A visual comment about coffee in mainstream America.

This is a large, illuminated sign on the edge of the parking lot for a 7-11 store on 
North Lamar. Blvd. The "sell" is for the cup, the "closer" is the 
description of the coffee.

There was a time in Austin when the best cup of coffee in town was at an all night diner called, Holiday House. The large and dowdy restaurant was just on the edge of the UT campus and served as a respite from days and days of bland, dormitory/cafeteria food. At least at the Holiday House you could get reliable eggs and pancakes. The coffee was more or less the American standard at the time: almost "see through" and with all the punch of a loofa. The nice thing about American coffee in the 1970's is that one needed to drink lots and lots of it to get any sort of adrenal buzz and that prodigious intake kept most college students well hydrated... But the real reason it was "the best cup of coffee in town" is that it was the only cup of coffee in town. At least at the odd hours of the day.

Since that woeful decade we've mourned the demolition of the Holiday House and most diners in our town but we've seen a blossoming of coffee shops, coffee houses and coffee kiosks everywhere. In my neighborhood there are two Starbucks facilities in one shopping center. And both are always busy serving increasingly strange coffee drinks that are moving further and further away from the pure idea of coffee as I know it. They offer a wide assortment of sugar-rush caloric time bombs, laced with espresso coffee shots. Where Starbucks fails mightily is in their interpretation of drip coffee. Traditional coffee. They've developed a new science of consumer coffee addiction. They roast their beans for their primary drip coffee offerings for too long. The "burnt" beans increase the flavor load to the tongue (and not in a good way) while actually decreasing the caffeine content of dark roast coffees. The lower dosage of caffeine builds traffic and sales as the serious coffee drinker must ingest more and more coffee to get the same attentive buzz we got from more artistically roasted beans.

Most of the coffee shops provide a good service; a place to park and relax while compulsively checking e-mail and one's favorite websites. I see them as rest stops for the trendy and consumers who believe they are buying a more sophisticated and higher quality cup of coffee. 

In my same state of anthropological delusion I always thought of Starbucks as being the coffee of pretension and relative affluence and, in constrast, always thought of coffee served at 7-11's, convenience stores in general, gas stations and McDonalds to be the coffee of the working class. People who, by necessity or choice, wanted decent coffee but at a more affordable price. I presume that this segment of the buying population were habituated to the taste of a more traditional, American style coffee. But now my universe of imagined, coffee drinking gerrymandering has been turned upside down by this sign I stumbled across yesterday. 

The cup is nice, I am sure. It's good to keep coffee hot. Most addicted coffee drinkers prefer it that way. But I fail to understand where styrofoam has failed in that endeavor. The real story is contained in that round ornament just to the left of the cup. "Nicaragua Single Origin Coffee." And its additional message conveyed in the green logo at the bottom of the ornament: "Rain Forest Alliance Certified."  

Since when did "budget/convenience" coffee drinkers become discriminating about the source of their coffee? Since when did mainstreamers develop a realization about single origin coffees? What is next, Kona coffee at McDonalds? Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee at Exxon? Have we hit a tipping point at which we, as a nation, are hellbent on upping everyone's game when it comes to coffee?

I'm curious to know if this is trending in other regions. I understand that most places have a wild surplus of coffee shops and most cities of any size have somewhere within their borders that just nails good coffee, but is an elevated coffee awareness becoming as universal as the cellphone? 

Please report sightings of coffee appreciation mutation in your region. Document it, if possible. 

What will Starbucks do when they lose their "hipster/trendy/first arrival" status? Their latest remodels have made the stores louder, meaner, less well lit and less comfortable (the LED pinlighting is egregious...) and I wonder if this will push customers toward more welcoming competitors. 

I think Michael Johnston has the right idea. Become your own master brewer. At home. But it's kind of nice to see that, when on the road, there are more and more chances that a good cup of coffee is on the route.


Art in LA said...

Wow, I'll see if the local 7-11s are promoting coffee like that! I'm sure that coffee is a nice complement to the free-range glazed donuts that they offer ... ;-)

We're mostly home brewers. We bought a small Bodum burr grinder recently to replace an ancient Krups blade grinder. The burr grinder provides a much more consistent grind than the old blade grinder. The burr grinder is quieter too, a plus. For us, we just do the "pour over" method each morning into a stainless steel Thermos.

We rarely go to Starbucks or its competitors -- maybe at an airport, or a quick meetup with people (for business or pleasure). But, when we're out at breakfast at a diner somewhere, coffee is the first thing we order. A few diners left here in L.A., thankfully.

Ron Preedy said...

In Germany, Starbucks have (and always have had) a reputation for lousy coffee*, but good WiFi. Make of that what you will...

*unless you like peculiar creations which may contain caffeine

Anonymous said...

