Best coffee on campus? We did a fully legitimate scientific test to find out

Abstract

For decades, the student community at the University of Melbourne has faced a deeply concerning issue; namely, that of sourcing the best possible coffee on campus. A unique drink in both its caffeine-providing qualities, its enormously polarising nature, as well as its cultural significance in our city, coffee has frequently been a subject of debate.

While existing literature points to some tentative conclusions in previous studies done on this topic (see: Adventures, Unimelb (2017)), the small sample size, lack of diversity among test subjects and crippling lack of peer review means that results remain inconclusive. To this end, we aim to undertake a comprehensive study, and establish beyond reasonable doubt the best cup of coffee to be found on our campus. You’re welcome. 

Hypothesis

We’re not sure. A couple of us thought no-one would win and that the only reason House of Cards and Standing Room are as popular as they are is because of the Placebo Effect. Whilst we collectively did want to test the validity of this hypothesis, a couple of us also had an individual favourite whom we were rooting to win. Honestly, all of us really just wanted an excuse to drink a lot of coffee.

Method

We recruited seven testers to make sure we had a wide and diverse sample size.

We purchased a small soy flat white from the following vendors: Hoho’s, Dr DAX, Castro’s, House of Cards, Brew Sisters, Baretto’s, and the two Standing Rooms (Union House and MSD). We thought that a soy flat white best represented the coffee culture of Melbourne.

Aiming to conduct this as a blind, and therefore unbiased, test, we procured eight paper cups from Hoho’s (s/o to them for humouring us on this one, you guys are the real MVPs). Each cafe would use those cups instead of their own branded ones—this was so that when we tested the coffees, we wouldn’t know which one came from where.

We then parted ways to get all of our soy flat whites as close to simultaneously as possible in order to keep the coffees’ temperatures consistent. Upon returning, we each took a sip or two of each coffee, until the seven of use had all tasted all eight coffees.

The testers

 Tash
Tash

 

  • Not really a seasoned coffee drinker but has been drinking at least one a day of late
  • Favourite coffee is homemade Italian coffee
  • Hasn’t tried all of these cafes before and is a Capricorn

Tiff
29261827_10156185421166798_8277160552220852224_o

 

  • Used to enjoy Starbucks but has since moved onto McCafe
  • Shamed her favourite cafe on campus (Castro’s) during the course of this test
  • A lover of soy flat whites/chai varieties
 Mark
mark profile
 

  • Once had 5 McDonald’s lattes in a weekend road trip
  • Is a diehard fanboy of Moccona instant coffee, but willing to fork out for a House of Cards latte
  • Has very low standards (in coffee or in life? You decide)
 Alain
alain profile
 

  • Survived 32 hours in LAX with Cold Brew Starbucks
  • Likes coffee sugarless, strong but not overpowering
  • REALLY wants to try rainbow glitter coffee

  Erza
29249826_10209454230232891_3850725123334078464_o

 

  • Once took a barista course
  • Can drink 7 coffees in one hour
  • Loves a mocha from Hoho’s
  • Is the best reviewer (according to himself)
 Emily
29003874_1635217549847246_1403580785_n
  • Was once a young, happy Arts student who thought coffee was for sad people with full time jobs
  • Used to be embarrassed about ordering hot chocolate at meetings and converted to cappuccinos until they were just palatable
  • Now studying a Masters in Business and drinks coffee weekly
 Yan
29386214_1214452582022736_6662653633798078464_o.jpg
  • Went to Hoho’s pretty much daily last year and will defend them to the death 
  • May or may not be the former president of a major student body
  • Has lost the ability to smile without looking like she’s dead inside

The criteria

While purchasing each coffee, we recorded:

  • the time taken to get the coffee, from the getting in line to receiving our drink (note that we did this at ~12:30pm on a Tuesday, so our results are pretty indicative of how long it takes to get coffee during the lunch hour rush)
  • the price (and also any surcharges for soy milk)
  • their loyalty rewards system and Keepcup discounts, if any

When drinking the coffees, we rated on a scale of 1-5 for the following criteria:

  • texture
  • bitterness
  • smell
  • general taste

This was followed by an overall score, which is totally different from the ‘general taste’ criteria (not that any of us could explain why). These overall scores (not the general taste scores) for each coffee were averaged and ranked to present the following results.

