Yesterday Tom Philpott posted about his discovery of a great place for espresso in Austin, TX called Cafe Medici (it opened last month). However, the bulk of his post was on why “it’s getting harder and harder to find great coffee in the U.S.”: Mad Flavor in Austin: good espresso in a fallen world | Gristmill: The environmental news blog | Grist.

The core theory of his rant is that the consumer-fed proliferation of Starbucks is cementing the following equation in the public consciousness:

  great espresso = warmed up $5 pumpkin pie/egg nog milkshake with a dash of mediocre espresso

His post raises some interesting questions, even if I don’t believe the alarmist message that Starbucks is sending quality coffee back to the Folgers crystals ages.

If I compare the espresso in America to what I had been drinking for the past three weeks across Portugal, it’s clear that America has a long way to go before “going out for a good espresso” means simply walking up to the nearest café. Such a task in America largely requires a rather decisive act of planning and coordinated transportation (if not also airfare, depending on the location). However, if we compare where we are today versus 15 years ago, getting a mediocre espresso has become far more convenient in a way that was unthinkable back then. That much is progress.

Looking at the high end of the scale, I don’t see the proliferation of Starbucks really hurting the elite cafés producing top-notch coffee. If anything, I think the mainstream awareness and availability of Starbucks has served as a suitable “gateway drug” to hard core coffee enthusiasm — ultimately resulting in a greater demand for coffee of the highest quality available. And the numbers reflect this. Over the past 15 years, the number of cafés making truly great coffee has grown from a handful per time zone to a handful per state. And again, that much is progress.