Yes, my local 7-11 has 4-6 coffee brews. How good are they, no idea as I've never tried them. When I'm on the move I get my caffeine from sugarless energy drinks.

Been 5-6 years since I've been in a Starbucks. About the only coffee shop I go to is the Corner Bakery. It has has good bacon, egg and cheese paninis, but the coffee is just average.

I've had a French Press and a coffee grinder for many years. I make French or Italian roast with a pinch, or two, of green tea. Lately I've been drinking less coffee and more high caffeine teas. Speaking of caffeine, it's getting hard to find anything except de-caf coffee or tea at the supers. Thankfully SoCal has a lot of speciality groceries.

Rufus said...

Starbucks is at the bottom of the quality pile in the UK.

Other chains are coming through and doing pretty well. In my home town I am pleased to report a number of smaller chains opening - some independents too. My favourite is a place run by some Italians and Turks who make a great filter using only Illy coffee beans. They know how important it is to make a good drip coffee.

Referencing your other post, Kirk, about the Graffiti wall, I was interested to read of your interest in detailed anthropoligical photoramas ( to paraphrase ) with high detail and depth of field. I get this, I really do.

I am very fond of Gregory Crewdson's work. Granted, he is the ultimate in "staged" photography, indeed his locations are like film sets. But the end result intrigues me. I love the idea of capturing some notion of a highly charged, detailed and richly layered study of people going about their business. A single image laced with detail in every corner. I am intrigued by the idea that sometimes, just sometimes, I can get such pictures on the fly if I just open my eyes and have at my hands a responsive camera....

A coffee shop, full of people with their own life stories, could be just such a rich environment for a "candid Crewdson". I intend to see if I can make it work...

Larry to be King said...

Holiday House also made a killer hamburger

Michael Matthews said...

Back in the days when there was just coffee...the weak dishwater kind...my salvation lay in a clean, diner-like restaurant five or six blocks off campus. In that era college students often had little in the way of cash, and we tended to run out of money before we ran out of month with regularity. To the rescue came Hav-A-Lunch with its offering of "a bowl and a roll" for 50 cents. That was a sizeable bowl of chili served with an oversized dinner roll and two pats of butter. Starvation averted. Welcome as that was it failed to lure me back after the check from home finally arrived to sample the most intriguing item on the menu: "Meat Sandwich, $1.50".

Diogenes Montesa Baena said...

We're like you and i have a feeling were both the norm now. Home-ground and bodum brewed is what we do. starbuck's True North Blend tastes bitter at the shop, but excellent when home brewed. And, some of tge better-tasting coffees are in the all-day-breakfast diners.

Paul said...

Last time I was in Texas I had to give up coffee for a few weeks till I got back to San Francisco.
I live in Melbourne Australia, a city that probably has more coffee machines/head of population than Italy and very few machines would be the sort that stew coffee for hours on a hotplate:)
Ordering a coffee in Melbourne you need to know the difference between a latte, flat white, espresso, short black, long black americano, doppio, ristretto, long macchiato, short macchiato, long black, short black, piccolo latte and cappuccino. I think Melbourne is one of the few places in the world where Starbucks ended up closing about 40 stores (they lost about $143 million in 14 yrs in a market worth $4 billion/yr) because it couldn't cope with the local competition.

Anonymous said...

It's happening all over. We've always been blessed in Cardiff with a variety of coffee shops for every taste and our local newspaper now regularly runs top 10/top 20 lists of this kind of thing: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/food-drink-news/20-brilliant-coffee-shops-cardiff-11167269

Unfortunately, they seem to focus on the cake and side stuff rather than the coffee itself. But our docks and international links have meant we've had a couple of roasters based in the city for donkey's years.

But it does all seem to be a bit of an international trend - along with loving coffee I'm a bit of a magazine addict & if you can stomach the cover price I would hugely recommend checking out Drift magazine. https://driftmag.com/
Beautifully produced with great photography and well written articles on Coffee in different cities.

Now off to brew a cup before my next meeting

Nate said...

Funny, Starbucks used to never burn their coffee. Still have a mom and pop place,since 1946, here in south Seattle that makes coffee black as tar. But, then most of the customers are old truck drivers, machinist, and longshoreman.

cfw said...

When I went out west this past spring, Iowa, S. Dakota, Wyoming..., one little pleasure on the road was finding the occasional diner where one simply went in, sat down, and ordered a cup of coffee, maybe a slice of pie or a ham sandwich. No choices, except decaf or regular at a few places. No idea the place of "origin," or whether it was light or dark or in between. Those places are all but gone from the interstate highways, but off the main highways, in the small places, they can still be found, and the coffee tastes as good as you'll get anywhere.

Thomas Rink said...

