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Back to the Grind: George Howell Coffee

Posted by on 05 Dec 2012 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Despite the article’s cringe-laden writing, it was nice to see coffee legend George Howell getting a write-up in this month’s Boston Magazine: Back to the Grind: George Howell CoffeeBoston Articles.

Strike a pose with the pooch, George!If you don’t know who George Howell is, you may as well be drinking Maxwell House out of a dirty gym sock. His coffee legacy goes as far back as the 1970s where — in contrast to the industry drive for cheaper, more plentiful coffee at the time — George was a pioneer in selecting higher quality bean stocks and roasting them at different levels to bring out their finer qualities. He has old ties to Alfred Peet, of Peet’s Coffee & Tea fame, and the early days of Starbucks and CEO Howard Schultz — who ultimately watered down much of everything he stood for.

In more recent years, George was the brainchild behind the Cup of Excellence competitions. Today he’s forging his own coffee vision in Boston now that his non-compete clauses have finally expired.

That said, Mr. Howell is no stranger to controversy either. It’s ironic that Mr. Howell rightly dismisses the overly precious treatment coffee has been given lately — including the frivolous nature of latte art competitions (something we dearly agree with). Because he is also credited with inventing the beverage that essentially gave birth to the coffee-flavored milkshake: the Frappuccino. (Btw, the name frappuccino is derived from frappé, which most people forget is actually a Greek word. After all, the Greeks really did invent everything — including the art of saying you invented everything.)

George is only missing the obligatory white labcoat for this shot of him with a vac pot

All of which is made much more difficult to appreciate given the article’s hackneyed and superficial writing. It’s a bit of a predictable paint-by-numbers magazine bio piece, right down to an opening description of Mr. Howell’s attire on the day — which, btw, included the incredibly relevant “button-down shirt the color of orange sherbet”. The article insufferably regurgitates the retold version of this “third wave” business as perpetrated by the many terrorist cells of Third Wave hijackers. It also so wrongly fashions coffee cupping into some elevated consumer ritual for appreciating coffee — as if it were a realistic analogue to wine tasting.

And in comparing the basic ratio math of the ExtractMoJo to “the precision of a nuclear physicist”, it smacks of that scientifically ignorant “Golly gee whiz, Wilbur, you must need a PhD in chemical engineering to operate that vacuum pot!” cluelessness. It’s more of that dumbing down of honest science and math in America that’s usually reserved for Hollywood movies. (Note: I often have the urge to bitch slap “A Beautiful Mind” director, Ron “Opie” Howard, for introducing the infamous “String Theory” movie trope of representing math or complexity through pegboards interconnected by string and thumbtacks.)

But don’t let all that stop you from reading it. Just keep an airsickness bag at the ready to get through it.

Automating Mediocrity: The Saeco Syntia Focus Home Espresso Machine, Part II

Posted by on 23 Oct 2012 | Filed under: Add Milk, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Group head inside the Saeco Syntia FocusTwo months ago we reported on our trials with a superautomatic home espresso machine representing much of the state-of-the-art: the Philips Saeco Syntia Focus. Reading Saeco’s product literature and marketing communications, you’d be led to believe that this machine made “the perfect espresso” every time. But to most people who read our original post two months back, the Saeco committed unforgivable crimes against coffee.

The truth lies somewhere between those polar opposites. And now that we’ve had two months of regular use to better explore the machine’s merits and limitations, here we revisit this topic in greater detail.

The Robots Aren’t Winning

First of all, it’s critical to note that there’s very little (if anything) uniquely problematic with the Saeco Synthia Focus that you won’t also find in many of its up-market, superautomatic home espresso machine bretheren — whether they are made by the likes of Jura, Capresso (and now Jura-Capresso), Nespresso, or the decidedly more dubious Breville, DeLonghi, or (*gag*) Krups.

However, when talking about superautomatics for the home, the source of their coffee is a major differentiator within these product lines: there are coffee pod machines, and there are machines that use real coffee. That we use the term “real” coffee — to differentiate what most people recognize as coffee from anything that comes packaged in a proprietary system of cartridges — is only partly facetious.

Pakma Lakshmi pimps Nespresso for the massesPod machine coffee may be marketed and priced as if it were elite quality coffee, but in truth it is arguably just a step up from instant coffee. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi may have signed on as ambassador to Nespresso. But since Nespresso is pre-ground coffee produced by the world’s largest food conglomerate, she may as well be the ambassador to Del Monte canned peas.

