Starbucks, or not
While not strictly a coffee connoisseur (as yet, but working towards it), I do enjoy a fine cup of java – ideally in the morning, but a good cup after a satisfying dinner is also welcome. Having started on a coffee-discovery journey a year ago, I can now distinguish between arabica and robusta, between various roasts (personally I prefer the ‘full-city’) and am gradually appreciating the nuances of various blends and single origin coffee. But unlike real coffee-nerds, I cannot rattle off subtle characteristics such as acidity, body, complexity, depth, balance and so on.
This post, however, is not about my knowledge of coffee or the lack thereof – it is, as the title suggests, about Starbucks, a global retailer of ubiquitous proportions and purveyors of over-priced, moderately good-quality coffee drinks that bear rather ostentatious names. The green and white with mermaid logo that is invading neighborhoods at an alarming rate of 4-5 new locations a day (or as a critic put it: "there is one opening right now in your basement ") has become almost synonymous with the world’s favorite beverage. But they are usually my last choice when it comes to looking for good coffee. Hence this short rant explaining my hatred of Starbucks. To be less derisive, this is about why I prefer local, ‘mom-and-pop‘ coffee houses to the corporate Starbucks1.
Much of these thoughts came to me early last Saturday morning at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. There I was, twelve hours behind my original schedule and few hundred miles further away from the final destination compared when I started the evening before2, trying to find myself a good morning cup in anticipation of a long day ahead. My choice was limited to either Starbucks or something-they-call-coffee served at McDonalds or Cinnabon. So as it often happens, for the lack of better alterative, I went into Starbucks and ordered the medium latte (yes I know I should have said grande but read on) and in the process of sipping the uninspiring milky concoction that pretended to be an espresso drink, I synthesized the reasons for my anti-Starbucks stance.
The first problem with Starbucks is simply an irrational prejudice against the whole corporate domination aspect and the anti-lemming tendency in me to be against the flow3. Plus, I hate their pretentiousness in naming the coffee-sizes, with the Ventis and Grandes and such (not to mention the ‘Chai-tea lattes!’ – gimme a break) or the bizarre blended drinks they come up with (pomegranate frappuchino?). In fact I make it a point anytime I am forced to use a Starbucks, to order the medium (as opposed to the ‘look I am soo European and pseudo-chic‘ Grande) or small (as opposed to counter-intuitive Tall) sizes. As of yet, I have not dared to order the Venti – I have no wishes to deprive myself of sleep at night.
Secondly, I genuinely believe that most local cafes/coffee-joints will provide a better espresso shot (and hence a better latte, mocha or cappuccino) compared to a Starbucks in the area. I am not sure how much training the workers at Starbucks (they are called baristas or partners) receive on pulling espresso shots or how much staff-turnover happens there; but the best thing you can probably say about a Starbucks’ espresso drink is that they are inconsistent. Only if you are lucky (as I once was in Washington DC) will you get a decent drink. This is unacceptable when espresso-based drinks are supposedly what people go for and pay big bucks at Starbucks.
However, without fail, I have always had good experiences with espresso shots at smaller, independent establishments. Even though these places too have a turnover in staff, majority of the people working there prepare the drink with much more loving care and a personal touch. The folks at one of the local joints I go to, will even do a latte-art for you. (The difference in quality could also be explained by the difference in the espresso blends used in Starbucks and elsewhere.)
(Btw, believe me when I say that pulling the perfect shot is certainly an art by itself. I have had espressos shots from and often used a three thousand dollar original Italian hand-crafted espresso machine replete with copper pipings and all – and there are many variables – from the quality of the water used to the packing of the coffee and of course the quality of the original espresso beans, – that go into that small cup.)
As far as drip coffee goes, I haven’t had much experience, but a few people I talked to (and who really love their gourmet coffee) usually had the same answer – Starbucks coffee is moderately good at best.
Thirdly, the local mom and pop stores carry an aura of local idiosyncrasies that is usually absent in the corporate mandated sameness of Starbucks all over the US. One of the cafes I usually frequent has a really eclectic interior design with old, rickety furniture, including several comfortable couches strewn around, old books for you to read, some amazing photographs on the wall, big windows (if you want to people watch) and best of all, free wifi. I do not feel this casual atmosphere or the funky touch at a Starbucks shop.
Finally, as short side-note, I have always had bad luck with the Starbucks coffee-lids. Usually I attributed this to my own clumsiness, but there does seems to be a real problem with their lid design. For world’s biggest coffee sellers, this is a shame.
Now to be fair to Starbucks, I believe they have done a lot to promote coffee consciousness. In fact, sometime back I remember listening to a NPR story about how the ‘Starbucks culture’ had actually helped independent coffee-shops to prosper and flourish. This post is not meant to totally diss Starbucks and their customers (I have nothing against people who want to spend fortunes on three triple-espressos a day and are too lazy to invest money into a decent, moderately priced grinder and brewer, along with several online options that will give them coffee as good as SB, if not better. Eventually it is a free-market.).
What I am saying is that if you are coffee-addict and cannot do without that latte or mocha in the morning; or if you need the buzz of human activity around you while working on the term-paper on your laptop, check out the independent cafe around the corner, instead of heading towards Starbucks. Chances are that your coffee will be tastier and the atmosphere livelier too. If you are in a small college-town like I am, there are bound to be several such places. And help is at hand if you need to locate an independent coffee-shop near you. Xtine Hanson, a teacher of multi-media skills at the Art Institute of California, started a website called Delocator (delocator.net) that will find such cafes within certain radii of your zip-code. The web-site is mobile-enabled and now can be used even to find independent book-stores and art-house cinemas in the locality.
Before I end, two interesting Starbucks related stories I noticed recently.
First: Starbucks seems to be losing some regular espresso drinkers due to the long-lines for frappuchinos and other blended drinks (which usually take longer to prepare than espresso drinks or drip coffee) that have been popular recently on account of the heat-wave in parts of US (why people would like to drink dehydrating caffeine in a heat-wave is beyond me though).
Second: a new voting demographics: Starbucks Republicans !!
Related post on making coffee using a French-press here.
1. Under normal circumstances, when I am at home, I try to avoiding coffee shops altogether. I have made a reasonable investment in various coffee machines, from regular drip-brewing to french press to moka-pots. As long as I have a good espresso blend, the last mentioned has provided some of the best espresso shots I have ever had.
2. I was flying from Raleigh-Durham to Rochester via Atlanta.
3. To be fair, there is quite a big anti-Starbucks movement out there as well. Also, I should probably be taking a similar stance against Walmart – but the latter at least is economic on the wallet, which was priceless as a poor graduate student in the early years in the US.