The Curious Case of the Confusing and Contrasting Coffee Cups

To say that I love coffee is an understatement. Sure I love my wife, kids and extended family, but not as much as I love coffee. (Note to self: do not tag your wife in when sharing this post). Nah, I jest. I would put the ones I love before anything else in the world, as long as I have had my morning coffee.

My love of coffee is evident in the amount of posts I’ve written that mentioned the elixir, and the many that have been solely about the topic. Coffee is a life saver, a good friend, a magical and medicinal potion. It’s that little extra spice that makes existence extra nice, and a giddy little thrill at a reasonable price. Okay, maybe that last bit doesn’t make complete sense but I haven’t used a Simpsons’ quote in a post for a while.

A comma would have been good, but coffee sandwiches might be a hit as well...
A comma would have been good, but coffee sandwiches might be a hit as well… Photo courtesy of my own Instagram account.

But there is something that troubles me about my favourite drink. Let me explain…

I am not a coffee snob when it comes to where I get my cup of joe and I don’t mind frequenting the large franchised chain store cafes, or coffeehouses, if you’d prefer to call them that. Probably the biggest coffeehouse throughout the world is the Seattle based Starbucks. When I visited the US in February 2015 I was amazed with how many Starbucks there were just in San Francisco alone. You can see how many there are on the map below that I took a screen shot of from their website.

Starbucks locations in San Francisco as of June 2016. Source: Starbucks website.
Starbucks locations in San Francisco as of June 2016. Source: Starbucks website.

But here’s the thing; I hate the coffee Starbucks serve. And if the fact that the company closed 73% of their stores in Australia back in 2008 after only eight years in the country, with more closed since, I’m not the only Aussie who feels this way. I expect that the ones that are still open are in areas frequented by tourists and that’s what is keeping those stores alive.

And it’s also not like I’m the only Australian who really loves coffee. Franchises of coffeehouses and cafes is one of the largest growing sectors of the franchise business world in Australia, and independent cafes are in abundance with the small shopping centre closest to my house having seven cafes and the larger centre a little further away having fourteen.

Springfield's_best_and_Seattle's_worst_coffee
A coffeehouse in Springfield. Picture courtesy of Simpson’s Wikia.

But if there’s one thing that I admire about Starbucks, it’s the same thing that they are constantly ridiculed about, even by a younger, less educated me; the size of their hot coffee drinks is not only standardised the world over, so are the names.

In a previous post of mine called Dear Women, Please Don’t Eat That; You Are Making Me Feel Less of a Man, I shared this meme and suggested that the Starbucks sizes have whacky names. I stand by that even though I speak highly of their uniformity the world over.

starbucks-coffee-cups-sizes-tall-grande-venti-trenta

I’m sure that if you’re a coffee aficionado you would be familiar with the names Short, Tall, Grande and Venti®. Using the Google Unit Converter feature, I entered the fluid ounce (fl. oz.) sizes to convert them to the metric friendly millilitres (ml) and found that the sizes that Starbucks Australia advertises on their website are within a millilitre of the actual conversion result. Some are over by about 1ml, some are over by the same amount.

But who cares if you get 354ml rather than the advertised 355ml when you order the Tall size, because whether you’re asking for Tall in Australia, a Tall in the United States, or a Tall in the International Departure Lounge at Frankfurt Airport being the only place you can find to get a decent coffee on your last day after spending three weeks travelling around Germany drinking shit coffee… but I digress… if you ask for a Tall, you get the same sized drink the world over. And the same goes for their Short, Grande and Venti® (Hot).

The Curious Case of the Confusing and Contrasting Coffee Cups coffee cup sizes

And this is where I get to the point of this post that I have called The Curious Case of the Confusing and Contrasting Coffee Cups. When travelling around this country, whether picking up a coffee at a service station when getting petrol for my car, having a cappuccino from the McCafé whilst hanging out for 90 minutes while my sons attend a McDonald’s birthday party, getting a flat white at a football match on a cold winter’s day, picking up a fix on a busy afternoon out seeing clients, stopping for a breather whilst shopping with the kids or catching up with friends and family at a local cafe, the sizes and names of what you assume are “standardised” sizing can changed from coffeehouse ot coffeehouse.

