The Taming of the Bean

Before my recent trip to New England, I frequented Starbucks more often than any other coffee shop: the damn things are everywhere. I admit to the lure of Starbucks’ ambiance, convenience, and the enticing available wi-fi at most locations. And since they’ve become a ubiquitous part of our consumer landscape, thinking is not required: simply drive the car and you’ll stumble across one within 10 minutes. Like the disappearance of good bookstores, the virus that is Starbucks is quietly, slowly, obliterating old-fashioned coffee shops the same callous way mega-bookstores endanger independent booksellers.

When we decided to visit New York, friends told me on how we’d enjoy stopping at the ever-present local coffee shops as we walked the streets of Manhattan. Truth is, we had to really search to find coffee places in Midtown. Sure, there was a Starbucks on nearly every block, but locally owned coffee shops had all but disappeared. We did manage to find them, but sadly, only a few.

coolbeans.jpgDespite the fact that my taste in coffee is newly developed, I’ve come to realize that I don’t like Starbucks coffee. Sure, their $5 concoctions are delightful, but their straight coffee as well as espresso is, well, not very good (in my opinion). On this last trip I vowed to taste better coffee and although a difficult task, finally found it…

  • Dwelling in the haute-bean atmosphere of Burdick’s in Cambridge,
  • Hiding in the flavor of Vermont’s Cool Beans Gourmet Coffee sipped in a restored mill in Keene, NH,
  • Brewing for the enjoyment of the students and good citizens of Keene at Brewbaker’s Coffee Bar,
  • Savoring nicely within the roasted-on-site coffees of Keene’s Prime Roast coffee house,
  • And quietly lurking out of Starbucks’ radar in the brews of the Trident Bookstore & Cafe in Boston (pix below).

Even the simple, but busy, neighborhood plain-name coffee shop at the north end of Central Park in New York where we parked our exhausted selves one afternoon had better tasting coffee than anything I’ve ever had at Starbucks (excluding the White Chocolate Mocha number, of course!).


Truth is, from my perspective, Starbucks has sold America on itself like every other mega-corporation does in this country. It didn’t become the king of beans by offering a good cup o’ joe at a great price (although a friend tells me the original pre-franchise Seattle Starbucks tasted much better than the over-burnt, over-priced mud they serve now); it didn’t buy out and push out the corner coffee shops by being a better thing. No, Starbucks has steamrolled its way around our world based on sheer corporatemanship, clever branding, and positioning itself as the place to be. Some of you, I realize, may defend Starbucks and think their coffee is good, but if so I have to question whether that opinion is based on drinking their coffee normally or under the influence of latteing, frappuccinoing, or mocha-malting your way through their menu. One could brew a pot of Maxwell House (considered fairly bad coffee by most) and dump in cream, sugared flavoring, then top with caramel syrup, whipped cream, and sprinkles and I think you’d taste nearly the same thing.

In the end it’s a matter of personal taste, so I won’t begrudge anyone who thinks Starbucks is the best coffee (or even argues that it’s good coffee). But I will argue that their fast-dance across America (and internationally) while plowing under what used to be a colorful and diverse selection of local coffee shops is just plain wrong. But then, what Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Barnes & Noble, et al, does is just plain wrong too…not that anyone is paying attention to the disappearance of retail diversity, of course.

5 thoughts on “The Taming of the Bean

  1. Gary, good post. I visited Starbucks (one in my neighborhood) just a few weeks back to meet a friend, and was reminded how burnt and average their straight brewed coffee really is.

    I’ve been more impressed with the few local shops here in Milwaukee (Stone Creek, Alterra) and even with the medium-high quality beans we’ve been brewing lately at home (Victor Allen’s Breakfast Blend decaf and Dunkin Donuts decaf).

    I think the next time I do go to Starbucks (which I do on occasion to get out of the home office) I’m going to order Tazo tea rather than coffee.

    As to Starbucks knocking out local shops, yes, it is too bad. I suppose it’s the darker side of popularity, that once something is dicovered and marketed to the mainstream, the best variation doesn’t survive, rather the most average or mediocre variations do. Here in Milwaukee we’re fortunate to have many indy coffee shops yet, I do hope they can stick around.

  2. Thanks, Mike. If you like sweet drinks, try their hot Chai, but ask for “all soy.” Delightful, but again, sweet. Unfortunately as rents rise and Starbucks move in, I’m afraid it will be difficult for indies to survive. But I’ll try to do my part to keep them brewing!

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