Any coffee brewing system with the option of using whole bean coffee, ground to order, and where the consumer can vouch for the coffee’s roast date, should theoretically have a massive freshness advantage over its pod machine competition. Except that’s not exactly what happens in practice. The Saeco Syntia Focus has this great advantage. But like many of its peers, it squanders it — producing espresso shots that hardly seem like an improvement over pod coffee. Most visibly notable is how sickly pale the crema is on the shots it produces.

Genesis of a sickly pale espresso shot with the Saeco Syntia Focus

The Sickly Pale Crema: Bane to All Superautomatic Home Machines

To improve the shots, we took advantage of several machine adjustments: setting the built-in grinder to its finest grind, setting the volume of coffee deposited in its filter basket to its maximum, and reducing the overall volume of the shots. The first shot the machine produces after powering up is always a ghostly pale blonde and is rather insipid. So we let its built-in “Adapting System” tune itself to the coffee with a few successive shots, which do noticeably improve to a crema that’s slightly fuller, darker, and with more texture that might even include microbubbles.

Hence one of the myths we discovered about superautomatic espresso machines: despite their promise of robotic consistency, the shots are somewhat variable.

Yet despite all of our improvement measures, the best shots we could muster with the Saeco Syntia Focus quite literally paled in comparison to the routine shots we pulled with our Gaggia G106 Factory (with a new brass piston) + Mazzer Mini home set-up. Once we fixed our old home machine, we used a four-day-old roast of The Boss from Barefoot Coffee Roasters to run side-by-side experiments. The flavor and body of the Saeco shots didn’t measure up to the Gaggia pulls, but the visual difference was even more dramatic.

Espresso shots pulled of a 4-day-old roast of The Boss: left with the Gaggia, right with the SaecoAs if the question isn’t rhetorical, which of the two espresso shots looks more appealing in the photo at left? Hint: a friend pointed out that the shot made with the Gaggia “looks like cocoa”. The other shot looks like weak drip coffee mixed with milk. Meanwhile, a brochure that comes with the Saeco (called a “Passport”) states that the crema “should be hazelnut brown with occasional darker shades.”

Despite our Saeco machine adjustments, clearly something is wrong with its extraction. We managed to rule out the Saeco’s built-in grinder as a major problem, as the Saeco offers an option to bypass its grinder with pre-ground coffee. Using our Mazzer Mini, we poured fresh grinds of the same coffee directly into the machine and didn’t notice a significant difference in the resulting shots.

After a lot of trial and error, we narrowed down the Saeco’s failures to brewing times. After a pre-infusion of around 4.5 seconds, the machine runs an extraction for only about 10.7-11.3 seconds. This is significantly less than the 20-second-plus extraction times recommended in most reputable espresso guides. And unfortunately, extraction time is one variable that the Saeco machine does not let you adjust. (A Saeco customer support woman in Ohio attempted to follow up with us to help “correct” our problems, but she never returned our call.)

While the pressure of espresso extraction certainly accelerates the necessary 3-4 minute brew times of proper coffee-to-water contact in a pour-over cup, a mere 11 seconds is far too little brewing time for espresso. We’ve recently seen reviews boasting of a coffee machine’s 45-second end-to-end brewing times, and here the Saeco Syntia Focus requires a mere 33 seconds from button-push to serving.

This is akin to a hospital’s maternity ward boasting that you can have your baby there in only 7 months. Premature babies are bad, and so is premature espresso. Is waiting 10 more seconds that unreasonable to get a properly extracted espresso? How is this a selling point?

Shot of The Boss made from the Gaggia G106 Factory One of the best shots we could pull with the Saeco Syntia Focus

And yet we continue to use the Saeco quite a lot

Despite its obvious quality limitations, we honestly like the Saeco machine and have even grown somewhat fond of it. We still use it quite a lot and even look forward to the so-so espresso that it produces. Why we still use it is largely a matter of push-button convenience. Call it “laziness” or less time spent making acceptable espresso.

Because time is money, despite what the home finance trolls keep telling us. Even the pod machines aren’t quite as convenient as the Saeco, because you can go through several rounds of push-button espresso before having to empty out the tray of spent pucks.

Spent grounds caking up inside the Saeco Syntia FocusBut speaking of spent grounds, the Saeco is far from “self-cleaning”. It’s a bit like automating your own sloppy minimum wage employee, given the internal mess you have to clean up every few days.