The Results

The winner: Baretto’s (SO UNEXPECTED)

Cafe Score Price (incl. soy) Wait time
Baretto’s 3.67 $4.40 4m45s
Standing Room (UH) 3.39 $4.20 4m23s
House of Cards 3.36 $4.00 4m43s
Standing Room (MSD) 3.16 $4.10 5m00s
Brew Sisters 3.10 $3.50 5m51s
Hoho’s 3.09 $3.90 4m52s
Castro’s 3.07 $3.30 1m51s
Dr DAX 2.24 $3.80 3m53s

Results breakdown by each tester

We realise that coffee is really subjective, and that the scores we gave each place varied a LOT depending on our personal preferences. Our rankings were derived by taking everyone’s averages, but we also wanted to break them down for each tester’s individual tastes. Below, we’ve listed each tester and their coffee preferences. You can click on each person’s name to see a detailed breakdown of how they rated each place (and some sometimes useful, sometimes bizarre commentary).

Mark
Read if you: are a smol second yr who just wants some decent coffee, is that too much to ask for? 
Texture Bitterness Smell General taste Overall
Dr Dax 1.5, watery 3 2, cardboardy 2, very heavy handed on the milk so quite bland 2
Standing Room MSD 4 4 5, how coffee should smell 3, nice but acidic aftertaste 4
Hoho’s 3.5, a little watery 3.5 4, has character 4, acidic but not overly so 4
Standing Room UH 4.5 3.7 4, sweet? 3.5, a little too acidic 4.20
House of Cards 4, could be creamier but I’m not mad 4 4, gentle and creamy 3.5, a little weak 4.5
Castro’s 1.5, watery 2 3, a lil weak and lil sugary 2, watery 2.5
Brew Sisters 1, it looks lumpy 4 3.5, a lil sweet 2.5, very acidic 2.5
Baretto’s 3.5 4 2, suspicious 4.5, not too acidic and quite full 4
Tash
Read if you: don’t like bitter coffee and LIKE A LOT OF FEELINGS IN CAPSLOCKS.
  Texture Bitterness Smell General taste Overall
Dr Dax 3 2.5 not very bitter 1, smells like straight up soy milk 2, I think they used So Good. Vitasoy +calcium is better 1.5
Standing Room MSD 2, kind watery 1, SO BITTER YUCK NO BUENO 1 IT TASTES LIKE SOMEONE FARTED IN IT AFTER THEY ARE CHILLI OR SOMETHING 1
Hoho’s 1.5, SO WATERY WTF 2, a bit bitter, mostly tastes watery 3 2 2
Standing Room UH 4 3 3 1, has a bitter aftertaste, and not a good kind of bitter 3.5
House of Cards 1, watery (could be because it spilled) 2 1 4 3.5
Castro’s 2, too foamy, seems more latte than flat white 2, kinda bland, I can’t tell if this is acidic or if I’m just basic 4 smells like Christmas winter  2, OMG THIS TASTES LIKE WEETBIX ABORT 4
Brew Sisters 1, thick foam sediment on sides of cup, I’m slightly scared 1, very bitter, could use some sugar 2 1.5, tastes like instant coffee, but the kind of 2am SWOTVAC instant coffee. Good when you’re desperate 1.5
Baretto’s 3, foamy which is fun, but this is meant to be coffee not a bubble bath  1, very bitter, don’t like 5, smells exactly how you expect coffee to smell 3, watery 4.5
Alain 
Read if you: want to talk like you know coffee without knowing coffee at all. 
  Texture Bitterness Smell General taste Overall
Dr Dax 3, light taste but then the bitterness kicks in which is nice 3, barely a bitterness, appears quite late into the aftertaste 4, distinct and inviting aroma 3, underwhelming 3.2
Standing Room MSD 5, good incremental texture that gives a kick 5, good acidic bitterness 4, a really good inviting bitter overtone 5, excellent, good incremental consistency and bitterness. But looks like someone cried into it 4.6
Hoho’s 4, consistent and does the job 4.5, consistent, nice bitter overtone 2, a weird acidic bitter smell 3.5, good booster but weird inconsistencies 3.6
Standing Room UH 3.5, smooth but a bit on the light side which encroaches around your tastbuds 2, very slight bitterness 5, very pleasant bitter smell 3, a light-bodied coffee that I won’t mind drinking. But I need more bitterness 3.5
House of Cards 3, smooth, almost decaffinatedovertone but pleasant for afternoon or late afternoon 1, bitterness is non-existent  4, a good constant bitter smell 2, the bitter smell taste has deceived my sense as it has no bitterness in the taste 2.5
Castro’s 3.5, a bit more heavy-bodied wiht a consistent aftertaste which is nice. Milk slightly overpowers the texture 3, a good subtle kick but could be more noticeable 1, barely noticeable and light, does not indicate the strength and consistency of the coffee 3.5, subtle and light, not necessarily good to wake up to but if you’re studying or working it’s not overpowering 3
Brew Sisters 3, light-bodied and slowly constant aftertaste 2, watery, barely bitter with a small kick 3.5, aerated acidity with a tinge of wood smell  3, muted and light-bodied with smooth milk consistency 2.7
Baretto’s 5, a thick, creamy consistency that makes you want more. Quite impactful 2, barely any bitterness but is a decent palette cleanser during the day 1, there’s no smell to this. Are you sure it’s not decaf? 4, good moderate taste but with a few inconsistencies in the smell and bitterness 3.2
