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Starbucks, I Spit In Your General Direction

May 9, 2008
I hate to admit it, but I have become a coffee snob. 12 years ago, I would have pulled out the Folgers can, added some hot water, a little sugar, and said "Now that's good coffee." I would have allowed the burnt coffee aroma to waft over me, and treasured every blazing hot sip that I took.

Now, I almost get physically sick walking past the round containers of pre-ground coffee as I make my way through the supermarket. Pre-ground? Is it still 1992? If so, I'm going to go buy AOL stock. I shudder at the thought of the oxidation that has taken place, of the lack of flavor, and robusta beans. Are you kidding me, Robusta? Folks, I'll have you know my lips only touch pure Arabica from Jamaica, Hawaii, Kenya, or my online coffee roaster. Juan Valdez can take that little burro of his back to Columbia, and bring me back some real coffee.

As I mentioned, things have changed. For me, it started with the Frappuccino. Not a real Frappuccino, mind you. No, it was the far inferior product that Starbucks had licensed to PepsiCo. I tasted my first real Frappuccino by mistake nearly a year later, when my parents went to a Starbucks in NJ. What they brought me bore little resemblance to cold coffee in a bottle. This was more like an incredible dessert, with coffee. It was the ultimate combination.

From there, I went to Starbucks as often as I possibly could. For a long time, I ordered Frappuccinos(in Jersey, this is pronounced "Frap-ahhh-Chee'-Nose"). Then came that fateful day near Christmas when they introduced the Gingerbread Spice Latte. Again, dessert and coffee, you can't go wrong. I never ordered regular coffee from Starbucks, as it seemed a waste of my time. Why pay $2.50 for something I could brew myself?

I was happy, and getting fatter by the minute. So much sugar, so little time. I no longer savored the taste of Starbucks. The $4 seemed a bit expensive. I began frequenting an independent coffee shop. Whenever the subject of independents comes up, there are always 2 types mentioned: Shops with bad coffee, and shops with good coffee. Some laud Starbucks for their consistency. They say, "You always know what you are going to get." This is true. I have to say that Starbucks is consistently mediocre. Quite seriously, I haven't had a really good cup of coffee there in probably 2 years or more. In fact, I stopped by the other night, and it was very mediocre indeed. The independent, on the other hand, is always good. I mean really good. From the flavor to the body of the cup, no matter what I order, it is always spot on.

Why? Well, in this case, I think 2 things matter: 1. They get the beans from a local roaster. 2. They have someone who knows what they are doing behind the counter.

This is the magic equation behind coffee: Fresh coffee + Experienced people = consistently good coffee. Now, let's think about the latest marketing gimmick that Starbucks has tried to make us think that we're getting both. A few months ago, they closed all Starbucks for 3 hours to properly retrain their associates on how to make a proper coffee. This would be a very risky move, if it weren't for the brilliant branding that they've done. In fact, people now use the terms "Starbucks" as if it were synonymous with coffee.

I have to hand it to Starbucks, they do train their employees properly, by food retail standards. 24 hours for every employee, before they can call themselves a "barista". This term is slightly deceiving, as Starbucks does not get third party certification for it's baristas. There is a body that does this, known as the Specialty Coffee Association of America. The SCAA has three certifications: Barista, Senior Barista, and Master Barista. A Starbucks "barista" would qualify for...ummm...none of these.

Why? Well for starters, as a real barista, you would have to understand grind adjustments, water temperature and quality, draw speed, tamping, and a host of other things before you could even draw a shot of espresso. Starbucks skips this step, and allows the "barista" to push the button on an automatic espresso machine. Sure, they have the finest automatic espresso machines available, and most American consumers cannot discriminate against the taste of the shot, simply because of the way the drinks are served. In other countries, where the shot often comes in a shot glass, or an extra-small cup(known as a demitasse), the consumer can actually see the crema, and taste the shot straight-up. If you gave these people a shot of Starbucks espresso, they would probably throw it in your face. You would deserve it.

How can Starbucks get away with serving such average coffee, and sell it at such outrageous prices? Milk. In case you didn't know, milk is a substance that smooths out and dampens taste. It is recommended that people drink milk after eating hot peppers, or any other strong, offensive substance. Starbucks pours it over their semi-awful shots. This would be an okay solution, if half the time, the "barista" didn't oversteam my milk and turn it sour. Do you know why offer whipped cream on their lattes? Well, people like it, for one. The other reason is that Starbucks employees seem to have a problem with the concept of foam. Seriously, they give you the foam that the home barista can make on their first try. You know, because you've probably had that thin, watery looking stuff that looks like a baby just burped on top of your coffee.

Do you think I am just being bitter? Folks, I would love to go to Starbucks. They're in my grocery store, the local Target, and countless other retail locations throughout my city. I'll still go to them when it gets hot and I need a Frappuccino. It's an often imitated, but never replicated, original drink. That is the main problem: Starbucks sells coffee drinks, a variation on the theme, not the real thing. They have become the parody that is the gas station capuccino. They are ubiquitous, mediocre, and have lost the excitement and support of people who love coffee, as I do. For that, they will pay. The problem will only become bigger as they expand, for expand, they most definitely will. I am not anti-corporate, anti-expansion, or even anti-shareholder pandering. I just think that if you market yourself as a great coffee company, then you should have to live up to the hype.

Until they decide to start delivering what they promise, I'll continue to brew it myself, or worse, go without.

Who am I kidding? I'll have a Tall, Sugar-Free, Cinnamon Dolce Latte,over ice, please. At least they won't be able to scald my milk.
About the Author
Kurt Hartman loves his coffee. He loves the coffee that he buys from the folks over at Coffee Fool. (They have no idea that he is linking to them.) His day job is an analyst for a company that sells mobile crane tires . Who does that, right? Kurt does.
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