The Saeco’s product designers clearly took some shortcuts on keeping it clean back there: the black plastic and embedded compartment make visibility of any coffee ground mess particularly difficult to see without a small flashlight, and the stuff accumulates in the oddest random corners. Let it accumulate too long, and the machine will jam up like a printer — continually spitting perfectly fine ground coffee into its spent puck dumpster, with only a momentary warning light flashing just before nothing comes out of its brew head. Then the lights proudly tell you the machine is ready to brew another shot.

This is perhaps the most aggravating thing about the machine: the “Saeco Adapting System” will waste multiple shots of your best new coffee beans — immediately dumping them in the spent grounds litter bin without even extracting so much as an ounce of coffee — while it tries to adjust itself to the new coffee. There are few things more agonizingly wasteful than seeing your prized, expensive coffee beans being ground up and spit out in a wet, dirty waste bin for several cycles with no indication of when it might decide to produce any espresso.

Surprisingly decent milk frothing from the Saeco Syntia FocusOne surprise was that its milk frothing, with its wacky pannarello wand attachment, is surprisingly good — blowing away my Gaggia G106 Factory in terms of steam pressure and foam consistency.

All things considered, we still wouldn’t pay more than $350 for the Saeco — despite its $1,000 retail price tag. And even for that money, we would rather have a simple, used Rancilio Silvia. Despite its obvious conveniences, we’re reluctant to put top-quality coffee in the Saeco. We certainly wouldn’t waste our best home roasting labors on the mediocre espresso it produces. Fresh roasted beans do make a difference, but beans of the highest quality are largely lost on this machine.

Thus there’s a sort of arrogant hubris to the Saeco Syntia Focus and virtually all of its $1,000 superautomatic home machine competitors. Consumers are promised the “perfect” espresso every time by these devices, and for a cool grand who wouldn’t expect that? But clearly these machines have not benchmarked themselves against what’s long been possible among home espresso enthusiasts.

Instead, what consumers get is closer to Starbuckshome Verismo machine — a home version of the automated push-button espresso experience that CEO Howard Schultz arguably said sucked the soul out of the company several years ago. Rather than offering technology and features that enable home consumers to enjoy the wealth of freshly roasted, top-quality coffee varieties now available on the market, consumers are given the bland, mass-produced experience common to any of 40,000 identical cafés. Worst of all, these home machine manufacturers tell consumers that this is perfection — and that consumers thus have no need to aspire for anything better than the mediocrity they offer.


UPDATE: November 16, 2012
Because we will still continue to experiment despite expecting the least encouraging results, we finally discovered a coffee that really excelled in the Saeco Syntia Focus: Stumptown Coffee Roasters‘ Grand Cru Guatemala Finca La Injerto – La Cima.

This was a bit of a shock, given previous underwhelming results. Grand Cru coffees mark one of the true differentiators for whole bean machines like the Syntia Focus over their pod-based brethren: the world’s elite coffees simply do not have the supply volume to make them a viable option for packaging, mass distribution, and mass production in coffee pods.

Blossom Coffee brewer at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012

Posted by on 12 Sep 2012 | Filed under: Machine, Starbucks

Sometimes life surprises you when what seem like different compartmentalized aspects of it suddenly cross over. Such was the case today where, at one of the more famous technology start-up conferences here in San Francisco, I stumbled across a team building prototype coffeemaking equipment who were performing demonstrations. The company is SF-based Blossom Coffee Inc., and they’re building what they believe is the rightful successor to the Clover brewer — which just a few years back, over the period of several months, essentially entered and left the premium coffee world like a comet.

Does this “TechCrunch” stay crispy in milk?

First: a little background. You see, my “day job” is doing entrepreneurial work to get an education technology start-up off the ground. The coffee thing is largely a rather indulgent hobby with occasional fringe benefits. And the TechCrunch Disrupt conference focuses on technology start-ups with the lofty intent of “disrupting” many of the existing ways of doing business. It’s part wannabe terrorist camp — with targets of economic business models instead of the soft bodies of civilians — and part religious revival — with many attendees trying to prove their worthiness to be a part of, and not subject to, the destruction ahead that leads to salvation within the next “regime”.

Like Blossom Coffee, on Monday I was pitching my start-up on the conference showroom floor. But today (Wednesday) the conference devoted the floor to hardware companies of all kinds.