Ezra
Read if you: care about the opinion of someone who once did a barista course. Once
Texture Bitterness Smell General taste Overall
Dr Dax 3, not quite smooth enough 1, can’t taste any bitterness over the soy 1, only bad smell 1, just way too much soy  1
Standing Room MSD 4, very smooth but not enough roughness of coffee 3, not bitter enough, tastes like soy milk with coffee rather than the other way around 4 2, too much soy but apart from that it’s decent 2
Hoho’s 3 3, hint of bitterness but overcome by the soy 4, just slightly not enough coffee smell 3, soy is a bit too empowering 3
Standing Room UH 4 4, great bitterness but too acidic 5, very good smell, nice hint of acidity 3, a bit too acidic 3
House of Cards 4 3, not enough bitterness. But still tastes like coffee 4, smells a bit too rough 4 3
Castro’s 5, smooth texture with a hint of roughness  4, great bitterness but not acidic enough 3, too much soy smell 5 4
Brew Sisters 5 5, great bitterness and acidity! Will make your day 3, no hint of acidity 4, just slightly too acidic 4
Baretto’s 5 5, great balance of bitterness and acidity 2, smell of coffee is too rough with only a little hint of coffee 5, the soy complements the acidity well! 5
Tiff
Read if you: like really bitter coffee, and confusing metaphors about your coffee. 
  Texture Bitterness Smell General taste Overall
Dr Dax 2.5, thin 3.5, quite noice 4, smells very coffee 3.5 because it’s bitter which I like 4
Standing Room MSD 3.5 2.5 3 3.5, could have more coffee taste 3.5
Hoho’s 3, all I can say is…not bad? 3, not quiiite there 3, slightly underwhelming 2.5 3
Standing Room UH 4, very nice, creamy 1, somehow is sweet despite us not putting any sugar in it 3.5, I’m not sure at this point  3.5 3.5, it’s not bitter but I like it which scares me
House of Cards 3.5 2, bland 4, FRAGRANT. WARM AND FUZZY 3.5, slightly bland 3.5
Castro’s 1, so watery 1, bland, not bitter at all 3, smells like Brunetti’s grandpa. He has a pleasant grandpa 2, I can taste the grandpa 2.5, I hope Brunetti will take my advice and support his grandpa, morally, financially and socially. Maybe grandma is dead. Maybe he needs to find a girlfriend. I dunno.
Brew Sisters 4, very smooth 4.5, SO STRONG, SO GOOD 4.5, very coffee 4.5, nice 4.5
Baretto’s 3, the score got pulled down because I got distracted by how bland it is 2, blaaaand 4, warm and fuzzy 2.5, quite bland 3
Yan
Read if you: are in fifth year, coming to the gradual realisation that all taste and preference is a lie and just want a nap. 
  Texture Bitterness Smell General taste Overall
Dr Dax 3, STIFF 2, milk is very overpowering 1, I can’t smell anything 2, THIS IS NOT BONSOY 2
Standing Room MSD 2, watery 3, weirdly acidic undertone, I think this gave me a headache which I dunno if it’s the coffee or just me  3, smells like coffee 3, guess it has mildly more taste than the other ones 3
Hoho’s 2, watery 4, bitter, nice (I’ve given up smelling coffee at this point) 4, niiiice. Not sure why. Just nice. 3.5
Standing Room UH 2.5 slightly less watery but still 3, not bitter which is good because I don’t like bitterness 3, smells like coffee 2.5, slightly bland 2.5
House of Cards 3 2, like no bitterness? Why do we even have this as a criteria again? 3, nice balance but kinda bland 3
Castro’s 2 2, milky but somehow manages to be bitter without being aromatic which is like, how even? There’s no smell 2. tastes like normal milk not soy milk. How??? 2
Brew Sisters 3 2, I BET THIS IS STANDING ROOM BECAUSE THERE’S SOMETHING SLIGHTLY WEIRD ABOUT THE TASTE 4. ok for some reason I actually quite like this overall? Which scares me 3.5
Baretto’s 2.5 2, not bitter enough 2, not great but can’t put my finger on why 3, bland but also fragrant 2
Emily
Read if you: are a grad student who just wants a hot drink sometimes but sometimes also needs to drink coffee to impress prospective employers? We dunno how grad students work.
  Texture Bitterness Smell General taste Overall
Dr Dax 1, bad mouth feel 1, very bitter, almost acidic 3, strangely buttery 2, acidic and too bitter, would not drink again, slimy 2
Standing Room MSD 3 3, not bitter, but almost metallicy Almost fruity, nothing like coffee 3, kinda meh, vaguely Gloria Jeans feel 4
Hoho’s 2, a bit gritty, not smooth enough  2 5, creamy and not too strong 3 2.5
Standing Room UH 5, very creamy 5, not very bitter 4, strong, warm 4, creamy and not too strong 3.5
House of Cards 4 5, not bitter at all 2.5  4, kind of sweet, not too bitter 3.5
Castro’s 2, weirdly coats your tongue 4.5 not very bitter 2 3.5, nothing special but not bad 3.5
Brew Sisters 2, slimy and coats your tongue in weird way 3, good balance, not too bitter Weirdly metallic 4. smooth, good medium blend, not too strong or bitter 3
Baretto’s fluffy, smooth 3.5, strong without being acidic 2.5, super strong the kind of coffee most people like 4

