At the risk of being alienated before my first column finishes loading, I’m going to stick my neck out here and state, for the record, that I do not hate Starbucks. Wait, wait. Put down that hot tar. Put away the feathers. At least let me explain before you run me out of town on a cyber-rail.
What’s wrong with Starbucks?
Just to dispel any misconceptions, I do not buy coffee beans from Starbucks. I don’t even buy beverages there, at least not willingly. At one point in my life, I did. But believe it or not, I have a fairly astute palate and, like most coffee geeks, I find Starbucks to be uniformly over-roasted coffee. Moreover, the vast scale of the Starbucks empire does not lend itself to coffee freshness. After all, with thousands of outlets scattered throughout the world, not to mention the supermarket distribution, just how long do you think the average Starbucks bean sits around before it sees the grinder?
And while we’re on the subject of the enormous scope of Starbucks, can you imagine how difficult it must be to keep all the stores staffed, let alone training kids to run the super expensive, high end machines? Heck, I pull a junk shot once in a while, and I measure my coffee on a gram scale. How about trying to explain why it’s important to wipe out the portafilter to a nineteen year old who’s trying to figure out how to break up with her boyfriend?
So there, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with Starbucks, at least from this geek’s point of view. It’s just too darned big for any kind of finesse as far as quality control is concerned. Now, I’m sure that there are individual Starbucks locations where the manager and staff really do care about the customers and the coffee being served. I was speaking to a non-geek friend of mine about this very dilemma and he stated most emphatically that the Starbucks that he and his wife patronize on a daily basis was a good one where the manager and staff really went out of their way to make good coffee for their customers. And you know what, if he and his wife are happy with their coffee, who am I to try and dissuade them? Especially when it’s so much easier to be a Starbucks lover than a Starbucks hater.
The Other Side of the Siren
But enough about the bad stuff. For me, if there had never been a Starbucks I would have probably never become the coffee lover I am today. Because let’s face it, before Starbucks, coffee was that dreadful black muck in the urn at the 7-Eleven. Before the Starbucks revolution, the sum total of my experience with coffee was large Styrofoam cups of that kind of junk, crammed full of enough milk and sugar to make it taste like something I could actually drink, and imbibed solely for the caffeinated jolt I thought might keep me awake through the next class, or drive, or term paper. Drink coffee for pleasure? Yeah, sure, just as soon as I finish this tin foil sandwich. My sister once summed up the situation perfectly, coffee always tasted angry.
The one variation in my life with coffee B.S. (Before Starbucks) was a trip to Italy. In Italy I first experienced coffee with flavor instead of anger. Something about the Italian coffee appealed to my sense of cuisine. Heck even when the Italians did put milk in the coffee it was this warm silky liquid that added to the flavor of the coffee rather than just diluting it to make it drinkable. That, unfortunately, was a very short three weeks and then it was back home to the percolated paint remover I always remembered as coffee. This was in 1984. There was this one place on campus back home that served something called cappuccino but somehow it wasn’t the same. It had steamed milk, but not the rich silky elixir I’d had in Italy and the coffee part of the beverage wasn’t even close. The name Starbucks only brought thoughts of Melville. It is interesting to note that the company that would become Starbucks had one store in Seattle at that time.
I really can’t remember when I had my first Starbucks coffee. But I do remember that it didn’t have that acrid, burnt, pipi du chat flavor that I had always associated with coffee. It seems funny to say now that Starbucks didn’t have a burnt flavor, but compared to the stuff that bubbled away in a percolator for hours at a time, or sat in a glass carafe on a burner waiting to be served, it makes sense. I don’t want to give Starbucks too much credit since there were certainly other coffee places springing up at the time. I drank Diedrich’s, I tried Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, I sampled Seattle’s Best. But Starbucks was everywhere. And in the few places there wasn’t a Starbucks, they were going to open one next month! Starbucks is even a romantic memory for me. I remember standing with my soon-to-be wife in the Starbucks in Gastown, in Vancouver BC on a rainy day after Christmas and buying two “Winter Magic” tumblers that changed colors when you put the hot liquid in.
Given our history together, it seems obvious that when I decided I wanted my own machine to make espresso at home, I would turn to my old buddy Starbucks. After all, where else could you buy a real espresso machine? Over the internet? I think that I still had a 28.8K modem. So, a couple of hundred dollars lighter, I left my local Starbucks with a shiny new silver “Barista” espresso machine (which was, in fact, a rebranded Saeco machine) complete with a videotape that promised to reveal the secrets of the coffee world. I watched the video. I fiddled with the machine. I made some good beverages. I made some real junk. My wife learned how to run the little Barista almost as well as I did (she would say better than I did).
The Barista machine was a champion, making an average of two espresso based drinks every day for four years without a hitch. The one small problem that we encountered, when a small screw stop in the steam knob assembly backed out, was easily solved with a call to the 800 number printed right on the water reservoir. But we discovered early on that the ground Starbucks coffee got a little stale after a few days. A relative bought us a coffee grinder and that helped. But it was the beginning of the end of my love affair with Starbucks. Because I started to question the quality of the coffee I made, and the quality of the coffee that was served to me. I even remember thinking more than once, “Jeez, I make better than this at home.”
So what did Starbucks ever do for me?
At this stage in my coffee life, I generally avoid buying beverages at Starbucks. I mean, I now have a semi-commercial espresso machine and grinder at home; I’ve roasted my own beans. I know what a quality coffee beverage tastes like. But still, every once in a while you’re stuck in the airport and the choice is Starbucks or some of that throwback drip brewed junk at Burger King. And for business acumen alone, you have to acknowledge the magnitude of what Starbucks has done in a relatively short period of time. They have built one of the most recognizable corporate identities in the world.
But I’ve become very philosophical about just what Starbucks did for me and countless other beanophiles like me who didn’t grow up in Europe or Seattle or Vancouver. It introduced the concept that coffee could be more than the stuff in that huge stainless steel vat that tasted like charcoal briquettes steeped in hot water. It taught us that coffee was more than just something your dad drank at breakfast. It introduced the European concept of a café, somewhere you could sit, have something to drink and talk to a friend. Starbucks imported great little gadgets for making coffee and stamped their name on them. They opened the door in a very real way to manypeople who would never have become coffee lovers. And for that gift, the gift of coffee, I personally say, “Thank you.”