Add electro disco beat, serves 2,000 No, Houston, this isn't NASA mission control

Crowds in the conference showroom floor at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 at the SF Design Center Blossom Coffee Inc. at TechCrunch Disrupt

Attending a conference like this is a bit of a geek fest. Think of all the nerds in school who weren’t cool enough to start bands, so they started companies instead. Despite the thick layer of hubris at events like this, there are typically a few great ideas, many so-so ideas, and the majority are things none of us will probably ever see again in two years. And to peel off any self-important luster even further, you have to remember that building Web sites and mobile apps in SF today is a bit like building cars in Detroit was some 50 years ago.

That said, this year the conference attempted to emphasize both more international start-ups (I never knew so many Brazilian consumer wine Web sites existed) and start-ups featuring hardware products. Hence Blossom Coffee.

Doesn’t Blossom play Amy on The Big Bang Theory?

Coffee hardware start-ups are hardly new. The Clover Equipment Company was certainly one such example. Recent notable examples also include a Kickstarter project for a PID-controlled espresso machine and, like a bad acid flashback of 1998’s joke Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol, an espresso machine that takes orders by SMS texts.

Talking with Blossom President, Jeremy Kuempel, we connected over our past experience taking thermodynamics classes in engineering college. Except when Jeremy learned the Ideal gas law equation of PV=nRT, often demonstrated by illustrations of pressurized gas in a piston, Jeremy immediately thought to put coffee in the cylindrical chamber. Pretty cool.

Demonstrating a Blossom brewer at TechCrunch Disrupt Looking inside a prototype Blossom brewer at TechCrunch Disrupt

The primary goal of the Blossom Coffee brewer (the “Blossom One Limited”) is to succeed the Clover brewer in its degree of digitally configurable, stable temperature control. With a +/-2% accuracy from 160-212℉, it may not be coffee sous-vide just yet — but it’s getting there. Using two highly functional prototypes with La Marzocco group heads, Jeremy and team were experimenting for passersby at the event with some 16 pounds of coffee from Highwire Coffee Roasters. In addition to demonstrating some of the visual “romance” that’s important to high-end pressurized brewing equipment, Jeremy also hinted at some of the WiFi-enabled digital reading and control features planned for the brewer (recipe downloading, fleet management, etc.).

Jeremy (right) posing with the fully designed end product casing for the Blossom brewer at TechCrunch DisruptAlongside the working prototypes at their station was a rather sexy finished casing for the proposed end product, as they currently are only accepting pre-orders. They are initially targeting small, high quality coffee chains of some 5-10 stores each. And the taste in the resulting cup seemed promising.

We’ve seen attempted successors to the Clover brewer before — even from Clover. Now we may love our old school pour-over coffee, but anything that gets us to think once again about moving beyond the 104-year-old practice of manual pour-over brewing in today’s cutesy name of “slow coffee” (blech) is a welcome addition in our books. Traditions are good; having few viable alternatives after over a century is not. That’s not so much “slow coffee” as “inertia coffee.”

Thus we hope to find a Blossom brewer soon at a coffee shop near us.

UPDATE: Sept. 29, 2012
Quite a litany of newsfeeds picked up the story of Blossom today with this example bit of press from one of the feeders: What a drip! NASA and Apple alums engineer $11,111 coffee maker | Mail Online. Knowing that reporters are generally clueless about coffee and the prices of espresso machines — and thus they eat dollar-figures up given their lack of any other descriptive adjectives — the quoted $11,111 figure reads like deliberate idiot bait.

If so, these Blossom guys are more clever than we thought; they’ve made an insider’s joke that knows all too well what buttons to push for a news item to propel itself across the Internet via meme theory. Send in the trolls!

On Kent Bakke of Seattle’s La Marzocco

Posted by on 20 Feb 2012 | Filed under: Machine, Starbucks

Yesterday’s Seattle Times wrote up a decent piece on Kent Bakke of Seattle La Marzocco fame: Business & Technology | Local coffee world reveres this pioneer | Seattle Times Newspaper. Mr. Bakke’s history with espresso heralds back to the late 1970s when he began importing and distributing La Marzocco machines from Italy.

Kent Bakke of La Marzocco in SeattleThings were quiet until 1984, when Starbucks came calling for his machines and a Peet’s Coffee in San Francisco soon followed suit. (Over the years, Seattle Times columnist Melissa Allison has proven herself unable to write an article about coffee without devoting large portions of it to Starbucks, and, well, this one is no different.)

After buying 90% of La Marzocco in 1994, he helped ramp up the local La Marzocco factory in Ballard, WA to the point where they were manufacturing 140 machines each month. Then in 2004, things came crashing down when Starbucks decided to throw in the towel on quality while trying to keep up with their rampant growth plans — ultimately replacing all their “grown up” espresso machines for push-button Verismo jobs that required little more than trained monkeys to operate.