Analysis

8. Dr DAX (average overall score: 2.24)

So Dr DAX is where all the uni staff go for their lunch/coffees/to sit around and look professional, which might go towards explaining why they did so badly – they’re clearly not in tune with what students want. Not only did it record the lowest average overall score, it also took home the wooden spoon in literally every other criteria. We suspect that they use a weird variety of soy milk and NOT Bonsoy, which every good Melbourne hipster knows is the only acceptable type of soy milk. Whatever soy milk they used completely overpowered both the smell and the taste of the coffee.

On the plus side, they performed well for waiting time (3min53s—well below the median of 4min34s) and were also the third cheapest at $3.80, including a 40c soy surcharge. You can save a further 10% on this price by either bringing a Keepcup or showing a valid University student ID (but you can’t claim a 20% discount by doing both). Also, every tenth coffee is free!

  • Most favourable score: Tiff (4 out of 5)
  • Harshest critic: Ezra (1 out of 5)
  • Kindest comment: “[A] light taste but the bitterness kicks in, which is a good constrative (sic) texture” – Alain
  • Meanest comment: “Almost unable to taste the coffee” – Ezra
  • Best summary comment: “I am scarred” – Yan

7. Castro’s (average overall score 3.07)

Castro’s soy flat white was actually quite a divisive drink, and though it earned a few high scores, some detractors dragged its score to a less-than-stellar average. Some found it watery, whilst others found it to be just the right blend of bitter and creamy flavours.