In Germany, more and more cafés seem to use these capsule-based coffee machines (aka 'Nespresso'). The coffee has an awful, bitter taste that I just can't stand. If you want a proper coffee, you'll most likely get one in an ice cream parlor run by Italians.

Cliff said...

"But I fail to understand where styrofoam has failed in that endeavor."

Some consider styrofoam to be detrimental to the environment. Many communities, out here, are considering banning its use. It could be that a 7-11 in Austin could be a little ahead of the curve on that.

Bob Travaglione said...

I have had some wonderful Coffee at the WAWA Stores in New Jersey. Also Stewarts in upstate NY. As well as the QuikTrips in the midwest. These are all under $1.49 with no tipping. I can have almost 3 cups of decent coffee for the price of one Burnt Tasting, Bitter Starbucks Brew.

Robert Roaldi said...

Here in Ottawa, Canada, there are several locally-owned shops that are holding Starbucks at bay, at least a little. There are a lot of Starbucks around, but they're not everywhere. One local chain Bridgehead has gotten pretty big in the city, and you can almost always find one. When I have coffee out, it's almost always for a small cappuccino. I like to drink coffee that tastes like something, but I don't want a litre of it. I don't drink coffee to hydrate. I've had stomach troubles from time to time and try not to leave too much acid sitting in it at any one time.

My current favourite spot is called Equator's, which started in an unexpected location, a strip mall in a small town called Almonte, about 1/2 hour west of the city. They've since opened up another outlet in a more chic neighbourhood, Westboro, but I haven't been to that store yet. They even have water freely available to clean the palate after the coffee, reminds of Aurelio Zen drinking mineral water after his "caffè corretto" in the Dibdin novels.

The biggest Canadian chain is called Tim Horton's but I tend to go there for the bagels and tea, not the coffee. I see people buy large double-doubles there and get handed a cup so large that I probably could not get through it in a day.

I agree about Starbucks' over-roasted drip coffee. I ordered it once about 12 years ago, never again. The big issue for me is that their smallest size is far too large for me. Quantity is a poor substitute for quality. Also, I don't get all the weird flavoured combos they sell. But Starbucks not really just a coffee shop, it's a brand experience. That's what people want now, I'm told. We have all the food and shelter we need, so now we need to buy experiences.

Alex said...

Ah, coffee. Dont get me started.
I tastes good out of glass or porcelain, but never on the run and/or in a paper mug.
Roasting at home provides the base,a truely fresh coffee of ones own taste.
All one needs are a pot, a wooden spoon, two colander and a heat gun.
30 min for a portion to last a week.
Left to gass for 24 hours and freshly ground just before preparing the coffee.
Tastes great, whether from a Brika or out of a french press.
Cuts down out-of-house consumption because there it will seldom taste good anymore.

milldave said...

Echoing Robert's comments about Tim Horton's, here in Western Canada the locals drink Starbucks or Tim Horton's as though there is no tomorrow.

Tim's resembles the bitumen that Alberta produces and probably tastes worse!
It's pre-packed and pre-processed to squeeze any flavour from the coffee BEFORE it's brewed and, sad to say, make Starbucks taste like gourmet coffee.

There's a third chain, Second Cup, that makes Passable on my personal scale of Good (as in Good) to Aaaaaargh! (I would use this to poison my neighbours).
Aaaaaargh is also known as Tim Horton's.

And Robert's comments about the 'brand experience' is something I've chuckled about for the last 20 years, in Europe, Middle East Asia and North America.
Here in Alberta, people will get up 40 minutes early in the morning, just to sit in the Drive-Through queue at Tim's, to savour the 'experience' and the gasoline fumes and general bad manners of the cognescenti.
There are some good independent roasters in BC who import Fair Trade beans and can produce blends that don't include chilli, chipotle or jalpenos; just old fashioned coffee flavour.
Such heretics!!

Edward Richards said...

Holiday House brings back memories of crazy late night drives to Austin from Houston back in my college days. If I remember, there might have been a Dunken Donuts as well, back before they started selling faux bagels and muffins.

John Lucia said...

Baltimore has seen a home grown uptick in available coffee options, to the point where they are nearly insulated from the likes of Starbucks given the largely hipster/artist population occupying the Station North neighborhood, the social hub of MICA students (Maryland Institute College of Art).

My favorite as of late is a nifty little hole in the wall off an alley called Babies on Fire. Coffee and light fare are a staple, sure, but it differentiates itself by being replete with new and old vinyls and record players available for preview of material. Its interior is covered in signed band posters, and it's often difficult to find seating for sake of stacks upon stacks of records in the middle of the room. A neat twist on the classic coffee shop, again wholly in line with the hipster aesthetic so prevalent in Baltimore these days.

As for the coffee, though? Well, it wasn't burnt, I suppose?