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26 February 2008

Starbucks Closes...

Sadly, the end of the headline that caught my attention in today's Grauniad was actually ...to learn how to make coffee, rather than a full stop. It may be apparent that I am somewhat of a coffee snob and have a certain distaste for certain purveyors of an ubiquitous chain of establishments serving hot (scalding hot, in fact) and (barely) caffeinated beverages masquerading under the name "coffee" although the drinks served at said chain really do push the boundaries of semantics.

I am also a big fan of independent coffee shops - places where, in exchange for the price of a skinny cap, I can install myself, a book and/or Moleskine and/or laptop and read or write away hours on end. Places that aren't too identikit and have some sense of individuality, identity or atmosphere. Places that appear on Delocator, for example, or like the Black Cat, Clowns, Indigo andCB1 in Nowheresville.

It's really the combination of the cafe and the coffee that make or break a place for me, but even so, Starbucks closes to learn how to make coffee is still the second-best ending to the sentence because yes, Starbucks coffee is truly atrocious, but then, do its customers really care? Most of them go there because they feel they are indulging in a luxury lifestyle activity; those characters in Friends went to coffee shops so if I do so too, I will feel like Jennifer Anniston, now can I have a latt-ay? How will these people cope with a 'Bucks-free afternoon? They couldn't go to another coffee shop because, let's face it, it's all about the brand here!

To be fair, I'm not sure training is going to help much because there is something about the coffee they serve that has an awfully bitter, mud-like taste that isn't going to be helped even if a barista knows how to make the perfect coffee. Still, it might at least reduce my chances of getting a lattay when I asked for a skinny cappuccino - extra dry - goddamnit, especially if baristas are trained by someone who knows the difference and is willing to explain it.

Back in my days as Barista to the Stars at the Sandwich Shop of Dreams, we had a whole day training course run by the good people of Illy (we did this in two shifts so our celebrity customers (and those damn Oxford students) didn't have to go without their large breakfast baps for the day), which was pretty informative as the trainers went into some detail about the science behind the coffee-making process and why, for example, burnt coffee tastes awful and just what the difference between a cap and a lahtay really is. OK, so maybe baristas don't really need to know how coffee-making works and all the details about pressure and grind coarseness, but the basics - to tamp or not to tamp, etc. - are pretty useful and the rest all helps you make the perfect cup every time.

The Grauniad article did remind me of one thing Starbucks does well - Frappuccinos (Frappuccini?). On a hot day, a cold, milky, mocha or strawberry drink blended with crushed-ice and sipped on the banks of the River Nowhere is really quite a pleasant experience. Of course, it has nothing to do with coffee or having a nice coffee shop but every cloud and all that.

Also, why are iGoogle, Gmail and reader so slow? In need of caffeine? Migrating onto a different platform? Get them a double-shot espresso, pronto!

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