Even though we couldn’t all agree on the flavour, the waiting time was by far the shortest of the lot at 1min51s. We’re not really sure if this is the norm or if we just happened to pass by when there was nobody there. Still. On top of this, they also had the cheapest coffee at $3.30 with free soy! There aren’t any discounts for Keepcup users, but you’re already saving a fair bit compared to the competitors anyway.

  • Most favourable score: Tash & Ezra (4 out of 5)
  • Harshest critic: Yan (2 out of 5)
  • Kindest comment: “Great coffee taste and the soy complements the lack of acidity” – Ezra
  • Meanest comment: “OMG THIS TASTES LIKE WEETBIX ABORT” – Tash
  • Best summary*: “[It] smells like Brunetti’s grandpa. Brunetti has a pleasant grandpa. I hope Brunetti will take my advice and support his grandpa at the end of his life. He needs to morally, financially and socially support his grandpa more. Maybe grandma is dead, maybe he needs to find a girlfriend, I dunno.” – Tiff

*this summary is somehow symbolic

6. Hoho’s (average overall score: 3.09)

Though they were kind enough to lend us some cups to use, their coffee didn’t fare too well in our blind test. Granted, the standard deviation of our scores for Hoho’s wasn’t huge—yes, we crunched the numbers. All the numbers. In English, this means that we generally all agreed that their coffee was fairly decent but not amazing, and there was a greater degree of consensus here for a coffee that has wide appeal.

They were pretty middle-of-the-road in the other components of the test as well: they had the fourth highest price ($3.90 including a 20c soy surcharge), as well as the fourth longest queue (at 4mins25s). However, they also give you more options to customise your drink—they do matcha lattes, as well as beetroot and turmeric lattes (which all of us are too scared to try) for an extra $1.  

  • Most favourable score: Mark (4 out of 5)
  • Harshest critic: Tash (2 out of 5)
  • Kindest comment: “Has character” – Mark
  • Meanest comment: “It’s coffee I guess” – Tiff
  • Best summary: “Good but not great” – Emily

5. Brew Sisters (average overall score 3.10)

This quiet little coffee cart next to the swimming pool just managed to inch ahead of Hoho’s. Its smooth taste had a fair degree of bitterness, and it managed to capture high ratings from some of us. Others thought that the drink was a bit suspicious in its appearance and texture (“slimy” – Emily), which also meant that scores here did vary significantly.

Though they had the longest wait time (at 5min51s), they also have a range of other drinks as well as free milk alternatives—this small soy flat white came in at just $3.50, the second-cheapest option out of those tested.

  • Most favourable score: Tiff (4.5 out of 5)
  • Harshest critic: Tash (1.5 out of 5)
  • Kindest comment: “Great bitterness and acidity, can make your day” – Ezra
  • Meanest comment: “Tastes like instant coffee, but it’s kinda like the 2am SWOTVAC instant coffee. Good when you’re desperate, cheap and easy, gets the job done” – Tash
  • Best summary comment: “I dunno man” – Yan

4. Standing Room MSD (average overall score 3.16)

This coffee was by far the most controversial—remember how we calculated standard deviations?—and this one’s scores were by far the most spread. On one hand, it was Alain’s favourite drink, but a few others found it underwhelming or watery (“Ahh, bean water” – Tiff).

Unfortunately, Standing Room (MSD) did not fare so well in other areas: it was the third-most expensive coffee at $4.10, and it also came with the second-longest waiting time (5 minutes exactly). However, its unique location and ambience make it a steady favourite of the University community. Just not a steady favourite of ours.

  • Most favourable score: Alain (4.6 out of 5)
  • Harshest critic: Tash (1 out of 5)
  • Kindest comment: “A really good bitter overtone that invites” – Alain
  • Meanest comment: “WHY DOES THIS LOOK LIKE SOMEONE DID A FART ON IT? IT ALSO TASTES LIKE SOMEONE FARTED IN IT AFTER THEY ATE CHILLI OR SOMETHING” – Tash
  • Best summary: “Pretty good I guess” – Tiff

THE SPILL

the-spill.jpg

Yes, this happened about halfway through the test. It was Alain’s fault. Science is hard.

