As models of coffeemakers, kinds of beans, and grinders proliferated (I now own a burr grinder. It, some coffee advisor assured me, would produce a revelatory improvement in coffee taste. Its price certainly did something to my senses, but I am not sure I can tell the difference in the resulting coffee from that produced by my old-style blade grinders. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I once fantasized about buying coffee bean roasting equipment, but good sense and a lack of money won out.), it became easier and easier to make good coffee.
Then along came Starbucks. I did not understand its popularity. One of the joys of coffee is its variety of tastes and aromas, but Starbucks and its clones overwhelmingly served espresso-based drinks. Espresso is a desirable form of coffee, and it can be hard to make at home even with some of the incredibly expensive machines on the market. There is some justification for going to a coffee shop to get it, but many I knew went to Starbucks every day, and this was their only form of coffee. They were missing out on all the possibilities coffee has to offer. They, however, felt sophisticated drinking espresso just like the French or Italians.
When it comes to food and beverages, there is much to admire in France and Italy. Their coffee, however, is not one of those things. As far as I can tell, the only coffee in those countries is espresso in one form or another. I realize that there can be better or worse espresso, but all good espresso tastes relatively the same. The French and Italians are missing out on a whole world of coffee roasts, tastes, and aromas. It would be as if the French only limited themselves to brie and the Italians gorgonzola. Great cheeses, but there are a myriad of other possibilities. The French and Italians may be knowing about many foodstuffs, but coffee is not one of them. If you want to gain sophistication about coffee, go to Denmark, Peru, Costa Rica, Vienna, Stockholm, or Tanzania.
But I do have to give France and Italy some respect on the coffee front. At their espresso places they serve the beverage in some sort of porcelain cup. It may not be the finest bone China—coffee should not be served that way anyway—but it is at least some sort of real cup. New York has always had many places to get a respectable cup of coffee—diners, delis, sidewalk carts. If you go into a place where you could sit, coffee comes in a porcelain cup not in a paper or Styrofoam container, and that is at it should be. But at Starbucks, always in a paper container, and while that may be necessary for coffee to go, paper is not the desirable way to drink coffee. The fabled, humble Greek diner offering a real cup to those sitting in a booth is more sophisticated than Starbucks on this point.
If I don’t make my own coffee in New York, there is another reason to avoid Starbucks to get the caffeine. Any New York deli or cart strives to serve a cup in less than a New York minute. If I want coffee, I want and expect it now. Starbucks, however, operates on what I take to be a Seattle minute, which is longer than sixty seconds. I have to wait and wait for the coffee. This should not be acceptable to any self-respecting New Yorker.
But the major issue with Starbucks is cost. I can make good, often excellent, coffee for loose change, and I can get respectable coffee from many places for a buck and some coins. Not at Starbucks. Their coffee requires breaking out a five or ten dollar bill or plastic. I knew people before the pandemic who first thing in the morning went to Starbucks and brought a venti skimmed latte back to their apartment. I doubted their wisdom as I mentally calculated their annual coffee expenditure, but I assumed that these people had money to waste.
My law students walking into class with a too large Starbucks cup were a different matter. They were financing their education with hefty loans and most would graduate with debt well into six figures. (The harm of law student debt is a reason why I left the profession earlier than I had once thought that I would, but that is a story for another day.) Perhaps because their debt was so large, buying over-expensive coffee did not seem like a big deal, but when they strolled to their seats with a five-dollar beverage in their hand, I wondered about their priorities and values.
But now I read that the pandemic has changed coffee habits. Some who brought back Starbucks to their homes every morning have realized that they could invest $500 or more in an espresso maker and recoup their money in months by making their own lattes instead of trudging to the barista and back. And perhaps they also realized that coffee should be drunk out of a real cup. (I stayed in a Paris apartment a few years back that was outfitted with a Nespresso machine, which I learned made quite good espresso. I bought one–which while not cheap did not cost hundreds of dollars–when I returned, and I use it occasionally—I still want a variety of coffee tastes and aromas–for a quite good lungo.) Apparently, many others have learned that they have the skills to make acceptable coffee at a reasonable cost and that there is a world of possible tastes that can be explored inexpensively. Perhaps, as a result, Covid-19 will be a boost to coffee growers around the world. That’s not a reason to praise the pandemic, but it would be one tiny bright spot in an otherwise dark time.