Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why I'm Not At Starbucks Much Any More

I like to think of myself as something other than a consumer, but the truth is that I spend more than I should and that I get convinced of brand name goodness as much as if not more than the people to the right or left of me in line at the store. One purchasing habit I've been vocal about as much as any is Starbucks coffee and espresso. I grew up in a house of weak Maxwell House and Folgers drip coffee through a Mr. Coffee machine. Like a kid too young to buy his own beer or appreciate the taste of the stuff, I drank coffee in quantity without much thought to quality. I made weak coffee because I was used to it. My point of pride: that I drank it black.

Eventually, somehow or another, I started up a relationship with Starbucks coffee. It was richer, darker, bolder than anything I had had before. It was good. I went through paper cup after paper cup and moved from drip to Clover coffee (when I could get it). I drank Americanos with an extra shot and tried espresso. When someone would suggest a local shop, I would shake my head. I had tried their coffee and it was terrible. They served it out of a thermos. A thermos! Their coffee was weak or luke warm. Starbucks, like any fast food chain, no matter where I went, had coffee that tasted the same as the shop near my home and their service was spot on.

Last month my family and I made a trip to New York City. While there I checked out two coffee shops I had been told about: Blue Bottle and Grumpy's. Lately, I've been drinking espresso and find that it's a good way to check out a place. (The other way is to get a black cup of coffee.) I tasted the espresso at Blue Bottle and Grumpy's and wondered how it could possibly be so good.

Starbucks espresso was always something I drank like a beginner drinks Scotch, which is to say with a "hope I'll learn to like this a lot more" attitude. The espresso is dark compared to coffee and just a bit bitter. But Blue Bottle and Grumpy's both pulled shots of espresso that were nutty and carmel tasting. They were smooth, strong, and (I couldn't believe it) delicious from top to bottom. At Grumpy's I got a macchiato and it was "stained" with just a bit of foam done up in a beautiful bit of barista art. Even more than espresso plain, the macchiato I knew was my new drink. I wondered what Starbucks could do with it.

Returning home, I visited my local Starbucks (University Ave, Syracuse) and ordered a macchiato, careful to explain that I wanted an espresso macchiato and not the carmel concoction most folks would order. I paid, went down the line, and waited. The barista took a too big "tall" cup, pulled the shot and then things got bad. She took a spoonful of steamed milk from a pitcher that had been sitting there, and slapped two dollops of the stuff into the espresso. She then handed it up to me.

I looked at it in disappointment. This was not what I had hoped for. Still, I sipped it and got a mouth filled only with foam. When I got to the espresso it was tepid.

Since then I have tried straight espresso. It is watery not oily. It is weak and bitter, not strong and smooth. When I asked the barista about this, she said, "I haven't ever had espresso. I don't like coffee."

About the same time that I've found my tastes souring on Starbucks, I have also been working to buy local. Good thing too. I've found two shops in my neighborhood who pull espresso and make macchiatos that are delicious and beautiful.

I haven't eaten at McDonald's, Burger King, or Taco Bell in ten and a half years. I'm not likely to boycott Starbucks in the same way. I don't have problems with their philosophy in the same ways I oppose those other fast food chains. Still, I don't think I'm going to be maintaining gold card status with them for much longer. That's okay. I shouldn't get too attached to brands. Where's the benefit in that.

Instead, I'm attached to this city, to my community, to my neighborhood and my neighbors. That and I'm attached and devoted to espresso and macchiatos. Oh, and I like writing too. So much so that I suppose I'll write on.