3. House of Cards (average overall score 3.36)

For many of us, we thought that this was the steady favourite to win. Unfortunately, they fell a little short today. Possibly because this was the one we spilled everywhere. Generally, we agreed that this one was a little on the mild side, which only suited the preferences of some. On the whole, it was a fairly uncontroversial drink given all the hype, but still performed well enough to claw its way into the top three.

Their price ($4.00) and waiting time (4mins43s), however, were each a little over the median, and they don’t have any kind of rewards system (unless you happen to draw the joker card when ordering, in which case you receive a free coffee; for the uninitiated, a pack of playing cards is their alternative to assigning order numbers). They also don’t like other cups—you’ll only earn the Keepcup discount of 20c if you have their own specifically branded cup, and they weren’t even happy to put the coffee into the Hoho’s cup that we were using, unless we carried it inside one of their cups. This was truly an ordeal.

  • Most favourable score: Mark (4.5 out of 5)
  • Harshest critic: Alain (2.5 out of 5)
  • Kindest comment: “Smooth, solid” – Tiff
  • Meanest comment: “My dog makes better coffee” – Tash
  • Best summary comment: “Could be a bit creamier but I’m not mad” – Mark

2. Standing Room Union House (average overall score 3.39)

Narrowly inching into second place is the Standing Room located inside Union House. Whilst its MSD sibling produced the most divisive drink, the soy flat white here was the least controversial, with all but 2 testers scoring it as either 3 or 3.5 out of 5. It fared well in the texture department (scoring almost 4 points, or an H1 score, for its smoothness), but the taste seemed to be a little on the acidic side.

Interestingly, buying this drink here costs $4.20, 10c more than the exact same drink from MSD (the difference comes from the soy surcharge)—thereby also making it the second most expensive. You can’t score any kind of discount on that, but you can get one free drink upon purchasing their Keepcup. They also had a decently brief wait time at 4min23s. A fairly strong performer all around, perhaps.

  • Most favourable score: Mark (4.20 out of 5)
  • Harshest critic: Yan (2.5 out of 5)
  • Kindest comment: “Strong, warm” – Emily
  • Meanest comment: “This is pretty lame and also has a BITTER AFTERTASTE…it’s not a good bitter.” – Tash
  • Best summary comment: “At this point I’m not sure” – Tiff

1. Baretto’s (average overall score 3.67)

And there’s our winner! Surprised? So are we. We literally only tested this place because Yan has it on good authority that this is where Glyn Davis, our esteemed Vice-Chancellor, goes for his coffee.

This was actually the only one to score at least one 5 out of 5 overall score, and it was lauded for its strong, blended texture and full flavour (though a few detractors thought that it was too rounded/tasted bland). It also held the highest average in the general taste criterion, making it the definitive winner of our test.

Does quality come with a high price tag though? In this case, the answer is unfortunately in the affirmative: even without soy, the $4.00 price tag on a small flat white is already just above the median price of the eight soy flat whites tested. An additional 70c for soy makes this by far the most expensive drink (though you can save 30c by bringing your own cup?). You decide if this is worth it!

  • Most favourable score: Ezra (5 out of 5)
  • Harshest critic: Yan (2 out of 5)
  • Kindest comment: “VERY AMAZING!!!” – Ezra
  • Meanest comment: “Very foamy and looks like a meteor fell in” – Tash
  • Best summary comment: “Fluffy, smooth…super strong, robust” – Emily

Final comments

In conclusion, not a single one of these coffees received an H1—it turns out that many of us realised just how weird coffee actually tastes when you drink it critically. Let’s observe a minute of silence for Yan (who gave the lowest overall scores, 2.63 on average) and Tash (who had the meanest comments to say about most of these drinks). In her words, “I thought I liked coffee but they all taste the same now…COFFEE IS CANCELLED.” We conclude that everyone should drink tea. Or instant coffee. We might even test a few of those next time.


About the author

mark profile

Mark is a second-year Economics major parading as an Arts student. His idea of a good time is Mariah’s Daydream CD on loop plus biscuits and maybe a good book (he’s currently reading Frankenstein). His favourite joke is that he’s like a ninja at the gym because nobody ever sees him there. He’s funnier in real life, he promises. Find him on instagram @myin.rbc

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