Monday, September 6, 2010

The Coffee Conspiracy

Few companies have made such an impact on America’s drinking habits as Starbucks. I love Starbucks, but then, I love coffee. You might argue that coffee is too expensive there, but Starbucks completely turned the way America handles this precious drink around. A company that made an impact on Europe’s culture comes from Switzerland - and I am not happy with that.

I remember that, when visiting the USA and Canada in the first half of the last decade of the past century, café’s and restaurants tried to poison you with some kind of brown colored hot beverage. After a week I had to switch to tea, because my stomach started protesting. But I do vividly remember, while walking through Boston’s historic center quarter on a very hot July day, that I sat down in a Starbucks-like bar at the edge of Beacon Hill near the state capitol. The names of the beverages were a mystery to me, as they still are when I walk into a Starbucks, but my cold coffee drink was great. A few years later going to Starbucks has become a daily routine while visiting America – their cookies and lemon cake are great too. And even motels serve Starbucks at breakfast, and if not, at least a pretty decent coffee these days. Sadly, Holland is still almost a blind spot for Starbucks on the world map, with only three or four franchises in the entire country. Which is a bit cynic when you know that the Seattle company has its European headquarters in my country. No matter this, Starbucks rules.

Coffee rules. I like my coffee black. With cream. With cream and with sugar. Oddly, I do not like it black with only sugar. Anyway, a day at the office without coffee is unthinkable. Next to my desk is a DeLonghi coffee machine that makes coffee with a cream collar, espresso, cappuccino if desired, and takes any grain coffee you like, or beans if you prefer. I wish I had one at home. But at the office it is a tax deductible luxury, at home it would drain my wallet. So what about Nespresso then? Nespresso is a hype, and I do not follow hypes. I do not jump on the trend bandwagons just because I want to conform to certain social circles and while doing so, discarding my own individual tastes. For those of you who do not know Nespresso: Swiss company Nestlé, of Nescafé instant coffee fame, developed a system where you order online – only at Nespresso of course – expensive cups, that you just drop in your machine to get a predefined thin tasting coffee.

One of the kindest qualifications I read came from a magazine that compared Nespresso with several ways of making coffee, concluding that “at least it looks like it”. As I understand the way the coffee is produced does not allow for the best beans you can have, resulting in a shallow taste. For me, used to the full bodied coffee the DeLonghi machine gives, it is a big disappointment.
However, countless people follow Nestlés modern day Pied Piper of Hamelin disguised as George Clooney. Nestlé contracted the greying actor to persuade European consumers to buy the system. Now. Mr. Clooney has more paying customers than a hooker on the corner of Times Square. He drives a Fiat Punto, checks the time on his Omega watch and persuades women with Nespresso coffee. Frankly, that’s quite worrying. If Mr. Clooney has to rely on coffee to be successful with the ladies, than surely there is no hope left for the rest of us.

Of course, we can’t all buy an expensive coffee machine like the DeLonghi for use at home, or even better, chrome barista style coffee makers with impressive gauges and idiot lights that I love to look at, no drool over, in speciality shops and that will easily cost you 1,200 euros. If only… But there are very satisfying options. Old fashioned coffee, where you poor the water yourself in the filter. Like grandma did. Ah, the great aroma of coffee you will smell! And according to a connoisseur, as I recently read, the best coffee you make comes from a simple coffee press, or cafetiere, as it is called in Europe. Add coffee, pour hot water, stir, and after four minutes press down. Indeed, great tasting coffee. Full bodied and mellow at the same time. Can you ask for more?


  1. Starbucks raised coffee awareness - and raised the bar on quality control. But Starbucks is not usually a place where I want to spend any time. They are always noisy - with lots of shouting and hard surfaces to reflect back any incidental noise. And often nowhere comfortable available to sit. But these days in North America there is usually a competitor close by. Preferably a locally owned and run store - where they usually have better coffee and more choices of food. And usually peace and quiet and the ability to read a paper or - if you must - get on line.

    Starbucks is a welcome sight in airport departure "lounges" - and it is always worth getting a take on board cup from there. The stuff on the plane is always disgusting. But in most other circumstances it is worth looking around to see what else is nearby.

  2. I agree with Stephen - I'm not a fan of Starbucks itself, but I do like the competition that has arisen. Here, we have a few local competitors such as Red Whale and Java Moose - both have fantastic coffee (better than Starbucks, I say), and a much better atmosphere. And I don't have to feel stupid asking for a "grandé" coffee when I really just want a "large."

    At home I use a plain, cheap, automatic percolator/drip machine, and we buy good quality coffee. We enjoy it. I do have a single-cup-sized press, though, which I agree, makes wonderful coffee.

    What I'd really like is one of those wild old-style ones with the curly copper pipes and beakers and physics. I have no real understanding of how they work, but apparently they make the best coffee.

    Oh, and make mine black, please...