La Marzocco has since recovered somewhat, even if it is currently under competitive pressure from the likes of Synesso (lead by former Bakke employee, Mark Barnett) and Slayer. The article also attempted to make out a La Marzocco controversy over the pricing of the GS/3 prosumer home machine in 2008. However, despite some rumblings from a few devoted loyalists with a lot of cash, that episode adds little weight to the story. In the world of espresso, the consumer market is virtually ignored if not outright dismissed by much of the professional espresso world.

Q & A with Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: L.A.’s Single Espresso Origin

Posted by on 09 Nov 2011 | Filed under: Add Milk, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Starbucks

Today’s L.A. Weekly featured an interesting bio-piece on father and son L.A. espresso pioneers, Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: Q & A with Ambrose and Guy Pasquini: L.A.’s Single Espresso Origin – Los Angeles Restaurants and Dining – Squid Ink. You might recognize the Pasquini name for some of their excellent home espresso machines. But the Pasquini family is credited with first introducing espresso to the L.A. area.

Pasquinis on display in the L.A. WeeklySome of the more interesting details from the piece:

  • Their initial business was first frequented by espresso-starved Hungarians.
  • In the early days, they even got some of their espresso from SF’s Caffé Trieste.
  • From the beginning, only about 3% of their customers ordered espresso. The bulk was cappuccino and caffe latte.
  • Starbucks coming on the scene helped popularize their business. Well, it was good for business, but “it wasn’t good for quality.”

And while the Pasquinis are rolling with the superautomatic and Nespresso machine punches, we were particularly intrigued by their reaction to La Marzocco. To quote:

La Marzocco did a wonderful job convincing people that only certain machines can make a good coffee. … They did a wonderful job convincing the [specialty] barista that that is the state of the art.

It’s a bit of a back-handed compliment — less to their equipment-building prowess, and more to La Marzocco’s marketing ability to build anxieties and insecurities within specialty baristas.

Which explains a little of the ambivalence we feel when we witness the likes of a Sightglass fawning over the latest coffee toy fads on the market. It’s one thing to be enamored with trendy equipment. But it’s another to rely on it as a cover up for a lack of sweat and hard-work that goes into optimizing with the equipment you’ve got.

Starbucks’ covert social marketing efforts continue to punk the presses with new Starbucks card campaign

Posted by on 10 Aug 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Starbucks

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.

My Starbucks Card -- a new covert social marketing programAnd 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.

Starbucks pleads the fifth, opting for plausible deniability should Mobiquity take the fall

Oops -- Mobility forgets that the Internet cannot be turned off, even if you tryFor 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.

Lights Out in London

Posted by on 11 Apr 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

This has to be one of the most clueless stunts we have ever seen anyone perform in the name of the professional quality coffee trade. Coinciding with the first London Coffee Festival, some ad wizards came up with the genius idea of having 100 UK baristas churn out a Guinness World Record 12,005 espressos in one hour. Worse still, they celebrate this orgy of mass-produced gluttony as if it were an accomplishment rather than an embarassment: Newswire / UK Baristas Smash Aussie World Record At London Coffee Festival 2011 – Beverage/Wine – Allegra Strategies | NewswireToday.

Because nothing says 'quality' like making world-record quantities of the stuffIt’s been a long time since we’ve encountered a better definition of the ol’ *facepalm*. Here we have a quality-focused industry of small independents struggling to find relevancy in the face of corporate coffee behemoths such as Starbucks. To those ends, they have turned to the language of artisan coffee, individual pour-overs with an attention to detail, the term “craft coffee,” and flowery, self-congratulating prose about the so-called Third Wave.

Instead, what we get is a competition that honors espresso-making like a factory that mass-produces vats of industrial lubricant. And Lord knows nothing says “quality” like “quantity”. Even better: quantity rushed to the point of setting world records.

Apparently, much of the discredit goes to Jeffrey Young, Managing Director of consultancy Allegra Strategies, who revels at the UK besting Australia in the PR Hall of Shame: “This record is a tremendous achievement and really shows the rest of the world London’s leadership in artisan ‘Third Wave’ coffee culture. London offers best-in-class food and coffee with many visitors coming here to learn from trends in this great city.”

Thank you, London. Apparently someone forgot to mention that the Third Wave is about how you can produce over 140 gallons of espresso in an hour.

