I am naïve. No, really, I am. Until I was on my way to Seattle, where I am for the most of January 2008, I did not know that Starbucks was born here. I have subsequently walked past the flagship store – twice – and it looks very nice, but today I actually went into the Starbucks closest to where I am staying. And in Seattle, that is close, because you cannot swing a dead squirrel in Seattle without hitting a Starbucks.
Before I go any further, I must clarify two things: one is that I am a coffee snob. I like my coffee made by a qualified person – a barrista – with freshly ground, well-selected beans that are hand tamped, and brewed through a machine that is cleaned frequently to avoid that burnt taste. I like my milk to be heated to the perfect temperature, not overly frothy, not scorched, and not lukewarm. I am the Goldilocks of coffee lovers. I am painfully fussy and have returned more coffees than I have had hot dinners. Okay, an exaggeration, but only slightly. I have some favourite places in Sydney where I will drive out of my way to drink the coffee, and they take care. As a result, their coffees are hot, creamy and smooth. They look like bowls of liquid caramel, which is why ‘cappuccino’ is a colour; coffee should not look like grey dishwater.
The second thing I must clarify is a popular misconception about North Americans. Americans do like Starbucks. Well, many of them do, but on the whole Americans are not as obsessed as their northern cousins. Canadians LOVE Starbucks, like it is a form of communion, or something. In Seattle there are Starbucks stores dotted all over the city, but they are in competition with Seattle’s Best Coffee (I have yet to see if they are right, but I am beginning to think that is a weak mantle to wear), Tully’s and the Cherry Street Coffee House chains. In Calgary and Vancouver there is literally a Starbucks on every corner; every third person walking down the street carries a green cardboard cup.
Back in Seattle, today, I approached my local Starbucks with trepidation, because let’s face it, I know their coffee is not good. BUT, I was 20 minutes early for an appointment, so I decided to give them a chance to prove me wrong. I waited in line for approximately 8 seconds, and my order was taken by not one, but two employees behind the counter. A good start to the whole experience. Now, I have been ordering coffees in North America long enough to know that a ‘flat white’, which is what I order at home, does not translate, so instead I asked for a small skim latte, no foam. No problem, I am understood and I pay the US$2.78. I do not have to wait long for my coffee, as the line formed behind me after I came in.
I am given a rather large cup, lid on, and when I take the lid off to add my sugar I am staring at anaemic froth. Confusion must have crossed my face, because the woman who made the coffee asks me if it okay. “I just get a little confused ordering coffee here,” I say with my best Aussie accent, “Is this a small?” She says it is a ‘tall’ – which is the smallest coffee on the menu board, but there is a smaller cup available. She is kind when she tells me to order a ‘short’ latte in future. Oh, how silly of me. I wasn’t misheard, a ‘small’ is a ‘tall’. I look at the foam, “And if I don’t want any foam on my latte?” I am not being a smart ass, but there is an inch of foam staring at me. She is even nicer when she remakes the whole thing into a ‘short’ cup, but to be refunded the 33c difference between the coffee I ordered and the first coffee they made, required a manager and my signature.
At last my skim flat white – a Starbucks short skinny latte, no foam – is ready. I take the lid off, add my sugar, and taste. It is so weak, and the coffee flavour so bitter I add more sugar and sprinkle some chocolate on it. I stir it again, and take another sip. Lukewarm, and grey. Nope, can’t do it. I should have just thrown my two dollars in the bin, because that is where the coffee ends up after three sips. I truly wonder how they can mess it up – how can the coffee be burnt first thing in the morning? Surely they clean the machines at least once at the end of the day?
I peeked behind the counter to watch them make the coffee; it is all automated. They do not grind the beans as they use them, they do not tamp the grinds they need for each coffee, the system is automated. A machine makes the coffee; there is no other human input beyond the pressing of a button. And having tasted the result of one shot in the smallest cup they offer, the machine must be set to ‘weak’. I realised it is no wonder that so many people add a flavouring to their Starbucks coffee. It is so it tastes like something worth consuming. It is a shame, really, because there must be staff behind that counter who love coffee and want to make something great.
This was not my first Starbucks coffee; I have had it before, several times. And each time I hope to be pleasantly surprised; today was no exception. I just wasn’t, and life is too short to drink bad coffee. It is too short for other things too, like finishing boring books, but that’s a whole other discussion. I still plan to go to the flagship store at the Pike Place Markets. I am curious now, to see if they have barristas or automation.
One last thing: I had coffee at a Cherry Street Coffee House the other day – on Cherry Street, so perhaps the flagship store of that chain – and it was good. I will go back before I leave the city.
Okay, and just one more last thing: Caffe Artigiano is a small chain of coffee houses in Vancouver, and their coffee is outstanding. They can actually claim to have the best baristas in Canada from 2003-2006 (Canadian Barista Championship) AND they can make a flat white to cry for (although it is called a ‘latte, no foam’). I had one 6 days ago and the sweet, smooth memory lives on.