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) did a study about coffee cup sizing for their Australian Health Survey and this is a quote from their website;

In July 2011, FSANZ undertook a small program to estimate the average volumes for a range of takeaway coffee cup sizes available that were likely to be reported during the 2011–13 Australian Health Survey (AHS).  As naming of cups sizes is not standard, FSANZ also collected this data to assist in the interpretation of measures reported in the AHS.

You can click on that quote and read the complete study for yourself.

My main albeit slightly comical issue – and it is really is a first world problem if ever there was one – is that what one place calls Small, another place calls Regular, and what that place may call Medium, another place will call Large with their large size being known as Extra Large. As Australians we tend not to use (measured) sizes or even mention them on our takeaway foods – except for the Quarter Pounder which probably weighs less than that now – as they do in other countries. When I was in Germany I found that it is mandatory to mention the size of a drink even at a place like McDonald’s, even if it goes by other names such as small, medium and large.

But for us Aussie, there is no uniformity in the name of sizes in this country.

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Although those outside of the US, and even comedy writers like those from the Simpsons within the States often make fun of the sizes of fast food containers, especially the drinks, I was surprised to see that the table in the study by the FSANZ showed that we, in fact, have larger serving based on “standard” sizing.

I took the data from the FSANZ study and put it in a table adding Starbucks and McCafé sizes, both which are based on the American fluid ounce standardised sizes. The cells highlighted in red are below the national average for that size with the green highlighted cell showing those above the national average.

I took the data from the FSANZ study and put it in a table. I added Starbucks and McCafé as they weren’t listed on the study.

Please note that there were more independent cafes listed, but I used the only one the study listed as having at least three sizes. This is not reflective of all independent cafes or other franchises that aren’t listed.

Whilst the smallest Starbucks and McCafé size is 8 fl. oz. which is 235ml, the average size of the smallest cup when including both of those ones into the mix is 275ml or 9.3 fl. oz. If you are to purchase a Short size Starbucks or Small size McCafé coffee for the same price as the smallest takeaway cup from most franchise places in Australia, you are definitely being ripped off.

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The McCafé Australia takeaway cup sizes. Photo courtesy of Flick River.

Although I started out this post with this being about how there is no standard name for each size, once I dug deeper whilst planning this, learning about the fact that those America sizes, whilst equal to each other are far below our “national expectations,” I think that, not only should their be a locked in name for each size, but each size should be the same measurement.

It doesn’t matter whether I stop at a Starbucks or McCafé, a Michel’s or Gloria Jean’s, or at an independent café with a takeaway service; if I ask for a small coffee, it should be the exact same size cup. I think that from there a standardised naming system of small, medium, large and extra large could easily be used with the sizes being the same that Starbucks or McCafé use.

Then, if you were so inclined, if you wanted to see if you were getting value for money, you could compare the prices against each other so that you don’t go and buy a small coffee at the local McCafé for $3.50 thinking that you are saving money compared to the small at Jamaica Blue which may be $4.00 when you are paying $1.49 per 100ml for the McCafé one versus $1.36 per 100ml from Jamaica Blue. It is the same thing that I talked about in my post The Tricks and Traps to Look Out For When Shopping To Help You Save Money.

Please note that these examples are not based on current or local competitive prices, but the prices are used as an example to show how unit pricing cannot be applied unless each “small” size was of equal volume.

Interestingly enough, as I dug even deeper into this I found out that there are a few Australian cafés that are using and even smaller size of 220ml or 7.44 fl. oz. as the baristas suggest it provides a better flavour. Of course, when this starting happening back in 2013 as reported in the (Fairfax Media publication) the Good Food Guide, it was suggested that the reduction in the size but the prices staying the same per size was nothing more than price gouging.

Whatever someone or a group or “someones” agrees to as to the correct sizes, I don’t really care, but I would love to have this sorted out so that it is the same everywhere. Now, I wonder why no one is jumping on this as an election issue???!?!?!?! Excuse my while I write a letter to my local member. This is the greatest issue of our time…

If you want to read more of my coffee stories, click on the titles below;

For me, I love the medium size (355ml to 415ml). Which is the size that you normally go for, and what does your favourite local coffeehouse call that size?

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