The Onion: Starbucks Is 40

Posted by on 30 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Café Society, Starbucks

It’s been a while since we posted something specifically about Starbucks. Yes, they still exist. Their CEO, Howard Schultz, is currently promoting a book, published yesterday, called Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul.

If you mentally have to go back to the Clinton administration to remember when Starbucks last had something resembling a soul, you are not alone. But Schultz’s book message is that Starbucks was in financial dire straits with the economic collapse, and it is now making the most triumphant of comebacks. Apparently if you fall into a 20-foot-deep financial sinkhole for a few years, and in the last year you manage to climb your way five feet back up the sinkhole wall, that’s cause for a new book about your miraculous comeback. Even if you’re still stuck in a 15-foot hole compared to where you were a few years ago.

Birthday cakes have been made in celebration of Starbucks turning 40Along with this book release, this month Starbucks celebrates their 40th anniversary. Meanwhile, Peet’s Coffee & Tea has signage up celebrating their 45th. In the spirit of Starbucks buying out anybody who attempts to outdo them, it’s hardly a surprise that there are now rumors about Starbucks buying Peet’s.

Today the comic newspaper, The Onion, put their spin on Starbucks’ anniversary with this infographic: Starbucks Is 40 | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source. Some bullets of note:

  • 2002: Responding to complaints that its coffee tastes bitter and burned, Starbucks releases Metal Machine Roast, the chain’s most perversely unpalatable brew to date
  • 2007: Following the success of its music and book sales, Starbucks begins offering life insurance, tax preparation, and living wills

The 10 Types of Commenters on Coffee Articles

Posted by on 02 Mar 2011 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Home Brew, Machine, Roasting, Starbucks

Over the years we’ve read a lot of coffee articles. And ever since feedback forms became commonplace on the Internet, we’ve also read a lot of user comments on these posts. At least enough for us to identify 10 common archetypes among coffee article commenters on the Internet — analogous to the ever-popular coffee shop customer archetypes.

Commenters on coffee articles often fall into distinct cliques — many of them rather nonsensical. Just look at Erin Meister’s Serious Eats post last week on the cost of coffee. Not surprisingly, former U.S. barista champ, Kyle Glanville, described it simply as “great post, silly comments

So here’s to creating a lexicon so we can all say next time, “Stop being such a #6.”

1. The Starbucks Fire Marshall

Tastes like... burning!Like a mutant cross between Tourette Syndrome and a drinking game, these commenters cannot help themselves whenever someone posts something that includes “the S word.” No matter what context or circumstances for the article, we get their reflexive reply: “Starbucks tastes burnt!”

Doesn’t matter if it’s a Wall Street Journal article discussing their quarterly earnings or the latest police blotter reporting on yet another vehicle unable to resist the siren song of a Starbucks’ storefront window. This comment is also frequently offered with an air of implied revelation — akin to Charlton Heston’s infamous, “Soylent green is people!” (Sorry if we ruined that for you.)

2. The Daily Coffee Affirmation with Senator Stuart Smalley

It’s hard to believe that a someone’s self-worth could be called into question by something as trivial as another person’s choice of beverage, but these commenters face this very existential quandary. For them, coffee is still a raw, generic commodity — like kerosene. Hence 1950s truck stop coffee was good enough for grandpa and it’s good enough for us. Anyone who suggests or believes otherwise is part of a social conspiracy.

This conspiracy takes on two dimensions. The first involves separating fools from their money. Yet this is insufficient to explain why these commenters so viscerally exclaim that anybody who pays more than $1 for a cup of coffee is a moron. If it were merely this, any half-lucid person would keep their mouths shut in order to keep fleecing those fools all the way to early retirement.

Senator Smalley approves of your coffee choicesWhich leads us to the second dimension of the conspiracy: these commenters are also reacting to a perceived sense of class warfare. One man’s threat is another man’s double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.

Rather than admit that “fancy coffee” isn’t their thing and they don’t really get it — the way that some of us don’t get kombucha or Russell Brand — projecting this social unease on those “idiots” paying for expensive coffee is a means of self-affirmation. “Because I’m good enough.. I’m smart enough.. and, doggone it, people like me!”

3. Coffee Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle

Speaking of conspiracies, this commenter archetype believes that the entire apparatus of the coffee industry was deliberately constructed by The Man as a means of enslaving and impoverishing coffee farmers. The actual concept that someone might actually consume and enjoy the end product is irrelevant.

