so, about Starbucks…..

…… they’re just not for me.

I have a good friend from Australia who is very passionate in his distaste for Starbucks.  If you innocently ask Nick what he thinks about the chain, you can sit back and enjoy the ensuing 20 minute soliloquy that includes great pride in Starbucks failing miserably when they expanded to Oz, how bad the coffee is, and in particular the odor emanating from their shops because “THEY.  BURN.  THE.  MILK!!!!!!!”  I once gave Nick a Starbucks mug as a gag gift, I’m pretty sure the only time it was used was for my coffee when we visited Nick and his family in Melbourne.

My particular issue with the 800 pound gorilla of the coffee retail industry is that their espresso uniformly tastes, to me, terrible. It manages to be both bitter and acidic, which is no mean feat. You just can’t build a decent espresso-based drink from bad espresso.

Starbucks, like any huge mass food & beverage retailer, is looking for a consistent product across their outlets.  So that uniformity in the taste of its espresso has to have a reason or two behind it; I think it’s a combination of over-roasting the coffee beans and using water which is too hot, both of which allow a certain consistency even if they don’t result in a good tasting espresso.

I don’t know the numbers, but I assume from the times I’m in one of their stores that the majority of the business is driven by (a) heavily flavored and sweetened drinks like frappacchinos, mochas, vanilla lattes, caramel macchiatos, etc.; and (b) drip coffee.  So the average customer probably neither minds nor cares whether the espresso tastes good or not. 

I will say their plain black cold brew tastes pretty decent. I’m not enough of a cold brew fan to go out of my way for it, but it gives me an option if I’m there other than masking the coffee in a ton of sugar.

The other big issue I have is the way they make a macchiato.  A Starbucks macchiato is a base of espresso hidden beneath a dense collar of stiff, overly whipped milk foam, as opposed to a traditional macchiato where the espresso is ‘stained’ with a small amount of milk foam or steamed milk (macchiato in Italian means stained or marked).  This method doesn’t help the espresso taste any better, and makes for a lousy drinking experience as you tip back the cup, waiting for a stream of scalding (lousy) espresso to find its way through the thicket of foam and burn the roof of your mouth. Again, I’m sure someone popping in for an iced pumpkin spiced latte could not care less.

All this said, no judgement if you are a fan.  Credit where credit is due:  without the Starbucks phenomenon, there probably wouldn’t be the wide universe of independent, third-wave coffee shops that I enjoy.  So let’s call them the necessary evil empire. They execute very well at a huge scale.  They know their customers well, and give them the experience they want.  With a notable exception or two (koff koff Philadelphia koff koff), they are the world’s welcoming living room/conference center/wifi hotspot.  And with the same caveat, they are also the second-best go-to when you’re out and need a clean restroom in a pinch.

They’re just not for me.

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