June 02, 2004

a limited defence of starbucks

once upon a time, way back in, oh, early 2003, I too clung to a vague hostility to Starbucks. (see this post for some other thoughts on this issue). I don't think I could defend Starbucks as the best dominant player in the coffee market, but it's an advance on the alternatives in America.

Starbucks espresso is not great, but it's predictable, and not too bad. That is its virtue.

to be sure, it would be lovely if everywhere you went there was good coffee at independent coffee shops, but most of America is not Amsterdam, Melbourne or Wellington.

If you don't like it, and value the coffee culture that much, move to one of those places.

Or, hey, here's another thought, buy a french press and learn to use it. You know, make the coffee yourself. Not difficult.

Most of America is a place where the majority of the population apparently prefer to drink the vile swill that is Mr. Coffee. And to judge by the fetid kona pots in a lot of gas stations, there is still a market for this stuff.*

Starbucks makes its own offering in this market -- witness the pump pots of coffee they're happy to fill with 20oz of hot brown water.

But Starbucks does also serve espresso, and from O'Hare Airport to Knoxville to D.C., they seem to be make it pretty well. Strangely, the latte is more variable at Starbucks -- normally the latte and its milk is the buffer against poor coffee making skills behind the counter.

If it wasn't for Starbucks, I can just about guarantee you that you would not be able to get decent coffee in much of America, certainly not in any airport, or random off-ramp from I-40.

As for Starbucks chasing out the independent coffee shops, I doubt that its effect is as great as all that. Having been to a fair share of the large cities east of Minneapolis and north of Durham in the last three years, it seems that Starbucks and the independent stores are co-existing pretty well.

It'd be hard to prove, but I'd wager that where there are few independent coffee shops it's because there's not a market for them. For economic or cultural reasons, many Americans want [bad] coffee in a hurry -- they wouldn't have been hanging out in the "Friendly Local Organic Roastery" shooting the breeze with their friends, they would have been grabbing their 20oz polystyrene gulper from the Super America and hopping in their truck.

Americans, it seems, are not willing to wait the extra 3-4 minutes it would take to get a decent cup of coffee -- presumably this time/money/taste trade-off is the optimal one or they wouldn't be making it. It's also possible many folks just aren't aware of how much better coffee can be than the thin brown hot water that is served in many places, and without this information can't make the optimal decisions.

Posted by robe0419 at June 2, 2004 04:52 PM

I agree with you 100% and will add a couple of things. Starbucks is often known as "Charbucks" because of the extrememly dark roasts that they are famous for. They did it on purpose, to set themselves apart as a brand, but super dark roasts also emphasize roast qualities rather than bean qualities, so they can make everything taste the same (consistent). You are correct, if you know your coffee, Starbucks may be drinkable but is in no way exceptional.

My daughter is a barista for a place that has hit upon a winning formula and is now franchising. My daughter will be opening up her franchises in a town full of Starbucks. But they truly emphasize quality (no automatics) and aesthetics. The places look totally awesome. You have to see it to believe it. They also walk the walk, as in their first year of entering a barista in competition he won the Regionals and placed 4th at Nationals (where he was apparently the victim of sabotage).

I recently learned that you can roast your own green coffee beans using nothing more than a hot air corn popper. (Search google for tons of info). Green beans are probably available at your local roaster, or order online ( I recommend sweetmarias.com ). It is great fun and the ultimate science project! Since roasted beans begin to go stale in a matter of days, it is your ONLY way to truly fresh roasted coffee!

(More than you wanted to know?)
: )


Posted by: Cheeky at August 4, 2004 02:02 PM
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