    Now, of course the stuff you buy in the grocery store is definitely going to taste a little different than what you buy behind the coffee counter. The stuff you buy at the grocery store is vaccuum sealed and been sitting there for days. In order to vaccuum seal them, the beans have to sit a bit longer after the roasting process since roasted beans let off carbon dioxide for days after roasting. By the time you buy the coffee from the store, take it home and roast it, it’s already partly stale. Most coffee shops also get vaccuum packed beans, but they use them quickly, whereas you probably go through the store bought stuff in 1-2 weeks.

    Stale coffee tastes bad, and really bitter, so if you stretch the imagination a bit, maybe it tastes like wood.

  12. Falconfire says:

    It aint chicory. For one thing chicory coffee is not bitter (I love the stuff)

    Second its about the cost of good coffee.

    No they are just making shit up

  13. HawkWolf says:

    Did you hear that each iPod contains the blood of tortured factory workers from china? It’s magic. That’s why they sell so many of them.

    Of course the Starbucks indoctrination process is going to be full of statements like, “Starbucks is better than other companies because their beans were pooped out by a civet.” Did you think they’re going to tell you that Starbucks is more expensive and otherwise the same or lesser quality than some other coffees?

  14. I’ve never heard of sawdust in coffee…but sawdust IS an ingredient in powdered detergents…

  15. MaliBoo Radley says:

    Ten years ago, I worked at a Starbucks in Sterling, Va. During training they had us taste a variety of their coffees. After sipping, we were asked to share our opinions. I told them that I found the regular drip coffees to be “overroasted and burnt tasting”. I was told in response that I “simply wasn’t accustomed to their dark, hearty roasts”. That was about the most insulting thing I’d ever heard. The coffee tasted awful, end of! I did keep the job for a while, as I was 18 and needed the money.

    Bottom line: Their espresso drinks are tasty, their drip coffee is foul.

  16. KevinQ says:

    This is what I’ve heard (sorry I’ve got no cites):
    A long time ago, (say, 40-70 years ago) manufacturers were adding roasted corn to coffee, because it was cheaper and filled it out. This is now illegal. If a can of coffee says it’s coffee, it has to be 100% coffee.

    Chicory coffee was a cheaper substitute during the Civil War. Like gypsychk said, chicory is the roasted, ground root of a plant. It is amazingly bitter. The chicory coffee they serve at Café Du Monde is a blend of regular and chicory coffee, topped off with a steamed blend of half-and-half and whole milk. It is heaven in a mug.

    As far as “sawdust” goes, the only other time I’ve heard somebody say that a food had “sawdust” added, it was a food-snob talking about canned Parmesan cheese. Sure enough, on the label, is “cellulose powder, to reduce clumping.” Cellulose powder is what you have left when you remove everything else of value from plant matter. It is “sawdust” only in the very loosest sense. I suppose it’s possible that some coffee manufacturer is adding cellulose powder to their coffee to prevent clumping. I can’t imagine that this would change the taste that much, since cellulose powder is so hard to break down. Also, they’d have to list in on the side of the can.

    My guess is that “somebody’s cousin’s uncle’s dog” told a Starbucks employee one that other brewers put sawdust in their coffee, and now it’s become part of the unofficial lore of the company, passed down to new employees. But I suppose somebody could call Starbucks corporate and ask.

    K

  17. Hirayuki says:

    My dad did find twigs in a can of Kirkland (Costco store brand) coffee. Now if he sees anyone contemplating a Kirkland coffee purchase, he tries to steer them away. As you can imagine, the prospect of having actual twigs in your coffee is a pretty good deterrent. I highly doubt they were purposely added as filler, though.

  18. AcilletaM says:

    The are references to cellulose powder in more than just cheese, but also breads and other cereals.

    By far the largest number of hits I found while searching were people talking about how things taste like sawdust, not actually having sawdust in them. It makes me wonder why they have tasted sawdust.

  19. kerry says:

    Yeah, that’s a total lie. Like someone said before, the cheap coffee tastes bad because it’s made with robusta beans grown inexpensively in Vietnam and South America.
    However, is it true that certain brands of 100mm cigarettes use sawdust as filler? That was a rumor I used to hear back in high school.

  20. Fancy Pants says:

    I once heard a guy at the dog park yelling into his phone about “other pizza companies” using sawdust-laden cheese, which apparently was driving his “100% real cheese pizza” place out of business. I assumed he was insane, but I wouldn’t put anything past Tom Monahan.

  21. Triteon says:

    Fine references by Acilleta above, especially the Civil War post. Cafe DuMond is a wonderful place to sit and people-watch, with a beignet and coffee.
    Spanky: …thus tastes like a tire fire with an aftertaste of ass. Nice!