Which explains Fair Trade, a sacred cow among these commenters. Like the TV trope, “think of the children!,” comments from this group focus almost exclusively on “think of the coffee farmer!” What they imply is that every person who touches coffee after it leaves the farm, including the various truck drivers and dockworkers working for pittance wages in coffee-growing nations, are blood-sucking parasites profiting off the backs of noble coffee farmers.

4. The Junkie

This commenter archetype views coffee exclusively as a performance-enhancing drug. When they encounter articles suggesting that there’s good or bad coffee, or that coffee might actually have a taste or flavor, you may as well ask your grandfather what’s his favorite crunkcore band; it’s just as alien.

Appealing to the malt liquor drinkers of the coffee worldWhen they’re drinking the coffee, these commenters could not care less if their coffee tastes like battery acid, and the idea of decaffeinated coffee seems utterly pointless. They are typically attracted to the malt liquor of the coffee world: coffees branded with wake-the-dead, crystal-meth-like psychoactive properties and the sinister names to match.

And if somebody else reports to drink coffee for its flavor, these commenters discount them as merely drug addicts in denial — kind of like the guy who says he buys Shaved Asian Beaver magazine only for the articles.

5. The Born-Again Junkie

Privileged white people haven’t had it easy. In today’s society of competitive victimhood and I’ve-suffered-more-than-you one-upmanship, some are lucky enough to experience the trauma of not getting into Harvard. Others aren’t so fortunate and have to resort to makeshift, bogus afflictions like “caffeine addition.”

Which brings us to the archetype of the recovered caffeine addict. These born-again commenters proselytize a lifestyle free of caffeine: “I once was a caffeine addict, but my life is so much better since I gave up coffee for yerba maté!” Like all lifestyle preachers, it’s not enough that they live with their own life choices — they must convince you to choose them too.

The dirty secret of this archetype is that, rather than face their demons, they are only hiding from the real problem in their lives — namely, their lack of self-control and inability to moderate themselves. Which makes them kind of like the gay man who joins the Catholic priesthood to “cure” himself of his homosexuality. (And we all know how well that works out.)

6. Reverend Home Roaster

Rev. Billy discovers the Gene Cafe coffee roasterHome roasting has been around for over a millennium. Its latest generation, with more modern prosumer equipment, probably peaked about a decade ago. But it is a brand new phenomenon for many. Often those who have discovered home roasting in the past year seem particularly afflicted with a brand of religious zealotry when posting comments on coffee articles.

Whether the article is about the cost of coffee, a Cup of Excellence competition, or even the pour-over brewing device of the month, the comment box is an irresistible platform (read: soapbox) to preach a sort of home roasting gospel. “It’s better than you can buy!” “It’s cheaper to do it yourself!” “It’s so easy, a caveman can do it!” One popular sermon is the Legend of the $5 Hot Air Popcorn Popper: “I have seen the promised land, and it is a West Bend Poppery II!”

You’ll have to excuse us if we don’t start selling off all our worldly possessions in anticipation of the home roasting Rapture. Yes, we like home roasting. It’s kind of a fun hobby from time to time. And yes, we understand that, by golly, you really like this new home roasting thing. We also like Benecio del Toro, but we don’t use the comment thread on a Cup of Excellence article to proselytize his merits as an actor and movie producer. The key to sales is relevancy — that goes whether you’re selling mortgage-backed securities or a home roasting lifestyle.

7. The MacGruber

Somewhere coffee comes out of the end of this contraptionThe MacGruber represents another kind of commenter with a DIY fetish — except that this archetype sees the DIY ethos as a form of social currency. Less idealistic and more self-interested than Rev. Home Roaster, the MacGruber comments on coffee articles to boast of their exploits building traveling espresso machines out of bike parts or attaching PID controllers to portafilter handles. In this regard, they’re a bit like those guys with gold chains and silk shirts who boast of their sexual conquests in laser-filled nightclubs. The difference being that most rational people would be socially embarrassed if confused for a MacGruber.

Given the choice between spending $35,000 on a new BMW or on a used Honda Civic and tricking it out with accessories over the next four years, the MacGruber will invariably choose the Civic. This might lead others to believe there’s something fatally flawed with the Civic. But this archetype also has an obsession with reinventing the wheel. We fondly recall one MacGruber who wrote up an elaborate post on how he converted his Vacu Vin wine-stopper into a coffee preservation system — blissfully ignorant that Vacu Vin has been making “coffee saver” systems for years that are available for $10 on Amazon.com.

