We smelled a familiar rat the first time we read it: I Am Jonathan’s Starbucks Card: A Social Payment Experiment (With Free Coffee) | TechCrunch. A programmer/writer publicly offers up his Starbucks Card as a social experiment for people around the world to contribute to and withdraw from his pre-paid Starbucks account. It just sounded too conveniently like the Starbucks’ Pay-it-forward-gate of a few years ago, where media outlets took the bait hook, line, and sinker in different markets over the period of several years.
And just as every other media outlet on the planet picked up this story (here, here, here, here, and here — for example), who was already on top of the hoax? None other than occasional CoffeeRatings.com reader, Andrew Hetzel, noting how the programmer/writer’s public relations & app company, Mobiquity, has performed heavily promoted work on behalf of Starbucks, etc.: Starbucks and the ‘Starkbucks’ Jonathan’s Card Viral Marketing Campaign | coffee business strategies.
Conspiracy theorists may be one of our bigger pet peeves. But if you know any of the history here, this readily fits a pattern that has gone back for years — just with a new tactic. And now, as then, someone points out that calling out the authenticity of this clandestine marketing operation diminishes all the goodwill behind the effort. This smokescreen retaliation came from the same playbook for every Starbucks-seeded “pay it forward” story in the local presses not long ago.
Another of the unmistakable fingerprints is Starbucks’ complete lack of acknowledgment that the phenomenon even exists. Most other supposedly social-savvy businesses would pick up on such a story and highlight it as a feel-good for their legions of loyal customers. But with Starbucks, instead there’s deafening silence — as if they’re more worried about ensuring the credibility of the story by distancing themselves, rather than acting as an agent of promoting its supposed feel-good causes.
For all the feel-good altruism to be defended here, why is Starbucks completely turning its back on the story? If questioning the story’s authenticity hurts the altruism behind it, where does Starbucks’ complete silence on the matter fall on the “you’re either with us or against us” spectrum? And even more suspicious, this week Mobiquity took down all content on their Web site indicating their Starbucks affiliation after the story broke. (Screencaps saved fortunately by Andrew, and shown here.) And please do read Mr. Hetzel’s blog for gems like all the pro-Starbucks comments on his post that he traced back to corporate IP addresses within Starbucks Inc.
No matter what, you have to admire the Starbucks marketing team for their savvy in pushing the envelope on effective social marketing. Over the years, Starbucks has benefitted from a number of seemingly independent citations in the press affiliating the Starbucks brand with feel-good stories of local altruism. One of their greatest strokes of genius is suggesting that questioning the authenticity of these stories is a vote against altruism. Who could be against that? It’s almost as genius as the religious argument that a lack of scientific evidence is a foundation for religious faith — and hence a requirement for being a truer believer.
Next month Berkeley hosts its first ever coffee and tea festival, and the SF Chronicle used the opportunity to mention Berkeley’s coffee and espresso roots: Berkeley perks up for Coffee and Tea Festival. The piece adds a bit of worthy Berkeley coffee history, even if it’s a slight retread of a 2009 piece in The Daily Californian. Both articles discussed Caffe Mediterraneum’s merits as the birthplace of the caffè latte. And, hey, Berkeley is where I had my first real cappuccino way back in those ancient 1980s.
Yesterday we came across a post where a Boston Globe writer implored winemakers to be more like their coffee counterparts: A lesson in winemaking – straight from the espresso bar . . . – By the glass – Wine News, Views & Reviews – Boston.com. It wouldn’t be the first time coffee’s wine analogy ran in reverse. We’ve also written how we wish coffee was more like wine. But a recent wine country experience in California’s Santa Ynez Valley highlighted how the coffee world could maybe learn a few lessons from the wine world.
The SYV, as some of the locals call it, gained a little notoriety a few years ago as the location of the popular indie wine flick Sideways. Like many popular wine-growing regions in California, local businesses lure the wine tourist through things like winery tours, barrel tastings, tastings rooms at wineries, independent tasting rooms for sampling wines from different area vintners, and even bars and restaurants that offer wine tasting flights of the local product.
