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.

A Texan in New England

Today is my travel day to fly home to Texas and a warmer clime. I’ve spent nearly the last month in the cold northern regions of New England, and I survived all that Mother Nature threw at me and the good citizens of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York.

Downtown Keene, town square

Most of you are probably thinking the shock of sub-freezing temperatures and lots of the fluffy white stuff and occasional frozen sheets would have done me in, as they say. But I grew up playing in the cold winters of Chicago and briefly Boston, so while this old body has not been recently exposed to cold winters, it’s not an entirely new gig for me.

Cold is what I called the Christmas season in ’83 I spent outside of Fargo, North Dakota where the temperature dipped to 40 below zero during the day…and that’s not wind chill folks, that’s temperature. At that frigid number the rubber on tires freezes in place requiring very slow driving until the rubber warms up or the tires may shatter. At that frigid level you get outside survival times reported on the TV news as nonchalantly as we get allergy reports in South Texas. And at that frigid number you get frosted ice on windows and doorknobs…on the inside of the house…where it’s a toasty 75 degrees except for an inch or so away from said windows and doorknobs.

winter-icicles.jpgBut the cold I experienced in New Hampshire, et al, on this trip was still a shock and something my body had to adjust to so I could survive. Unfortunately there wasn’t much in the way of snowfall, but there were still a few days the snow stayed around long enough to treat me to a quintessential New England winter wonderland on the couple of drives we took through the countryside. And as I was reminded, it’s one thing to visit briefly and enjoy the front-end of winter, the “pretty” part without the back end when everyone gets stir-crazy from the long cold days and longer dark nights. By the time the spring slushes come the locals are more than ready to stop seeing snow and ice every time they venture outside.

winter-swing.jpgAs these pictures show, there’s little else that makes a scene photogenic than a little white snow that covers all sins and makes even the most mundane scene spectacular, especially if one’s winters are essentially forever brown. Simple geological elements such as seeping springs through blasted hillsides along roads become amazing displays of ice artistry. I snapped these pictures of the ice falls below along highway 12 during a light snowstorm, and through the excitement of framing different shots I lost track of how cold it was. Upon jumping back into the heated car, my fingers were like icicles. Note to self: find some of those gloves without fingertips if I’m going to run around outside in the cold snapping pictures.

winter-hydrant.jpgLiving with all the cold and snow and ice seems like an arduous task to anyone who normally resides in a warmer part of the country. New Englanders of course have not only been putting up with but surviving winter after winter since this country was first settled. The picture at right is a good example of adapting: the white-red banded sticks alert snow plow drivers to a fire hydrant’s presence (and no doubt the same for fireman if needed). Mention you’re from Texas to these hardy folks and they wonder out loud how you survive the heat, thinking that more difficult than their New England winters. Humans can adjust to most anything, and when I moved down from Chicago to Austin, Texas for college I remember initially agreeing that cold Chicago winters were easier to survive than the oppressive summer heat of Austin.

keene-sidewalks.jpgGiven a choice, I’d rather live where there’s winter for that means life moves through the different seasons and time is marked by the changes in nature. I’ve written before how I dearly miss living with seasons, and after tasting a bit of white winter this trip, that desire is even stronger. As I work this year towards become an independent writer, perhaps I’m coming closer to the day when I’ll be the one living in a winter wonderland, hosting visiting Texans, and quietly smiling when they ask how I can stand all the cold and snow. Until then, I’ll have to revisit my photo album from this year’s winter New England trip for my winter dreams.

Roadside ice wall from seepage

Close-up, roadside ice wall from seepage