Sunday, March 30, 2008

Grounds For Optimism

Prompted, albeit somewhat indirectly by Duncan, but mostly by dint of having dinner on Friday evening with some Catalan acquaintances, my thoughts have turned to the subject of coffee.

I don't consider myself to be a coffee geek, but I suppose I probably am, at least to some extent. You see, I like my coffee. Very much. It kick-starts the morning for me, it finishes a meal at night, it picks me up during the day. When I moved back into my flat over Christmas, I had my laptop, a 3G datacard, a radio, some basic food essentials and a borrowed cafetière. Some people sneak off during the day for cigarette breaks – I do likewise for a cup with the luxuriant crema floating atop the rich, dark liquid below.

I don't grind my own coffee – that seems like far too much effort, and in any case, it's hard to get it to the right level of fineness for my espresso maker to deal with. Too coarse, and you get a hideous, watery amber-tinged bilge. Too fine, and the 'coffee' will be the person sat next to you as you struggle to prevent a choking fit. Other people do it better on an industrial scale, so mine just comes vacuum-packed from the supermarket.

My thing for coffee started when I was about 5. I loved the smell, and since my parents drank a fair amount of instant at home and it seemed the grown-up thing to do, I started on fairly weak stuff. By my teens, though, we'd moved onto using a cafetière, since other methods like percolators and filter machines were a lot of hassle and usually made far too much. I took this relationship away with me to university, only to begin a torrid affair with a svelte Italian stove-top espresso maker instead. They're a dirt cheap way to make great coffee, but I managed to burn my fingers just once too often for it to be anything more than a short-term dalliance.

My current squeeze is an espresso machine with shiny chrome and a steam nozzle which cost me all of £40. I’d gone into the shop armed with more money than sense and with the intention of buying a Gaggia machine or similar, but came back with something every bit as good but a tenth of the price. Given the high street price of coffee, it probably paid for itself after a fortnight… and the house always smells great now too.

But let's return to Friday's dinner. We ordered our espressos, which prompted one member of the group to say how impressed he was at the number of places you could get a good coffee in the UK, but how much he disliked the chains like Starbucks, Costa and Café Nero, which he felt were stifling the market. Now, I'm none too fond of these places either, but I had to disagree with him. Here's why.

In Barcelona, or just about anywhere else in the south of Europe for that matter, there's a great bar and café culture. Small independent family businesses might vary in quality, but most serve the best food and drink they can at the best price they can. If a big coffee chain crashes in with a big marketing budget and an appeal to the young, that's all put at risk as people are, at least for a time, drawn to the fashionable new place with its prime location, funky coloured furniture and wi-fi. People want to buy into the 'experience' and 'lifestyle' they associate with these outlets – something which the 'mom and pop' type of places find difficult to deal with.

Which might be true in large parts of Europe, but not I think here. For years, people all over the British Isles have been prepared to accept the most dreadful crud when it comes to food and drink. In the 80's, coffee was thought to be good if it came with an individualised plastic filter with gothic writing on the side. More usually, it came filter-brewed and in a pot which had been on the go for so long that the liquid inside was in danger of caramelising. In short, more often than not, coffee was expensive, its preparation an afterthought and almost uniformly, it tasted pretty foul.

What Starbucks and others have done, at least to my eyes, is raised expectations and tastes. We now spend far more on coffee than we ever did before, and we buy better when we do – the demand curve shifting to the right, as the economists would say. Starbucks has arguably over-expanded and is now closing outlets. Meanwhile, the little guy has gone out and spent a few thousand pounds on a decent espresso machine for his café, and now serves great coffee made individually to order. And judging by the number of stylish independent cafés which seem to litter our high streets now, it's something which Joe Public seems to like as well.

For me, places like Starbucks provide a pretty humdrum, dull uniformity, and I always tried to avoid them in my telecommuting days for that reason. You know whatever you get is going to be all right, but they feel kind of soulless in a way that no amount of perky staff, promo CDs and armchairs decked out in leather or fabrics of primary colours can overcome. Meanwhile, I see a revival of a lot of small businesses, all of them serving great coffee. And it just wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Starbucks and their marketing spend making us realise how we were being ripped off by poor quality, and forcing everyone else to raise their game.

It's ironic that Starbucks might not be the ones who really benefit from their present ubiquity long term, but that's the way the oversized chocolate chip cookie crumbles sometimes. It might be the early bird which gets the worm, but in this case, it looks like it might have been the second mouse which got the cheese.

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