Consumer behavior at these various SYV establishments mirrored what we observed at other wine growing regions throughout California. Tastings at the wineries themselves were tremendously popular. And yet neighboring independent tasting rooms — often additionally offering hard-to-get cult wines from boutique area growers with limited public hours or facilities — were largely neglected by the wine-drinking public. Meanwhile, famously wine-friendly cafés with their extensive wine bars and tasting flights — such as the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe (a Sideways star) — did a brisk business on food and dining but very little business in tastings or flights.
It may be difficult to draw many accurate, let alone useful, conclusions from these consumer behaviors in the SYV and elsewhere. But what’s crystal clear is that wine tourists greatly prefer the experience of dealing directly with the winegrowers at their own tasting rooms. It’s quite likely that a more direct connection between a wine consumer and the wine grower, and the land they toil over, plays a major role in this consumer preference. What’s also quite clear is the serial act of sampling and comparing wines loses its appeal the further removed it becomes from its source of production.
Wine lovers and coffee lovers are hardly the same — let alone are the circumstances of their beloved product’s creation. But it was difficult not to draw parallels between wine consumers and their coffee counterparts. The affinity for winery tours and tastings reflected a consumer desire for a more personal connection to the roots of production. Wine lovers can ask direct questions of the staff, understand its specific terroir, and engage in discussions about their wine-making philosophy.
Coffee reflects this preference in coffee consumers’ interest in Direct Trade, buying microlot coffees from a single farm, and even a desire to go to origin. All forces of which seem to run counter to the nascent coffee middleman model adopted by the likes of Craft Coffee, GoCoffeeGo, ROASTe, and other retail intermediaries. Each of these actors serves more like the independent tasting rooms and bars that wine lovers largely ignored — taking coffee lovers one step further away from the product they love and where it comes from instead of one step closer.
Another parallel rises with the act of consumer sampling and comparing itself. Enjoying various tastings at a vineyard, wine consumers can directly connect the act of debating the merits of a specific vintage with a wine grower to also taking a bottle home for an equivalent tasting experience. With coffee, and particularly with the shoehorned concept of consumer coffee cupping rather than comparative tasting, that connection is completely severed.
When we encounter public cuppings at coffeeshops, it’s almost as if we have to ask, “Is this a bar or an educational center?” Am I here to relax and enjoy, or am I here because I am being tested? And tested for something I don’t reasonably experience at home. There’s an irony in that when Trish Rothgeb (née Skeie) coined the term “Third Wave,” she described it as enjoying coffee for its own sake. This effectively eliminates cuppings from any “Third Wave” classification — because cuppers are experiencing their coffee, with its crust-breaking and spoon-slurping ceremony, for completely different purposes than pure enjoyment.
The last parallel concerns where there’s money to be made. For wine, while tastings and winery visits add a dimension to consumer enjoyment, the money is in consumers finding what they like and shelling out for regular habits. Wine tastings are a money loser for vintners; hence why they’ve developed a habit of charging for them in recent decades. (See the 2008 movie Bottle Shock for how radical an idea this was for Napa Valley wineries back in the 1970s.)
Coffee cuppings largely fail to create new customer habits because the experience is so far removed from how they’d regularly consume coffee at home. If wineries merely offered visitors the opportunity to stick their nose and fingers into bowls of grape must, how many more bottles do you think they’d sell? Meanwhile retail coffee middlemen promote the ability for consumers to easily swap out roasters as part of their experimentation, but experimentation isn’t a constant consumer state. And it isn’t where you make your money.
Several months after we declared that coffee’s golden age is over, famed Illy barista-in-chief, Giorgio Milos, posted this in The Atlantic today: America’s Golden Age of Coffee: Remarkably Like Italy’s Past – Giorgio Milos – Life – The Atlantic.
You might recall Mr. Milos ruffling a few New World coffee feathers last year in The Atlantic, when he roughly suggested that “the Italian way” is the only way to appreciate espresso. Among other things he called out the brightness bomb, where many Western baristas have fallen in love with espresso shots that taste like a mouthful of Sour Patch Kids.
In his latest piece, Mr. Milos has made something of a curious about-face. Has all his time around Western espresso started to change his palate? More specifically, he rightfully called out the enthusiasm and passion for coffee quality in the American barista community — something that has been stagnant in Italy for decades. He also drew a number of parallels between “coffee innovation” in America today and in Italy a century ago.