  3. Great write-up Martin :]

    Coffee, like many other things has its social and historic context. For me, good coffee is a sweet, non-burnt, strong espresso, made in Italian branded espresso machines (LaCimbali, Delta, ...) at a coffee house accompanied with something best described as "custard pies" ('pasteis de nata' in Portuguese). Like most other Portuguese, Italians, possibly Spanish people I'm addicted to coffee, although I drink significantly less than my perceived national average.

    That said, when I moved to England, I discovered various relevant facts. Many English eating places don't even know what an espresso is - I have been asked if an espresso is filter coffee in a small cup (it is not). Then there is price, usually over 6x what I would pay in PT. Quality... oh dear... I resigned to having bad coffee out of necessity.

    But alas there are companies that came for the rescue: Costa, Nero, Starbucks - all claim to be coffee purists and provide a ridiculously large array of coffee products.
    Nero, while the most expensive of the bunch, provides the best results in terms of espresso quality and overall taste of black/latte/capuccino. Costa is far more popular and sits comfortably in the middle. I would rate Starbucks last. I don't like their coffee and the place looks more like an expensive (typically noisy) sweet shop than a coffee house. Perhaps this changes slightly from country to country...
    Starbucks now exists in Portugal, but it is terribly expensive and, sadly, usually empty. It is, though, a very pleasant and comfortable place to sit and have a cake or something.

    I am yet to try the cafetiere method, but I have been recommended. I must try as soon as I find a place where they sell proper imported coffee beans and blends from various places in the world as well as a decent mill (which tends to be very expensive too).

    I also agree with your rant about the nespresso hype. However, I'm afraid that nespresso coffee is by far the most practical, best tasting and cheapest espresso we can get around here.

  4. I never experienced Starbucks to be all that noisy, but I usually choose the Barnes & Nobles Starbuckses, and noise probably gets lost in the large space there. I've also seen a number of smaller and not so busy franchises in not so busy shopping streets. Most will be closed by now. On Stephen's comment, can't you get online in every Starbucks franchise? In a Barnes & Noble Starbucks you always see people behind their laptops - but that does not say their are online of course.

    Pedro: a cafetiere will not give you espresso of course.

  5. I have never been a huge coffee drinker. I have actually gone to Starbucks and asked for a Coke. They look at me rather strange but my caffeine addiction is usually feed through Coke. (Not Pepsi mind you, Coke.) I will drink coffee at work when they make Cafe Bustelo. I like it much better then the stuff the company buys for everyone. So in short, I never really got Starbucks until my recent trip to Toronto. My friend took me to Tim Hortons and got me an iced cappuccino. It was so good, and I would bet just as bad for me as a Coke. Now, I have a better appreciation for coffee and am more willing to try different kinds. My mom has one of those machines you speak of and really likes it. She also has the real machine too, although I do not know what brand it is. I think she just likes the ease of use and not having to clean it up.

  6. Martin: I'm trying to broaden my horizons, to cover the cases where good espresso isn't available, hence the cafetiere trial ;-)

  7. As a non alcohol drinker, I pay a lot of attention to my coffee. I drink it black, no cream, no sugar.
    Starbucks coffee is ok, but their cups usually are very large, even when you order a small one. And I've always wondered where things like "large frappucino double latte" come from. As I understand, in the US names like these are already used to identify a certain type of clientele.

    If you want real good coffee, go to a German Konditorei, and order some cake of course!

  8. Interesting read on
    "...the editor of The Age Good Cafe Guide, Matt Holden, says "push-button" coffee made on an industrial scale is out of step with the craft approach many chefs take towards cooking. In contrast, specialty roasters tend to use beans from select sources.

    "[Top chefs] go to a lot of trouble sourcing ingredients and making sure that diners are aware of the provenance of food, telling you where the food's from and who grew it ... but then they're just not taking that much care with the coffee when they're using a pod machine," he says.

    "[If] I went and paid $200 for degustation that was capped off with pod coffee I'd think that wasn't right."

    Anna Pavoni from Sydney's two-hatted Ormeggio at the Spit and Willoughby hot spot Via Alta says conventional machines are worth the extra hassles of training and upkeep.

    "It is definitely more difficult to make a consistent coffee using an espresso machine than using a pod machine ... but personally I don't think it gives you the same guts as an espresso machine."

    Ormeggio uses a Vittoria two-group Giugiaro auto-espresso machine and Via Alta has installed a La Marzocco GB two-group AV espresso machine, using an organic blend from Lavazza's new premium Locale range.

    "As an Italian restaurant we need to have really, really good espresso," she says. "For an Italian to drink a coffee they also expect it to be quite rich and with a lot of the pod machines you don't get the same richness."

    But it's not just the quality of coffee that matters to Pavoni, it's also the image.

    "Good coffee is not only essential to customers but it's also essential to your staff," she says. "It's so satisfying as a barista to use a beautiful espresso machine." "