  22. Jon R. says:

    It’s very unlikely. As noted above, many mass producers of coffee use inexpensive robusta beans. There are 2 primary types of coffee trees: arabica and robusta. Not all arabica coffee is good, but all good coffee is made from arabica beans. A lot of the robusta comes froom Vietnam. The best of that crop tastes like truck stop coffee. However, there are new methods of steam processing robusta that make it taste more palatable (I’ve read).

  23. ikes says:

    the chicory coffee blend, ala cafe du monde, is also used to make vietnamese iced coffee. this drink is, of course, heaven in a glass.

  24. amazon says:

    Oh Starbucks, you are so shady.

    First it was your zombies screaming about nicotine in the Timmy’s coffee! (I delight in sending these in-duh-viduals over to Snopes)

    Now it is sawdust in the grocercy stores!

    What next? Everyone else uses ground babies?

  25. Magister says:

    Former baristas… haha… Any fast food idiot that fills a coffee machine would be defined as a barista. heck, any one working at 7-11 could be called a barista as well. HAHA

  26. feito-bem says:

    Spanky has it right when pointing out the two different types of coffee, robusta vs. arabica.

    Robusta, most likely from Brazil, is harvested on a large-scale that includes most of the plant. In addition to unripe berries, stems and leaves are usually included in the process and this could constitute “wood filler.” Buy a can of ground coffee at the supermarket and this is what you’re likely to get.

    Arabica, on the other hand, is generally picked by hand. Sometimes this can be on a plantation (in the worst sense of the word), but it may also be on a small independent farm, of which Juan Valdez is an archtype proprietor.

    Starbucks has been somewhat responsive in criticisms about the company’s role in the global coffee trade. If you are willing to pay a premium price for coffee, buying certified “free trade”, “shade-grown”, or bird-friendly” coffee can make a modicum of impact.

    Spanky also mentions the flavor of Charbucks dark roast. Because they burn every bean that crosses their path, Spanky is correct in asserting that it “tastes like a tire fire with an aftertaste of ass.”

  27. bambino says:

    Magister, you obviously have the best paying job, greatest education, and biggest brain in the world. I’m glad you’re so far up on the evolutionary ladder so as to be able to insult the working class underlings at a whim. Now please, go away.

  28. amazon says:

    Magister, there is definitely a difference between a person who pours (and maybe stirs) coffee and a barrista. The latter does involve some skill (hey, it is suprisingly easy to fuck up steamed milk).
    :)

  29. acambras says:

    All of this makes forgoing coffee in favor of tea look like a not-so-bad idea.

    Starbucks just doesn’t want people to make their coffee at home. This is why they sold the melting/exploding home coffee makers, right?

  30. olegna says:

    Not true. What is true is that Brazilian coffee is the coffee of Plebians, the cheapest, crappiest of all coffee, and the most abundant. It’s made worse by being pre-ground weeks from the time somebody buys that can of Maxwell House from Wal-Mart.

  31. timmus says:

    I don’t understand why sawdust has such a bad rap. It’s great stuff. And these days, fiber is in.

  32. Anonymously says:

    Thanks for the dicussion guys! Now I need to find out if this lore is part of the actual training materials or just the ignorance of a single trainer.

  33. Also, the roast can affect the taste of the coffee. To me, darker roasts [burnt], are way more bitter than medium and light roasts.

  34. hoosier45678 says:

    I went through the training as well, and it’s full of tidbits of BS. In order to compare *$’s coffee to Seattle’s Best, they coarsely ground some *$ beans and used pre-ground Seattle’s Best, making both in French presses for 4 minutes apiece. Of course the Seattle’s Best tasted terrible… it was a completely inappropriate timing and method for the grind.

  35. Paula says:

    Brazilian coffee can be good, depending on where it’s grown, if it’s hand picked etc. Also, Brazilian coffee sold in Brazil is very different than Brazilian coffee sold in the US. A cup of coffee in Brazil is made much, much “darker” (stronger? I don’t know what the best word is) than in the US; I’m not sure, though, if it’s because the beans are more roasted or if it’s because when the coffee is made more coffee and less water is used.

  36. kerry says:

    Paula – They might have a different roasting process and use a significantly finer grind (like Turkish coffee). Either of those, and especially both at once, would make for a “darker” coffee.

  37. MissKissLock says:

    It’s SnopeSTERs, thankyouverymuch.

  38. MissKissLock says:

    It’s SnopesSTERS, thankyouverymuch…

  39. Kgoran says:

    There is something called glycerol ester of wood rosin — it’s used as a stabilizer for flavoring oils in fruit-flavored beverages. This stabilizer weighs down the oils and keeps them in solution. Maybe that’s in the flavorants and not the actual coffee?