In case you thought last week’s coffee lifestyle article was something of a joke, a headline from today’s Muncie, IN The Star Press might convince you otherwise: Coffee: Drink or lifestyle? How about both? | The Star Press – www.thestarpress.com – Muncie, IN. Except here your lifestyle statement isn’t so much in your choice of what you drink, but rather in where you drink it.
And when you’re living in Muncie, IN, anything this side of Denny’s Bunn-warmer drip coffee is emancipating. (And as a guest speaker at Ball State University, I have actually been to Muncie and sampled the local coffee.) Thus the article predictably offers a good dose of middle America’s cult-like worship of Starbucks. Here there are more platitudes about the “third place” in our lives — and how Starbucks set the standard for speciality coffee. And yet Starbucks remains the standard, despite the explosive growth of better alternatives.
But when you check all the references, you quickly come to the realization that much of the cult of Starbucks and its ‘Buckniks has little to do with their coffee. More often, it’s about brand coziness with a clean, approachable, predictable, and convenient location and their variety of high-calorie milkshakes (with coffee added for flavoring). When you come down to it, the great irony is that a lot of people really don’t like the taste of coffee. Yet Starbucks thrives under a coffee identity by making the otherwise unpallatable pallatable for millions of consumers, serving it under various disguises.
Today’s The Star Press also offers a capsule on Muncie’s four best coffee options: Caffeine addicts sing the praises of Muncie’s growing collection of shops | The Star Press – www.thestarpress.com – Muncie, IN (pardon my gagging over the title: another cliché caffeine riff that plagues so many unimaginative writers). In case you should ever find yourself lost in northeast Indiana.
As reported today on Forbes.com, the recently reviewed Caffè Nero chain (one of the fastest growing in Europe right now) was subject to a private buy-back by its previous owner: Billionaire Buys Back U.K. Coffee Chain – Forbes.com.
Apparently, espresso chains are multiplying like cancer in London. The attractive growth rates are enough to lure big European money and suggest international expansion plans.
Last year while looking to upgrade my home stereo from a Michael J. Fox-era boom box, I made the mistake of stopping into a Bose store. There I rudely discovered that Bose does not sell home stereos. No, they sell lifestyles. Problem was that I was already quite happy with my pre-owned lifestyle; I just wanted a stereo.
Ridiculous, personal-identity-defining branding experiences like that, however, are no longer the exclusive domain of luxury cars and expensive home theaters — it’s now eating its way through the consumer food chain in a big way. This past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine ran a story on how even an innocuous commodity like soap must now “define who you are as a consumer”.
Apparently coffee is not immune either. For example, today’s Boston Globe announced Green Mountain Coffee’s introduction of their new “PBS blend”: Green Mountain Coffee brews new “PBS Blend” – Business Ticker – The Boston Globe. Go to the Green Mountain Web site, and we are told, “Be more aware, inspired, original. Be more PBS®.” Green Mountain famously stokes up the environmental fervor from the hills of Vermont, but when is my choice of coffee a statement about my out-of-the-closet love for Rick Steves and my S&M obediance to Suze Orman?
Now I can actually understand those countless coffee products out there with the Lexus brand image and the Chevy Impala taste. Afterall, we’ve long had that analog in the wine world — for example, when Orson Welles told us Paul Masson sells no wine before its time, even if the stuff took only four months to make (“Thursday was a most excellent vintage…”). It’s one thing to market stale, pre-ground coffee in a sealed capsule — coffee’s answer to instant Tang — like a $10 candy bar. It is quite another to market to your personal coffee lifestyle.
Which brings me to a somewhat related, disturbing news item released today about the introduction of a new style of coffee in that coffee-as-medicine vein: Slimming coffee to launch in UK. Here we learn, “the drink, named CoffeeSlender, uses a novel, coffee-derived ingredient called Svetol that has been shown in studies to aid weight loss during a diet.” I suppose that after extensive market research, Café Bulimia just wasn’t as appealing — even if it is what all the top models are drinking.
Opening in Nov. 2006, this space is aptly named “Coffee Lounge”. It has dark brown walls, spot lighting, large gallery art, lounge-like music, and it attracts more of an upscale, edgy crowd for the neighborhood. A mix of unique seating options spread throughout the long space. They serve some croissants and bakery items, but it’s largely about coffee here.
The owner, Jill Rosenthal, wrote CoffeeRatings.com to say that they used the site to sample the competition and ultimately decide upon a custom house roast — buying beans from the top-rated cafés and sampling them. They worked with Rick at ABC, of all roasters, to develop a custom blend (“organic house blend #5″) after side-by-side tastings — it’s an organic blend of dark Brazilian and dark & light Nicaraguan. And while some of that attention to detail shows, they still have some kinks to work out — not surprising for a newer place, however.
Using a two-group Nuova Simonelli Premier, they pull shots with a thinner body and a thinner layer of a mottled, medium brown crema. They staff deliberately pre-heat cups and take the time to do it right — they just need more practice. Flavorwise, it has a slightly burnt/bitter edge a la Martha & Bros: strong tobacco and some ash. Their heart is in the right place, but they need to work on the execution. My own personal tastes, but I might start by upgrading the ABC beans. (Which isn’t to say that ABC makes bad beans, but most of the places that carry them often have poor espresso.)
Read the review of Sugarlump Coffee Lounge.