(We’ll try to restrain our gag reflex whenever we hear a term like “coffee innovation”. This is another area where — to quote Mr. Milos — the “oft-cited parallels between specialty coffee and wine break down” in that no one has talked about “wine innovation” with a straight face for many generations.)
Mr. Milos also raised a red flag for the American barista’s “tendency to keep consumers out of the R&D process” — something we similarly called out earlier this year. And he also spoke our language when he wrote, “Italy, where it’s easy to find a very good cup of coffee and tough to find something undrinkable — and about equally tough to find something outstanding.”
Opening in July 2011, this new coffeehouse expands Glen Park‘s neighborhood coffee offerings. It’s located a little off the beaten path, nearest a freeway exit from the Glen Park BART station. Outside they have a couple of sidewalk tables. Inside is a modern, semi-sterile interior of orange and gray walls and exposed chrome and stainless steel.
They proudly display the bios and details of their suppliers on the walls, from Mr. Espresso coffee to the two-group, chrome Faema E61 machine to the Grass Valley artist who made the Cup sculpture that overhangs the shop’s entrance outside. They also sell Mr. Espresso coffee beans with the Cup label stuck on the package.
Using their coffee and shiny E61 (and Mazzer and Macap grinders), they pull a very short shot with a potent, darker brown crema. It’s surprisingly not syrupy, given the pour size. It’s actually a little ballzy to make an espresso this short in this neighborhood, so kudos to them. It has a potent herbal flavor of cloves, etc., that’s missing a little top-end brightness in the cup. Their milk-frothing is decorative but unusual and on the thick side.
Maybe it isn’t as unique as having a Cafe Bello — which has long established its own unique flavor profile and style by locally roasting their own for a number of years. (Helping to fend off that espresso sameness issue.) And maybe the location isn’t perfect and the interior is a little sterile. But they still make a good espresso.
Read the review of Cup.
It’s that time of year again for Consumer Reports to come to our collective rescue and save us from wasting our hard-earned money on bad coffee: Colombian coffee champ is unseated in our new Ratings. Except we’ve come to the conclusion that Consumer Reports does more harm than good in the name of good coffee.
Of course, We’re no strangers to mocking Consumer Reports‘ odd foray into the world of consumables. Their Web site literally keeps us in stitches whenever we read things like, “If you’re looking for information about coffee, Consumer Reports is your best resource” alongside teasers hawking their reviews of clothes dryers, dishwashers, microwave ovens, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners.
It feels a lot like asking your muffler shop to recommend a gastroenterologist. Their coffee reviews even fall into the “Home & Garden” section of their Web site, where bold type tells us to get ratings for “flooring, windows, lightbubs & more” — the things we clearly worry most about when seeking good coffee. Just throw in lawn mower reviews and we’ll know we’re in the right place.
Setting aside for a moment the dissimilarities between a kitchen appliance and something you eat, despite Consumer Reports‘ consumer advocacy and the socialist causes of its organizational parent, Consumers Union, their editorial approach towards coffee ironically encourages a great deal of consumer, social, and environmental regression. By focusing exclusively on what we call the “ghetto” market of mass-produced, minimal-profit-margin coffees, Consumer Reports is effectively dismissing higher quality coffees — coffees that stand to not only raise the bar for consumer taste buds, but also to improve the social, economic, and environmental conditions for where these coffees might be sustainably grown. Their reviews don’t encourage aspirational coffees at value-oriented prices; rather, they keep their readers constrained to lowest-common-denominator office coffee. I mean… K-Cups? Really?
Now it’s certainly not in Consumer Reports‘ agenda to promote expensive luxury coffees. But when it comes to automobiles, for example, they don’t exclusively review Hyundais while overlooking BMWs, Jaguars, and Volvos. Given how they treat coffee, it’s as if consumers get a public dialog about the best brand of canned green beans — all the while denying the existence of the better quality, and better environmental practices, behind the fresh produce variety. Or, as another analogy, it makes us believe that if Consumer Reports were to review wines, the only wines they’d promote would come in boxes.