Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The State Of Coffee Drinking In Our Communities: Part One

Few beverages are as ubiquitously consumed on a daily basis as coffee. It crosses ages, demographics, social circles, any number of artificial barriers. It's enjoyed on the run, quietly at home, amongst friends and strangers alike. I love it, you love it, and we have the rare opportunity to be part of a coffee renaissance, both at home and beyond.
We all remember when the ever-present emblem of the coffee industry first came on the scene. It was admixed with Seattle grunge and cold weather, and it raced from corner to corner covering first our major cities before moving into smaller and smaller towns. Before that smiling green goddess logo arrived, most of us made do with freeze-dried stuff or maybe a few solid local coffee houses. I grew up in a tea-drinking household, given my South African parentage, and my coffee exposure came in trips to Lyon's Restaurant for a quick caffeine hit before hanging out with friends.
Then came the Starbucks juggernaut, and our coffee expectations were forever changed. This was a masterstroke of marketing, because these coffeehouses managed to convince us that we wanted a premium product (brewed coffees, espresso drinks, etc) and that it was acceptable to pay a premium price. I will never forget their featured display that ostensibly showed why Starbucks coffee was worth so much loot.
It was a glass-in case with 4 individual sections. One held green beans, one held lightly roasted beans, one held chocolately brown beans labeled "supermarket quality", one held dark brown, shiny beans labeled "Starbucks quality". Thus was the quality of coffee forever defined for us as something based on a dark roast, instead of what really counts, which is freshness.
Having learned a great deal about home-roasting coffee, I have come to understand just how effective this marketing scheme was. Starbucks didn't lie or anything like that, they simply capitalized on the ignorance of the marketplace to set artificial standards. Dark roasted coffee is not necessarily better, it's just darker. It's also much more uniform, as a longer roasting process cooks off much of the compounds that make a bean unique, and leaves a much stronger, reproducible flavor regardless of the bean used. Thus Starbucks was able to buy huge quantities of beans, roast the hell out of them without regard for what roasting profile would make those beans really stand out, and put them on the market as a marquee product. Those "supermarket" beans? Well, that light roast or City roast, may have been just perfect for that particular bean, but there's no room for subtlety here.
In this structure, Starbucks convinced us that a dark roasted coffee is a good coffee (remember that espresso does not denote any particular bean, but again is simply a very darkly roasted bean, thus a perfect fit) To provide this model to the customer, volume is the key and we lost track of what really matters with coffee, which is a properly-roasted bean and FRESHNESS.
Remember, once a bean is roasted, it materially degrades over several days, and most are stale in a week. Once it is ground, it is stale in hours, thus instead of focusing on a dark roasted bean that sits around, premium coffee is one that is roasted with some subtlety and craft to promote the unique profile of the bean and used while fresh.
This is not how Starbucks does it, and their beans sit around for who knows how long. Before this new "Pike's Place" house brew, they never told you when the beans were roasted, now they do, and when I peek in, it's hard not to laugh. I've seen 2, 3, sometimes four week old beans being touted as a marquee item. Would you spend any money, let alone top dollar, for bread more than a few days old? Of course not, because it's not fresh. The reasoning with coffee is exactly the same, because you're buying stale junk when you shop at Starbucks, or most major coffeehouses, for that matter.
It's not just the coffee, either, for there are multiple ways in which Starbucks manipulates those who walk into the ubiquitous cafes: using headsets in busy stores to encourage customers to stay in line, thus making the famous "line out the door", purveying all manner of corn syrup-engorged items that have nothing to do with standard coffee house fare. Indeed, now he have the Vivanno, which is a 270 calorie banana milkshake that has no place in a respectable coffeehouse (or our stomachs, for that matter.) There's even a blog run by former Starbucks employees detailing how the company does business.
Admittedly, I'm a bit conflicted in ripping Starbucks and saying we shouldn't shop there. The problem is that when these stores close (and they are closing like mad), it's young people who are losing their jobs. However, independent coffee shops also hire out of the same demographic, so not only can you make the most delicious choice, but one that fits with the larger theme of keeping our money in our community and keeping local businesses thriving. The good news is that the slow-growing, locally driven coffee movements are building in both strength and breadth, and these artisan coffee shops seem to be thriving. In part two of our analysis, we'll take a look at the multiple directions in which these movements are going, so stay tuned.

1 comment:

Jay Ehret said...

Mark, thanks for the coffee roasting lesson. While I agree that Starbucks is no longer the coffee house it set out to be, is there really a quality alternative? This is a serious question. Is there really any place that does sell quality, fresh roasted coffee?