I take my coffee black.

Airplane jokes aside, at its very best a cup of hot black java from Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) is a sublime experience -- the complex combination of flavors and aromas make for one of life's simple pleasures. At its worst, it's just a half-warm buck-fifty cup of blandness.

Unfortunately, I've been seeing too much of the latter recently. Other connoisseurs are seeing inconsistencies in Starbucks' blended drinks, such as lattes and cappuccinos. Management is aware of the problem, but can they fix it?

Time's ravages
As most black-coffee drinkers will tell you, it doesn't take much for the taste to deteriorate. The most common culprit is time: The longer it sits in a vat, the worse it tastes. There are other issues such as whether a vat is cleaned before it's reused.

I cannot get a consistent cup of coffee at Starbucks. Its quality control is awful. I consider this most strange for a major corporation whose very mission revolves around the customer experience.

Consider the simple question of how often a new batch of java is brewed. You would think this -- the most basic task in the store -- would be the one thing Starbucks baristas would have down cold (or piping hot). Not even close. I frequent several stores, and I've made it a point to survey the staffs about brew times. Here's a sampling of my conversations:

  • "I think we're supposed to brew a new batch every 50 minutes." Seriously? "Or maybe it's every 40."
  • "We don't brew new batches until the vats are empty, and there's still a cup or two left in this one." (I have not returned to this Starbucks, even though it's the most convenient location for me.)
  • "We're supposed to brew every eight to 12 minutes, depending on how many vats we're using." Do you actually do that? "Not always."

And then there's another location, which doesn't serve the bold brew of the day until after noon. Noon! Just today I looked forlornly at the Pike Place vat -- its countdown timer long stopped at zero -- and asked if it was fresh. "Yes" came the lie.

Coffee's crossroads
Those who put cream and sugar in their coffee probably don't see as much inconsistency as I do. However, the company itself realizes it has a problem with its lattes, cappuccinos, and other mixed and blended concoctions. Headquarters recently issued orders for its baristas to slow down in making these drinks, and for them to concentrate on the quality of each one. More cleaning of pitchers, no more making several drinks at a time, etc.

This proclamation caused a bit of complaining among baristas (and customers) about longer lines and increased wait times, but I think it's the right move. I realize there are folks who just want to get in and out of the store and don't particularly care much about the consistency. But I assume management realizes the value of a consistent, superior experience and is acting accordingly. I mean, we're talking about harming a hugely valuable brand here.

McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) has built an empire on consistency. It, along with Dunkin' Donuts and others, is going after coffee drinkers in a big way. Peet's (Nasdaq: PEET) and Caribou Coffee (Nasdaq: CBOU) are aggressive competitors. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (Nasdaq: GMCR) and its amazing Keurig system produces a consistent cup time after time.

Starbucks should worry about its ability to do the same things the same way, over and over and over again. I'd like to tell you that none of these guys brews better cup of black coffee than Starbucks, but sometimes they do when Starbucks slips.

Management needed to step up, and I'm glad it did. The Starbucks brand -- and what a powerful one it is -- depends on it. I can only hope the company takes the next step and extends the quality control to its flagship black coffee.

Caffeinated Fool analyst Rex Moore particularly likes the Starbucks Sumatra and Komodo Dragon blends. He owns no companies mentioned here. Peet's Coffee & Tea is a Motley Fool Big Short short-sale recommendation. Green Mountain is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Starbucks is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Motley Fool Alpha has opened a short position on Green Mountain. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.