8. The Dumpster® Diver

Coffee sale!!!Like The MacGruber, posts from this commenter archetype are about establishing social currency. Except here the currency is scoring a kilo of Colombian for the ridiculously low price of $1.99 a pound at Sam’s Club. As if to jab a hot fork in the eyes of Fair Trade advocates, this archetype boasts about their competitive place in the race to zero-cost, zero-conscience, quality-free coffee.

When this archetype isn’t posting about how much they’ve saved on coffee, they’re frequently long on ideas for using spent coffee grounds to Spackle® bathroom tiles. And if you’re lucky, you’ll avoid their frequent posts about how they bought their new car with the Dumpsters® full of cash they saved by making coffee at home instead of going to Starbucks.

9. The No Coffee Left Behind Act

Whether you’ve tried the coffee at three hundred different places or just three, most people have their favorite coffee. A large number of comments on coffee articles consist of personal endorsements of the coffee from a specific roaster, coffee shop, or home brewing contraption. As an anonymous poster put it on Boing Boing this week:

Every comment thread about coffee contains: (1) someone mentioning how great their home roasted coffee is; (2) a plug for a cafe not mentioned in the article.

Maybe we could just assume the existence of these kinds of comments from now on, with no need to actually post them?

But if we all assumed that, what would there be left to talk about? Hence this archetype of commenters who actively police various online media sources, ensuring their favorite coffee sources don’t suffer the egregious injustice of being omitted from a coffee article.

Some may take the additional step of attempting to elevate their pet coffee by dissing on the various coffee sources mentioned in the article. For example, this archetype frequently engages in slagging on quoted coffee shops for their pretentiousness, for the hipsters who work there, and over the fact that the owners cover their electrical outlets. Basically: all of the ridiculous stuff that’s the irreverent lifeblood of Yelp ratings.

10. The Jaded, Crotchety Blogger

This archetype believes they have seen it/done it long before you even heard of it/thought about it. And despite their whiny complaints of coffee articles that dredge up old topics hashed out thousands of times before over the years, they still cannot look away and feel compelled to respond — like gawkers at a gruesome car accident.

Yes, we’re making fun of ourselves this time. Because if it sounds like we’ve seen it all before, quite sadly we literally have seen it all before. Do you realize what kind of petty life you must lead to have read every coffee article ever written on the Internet? How about so pathetic, you come up with a list of 10 types of commenters on coffee articles.

When is coffee a beverage or not a beverage?

Posted by on 19 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Two articles in the news yesterday highlighted a bit of our thinking about a major divide in coffee formats: espresso and filter coffee. The Puget Sound Business Journal interviewed the sometimes-controversial Illy man, Giorgio Milos: Illy’s master barista challenges us to take a fresh look at Starbucks, Tully’s | Puget Sound Business Journal. The other article was from London’s Financial Times: FT.com / Food & Drink – The trend: Filter coffee.

Much of what’s there has been said before, except that Mr. Milos nailed a key point with this opening statement: “Espresso is not a beverage.”

Last year Starbucks joked about the Plenta; this year they gave us the TrentaThis key distinction is critical to understanding good espresso. Without it, Americans suffer bitter, watery, over-extracted dreck. Compensating for the American “more equals better” approach has been the American latte or cappuccino that’s been drowned in large volumes of milk compared with the more typical European version. Alternatively, the American demand for volume — with an equivalent level of caffeine tolerance and quality — is now being met by the return of pour-over/filter coffee.

But let’s back up a step to be sure: what does it mean to say, “espresso is not a beverage”? Espresso is about an intense, concentrated, rather fleeting taste or experience. It is not about quenching your thirst, 44-oz Super Big Gulp style (or two-hour mug style). It’s not about washing down your scone or lingering, Parisian style, in a café over a copy of Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. Espresso is the amuse-bouche of the coffee world; satiety has no place.

The Cheesecake Factory: where one chicken bellagio can feed you for an entire day's worth of caloriesExcept satiety plays a massive role in the American ethos towards food and drink. When Americans speak of “value” consumption, we’re almost always obsessed with volume more than we are with quality. Dollar for dollar, we are more disappointed being served amazing food that might leave our 34% obese population still able to walk than we are with mediocre food that buries us alive in avalanche-level quantities. See: the American popularity of The Cheesecake Factory.

What this means is the resurgence of filter coffee (in higher quality forms) should do quite well from a cultural popularity standpoint. This trend may be a retread, but it stands to have far more cultural impact here than espresso ever could. We just hope that the minority of us still demented enough to prefer our flavors in short, concentrated doses continue to reap the benefits too. So please: no more pour-over bars that deliberately eschew espresso machines.

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