On Coffee

Michael Nagrant / 02.27.09

One of my favorite M. Doughty (former lead singer of Soul Coughing*) songs is Busting Up a Starbucks. Not because I REALLY dream of kicking in the windows of the local franchise of the twin-tailed siren and taking my frustrations out on a couple of baristas. It has more to do with using ironic appreciation of extreme notions as a way of salving my general ennui toward the company formed on the basis of unexamined ideas about Starbucks being a bad corporate citizen.

While the unexamined life may not be worth living, it sure sometimes seems easier. Like thousands of others: armchair philosophers, prodigious weed smokers, and just plain privileged liberal folks, I’d been lazy to the core about Starbucks. But, this isn’t just about guilty rich white people. Surface based hatred for corporate coffee slingers knows no cultural bounds. Just ask the proud Latinos in Chicago’s gentrifying Pilsen neighborhood who swear that Starbucks will be the death of their culture. And yet, forty years earlier their forefathers set up tortillerias and restaurants that some might contend were the analog to Starbucks, new proud investments in neighborhood infrastructure coincident with the loss of the Germans, Czechs, Poles, and Jews who’d lived there before. Coincidence, of course, is not causation. (Though, it is curious that Howard Schultz, CEO, of the coffee giant is Jewish. Maybe Starbucks is a Zionist cabal to reclaim the neighborhood his people once lost.)

I kid. You see, conspiracy theories, they’re totally addictive and dangerous. But, it is true that my lazy logic has in part made me a zealous evangelist of locally micro-roasted coffee. Though, in my experience, the coffees local micro-roasters serve usually truly taste better than the stuff served at many chain spots including Starbucks, and that’s also played a major role in my patronage. I haven’t even gotten to the positive community involvement, philanthropy, and human rights improvements many of these local companies engage in.

You can also see how, because of my allegiance, when a local PR firm couriered over a few advance sample packets of Starbucks new instant coffee VIA™ this morning (released in Chicago and Seattle on Monday, March 3) how I was sure I would be snickering about those Tasters Choice commercials about waiters named Jean Luc and insipid metallic tasting brown water.

Instant coffee, seriously? Even Starbucks is so embarrassed by the category that they call VIA™ a “Ready Brew” product and avoid the moniker altogether.

But, in one of those “life is what happens to you while your busy making other plans moments”, I found myself nose deep in a relatively rich dark cup of Italian roast “soluble and micro-ground coffee”. What was even more extraordinary is that I’d been drinking the whole bean, freshly ground and French pressed, non-instant Starbucks version of this coffee that morning, before I’d even known I’d get these samples. The whole bean was worse. That’s probably because the shelf life of whole beans doesn’t really extend beyond a week or two after roasting, no matter how much you vacuum pack them.

Surely, this was a mistake, and so I brewed another instant packet. In fact I brewed three more cups, one with 205 F water, the optimal temp for extracting flavor compounds from recently ground beans, 180 F, the approximate temp of office hot water coolers (assuming cubicle dwellers, the perfect market here, don’t have a microwave), and also at cold tap temperature. The brews developed with no real difference in taste between 180 and 205. The tap water version wasn’t as flavorful, and took a while to develop, but seriously if you need some Frappucino, stat, VIA™ is worth looking in to. In fact the 205 cup was so bold, it had that familiar pre-Pikes Place Roast over-extracted Starbucks bitterness at the end.

Of course, if you swing the Pike’s Place way, you can try the VIA™ Colombian blend which tasted pretty much like brown water. The Italian Roast though had acid and some body. It wasn’t as rich or nuanced as a freshly roasted batch of in-season organically farmed direct trade beans, but then nothing really is. This coffee is culled from beans in Starbucks Shared Planet program, an ethically focused initiative, and so maybe there’s even a nice political statement to be made here.

None of that matters as much as what this cup really did though, which is to shake me a bit out my pre-concieved notions. Now, I haven’t done a Michael Pollan like examination of the company, but I realize there are a lot of good things you can say about Starbucks. Like Sam Adams did for craft brewing, Starbucks raised the awareness of a better brew and paved the way for the rise of the local micro-roaster. It was the corporate coffee version of marijuana, a gateway to bigger and better things. Likewise, though it’s not applicable much anymore, Starbucks also created a coffee culture that now celebrates good barista craft. More importantly, with this VIA™ initiative (the instant packets average $1 a cup), they’ve shown a willingness to be creative and make a reasonable concession to the cratering economy. Whether that’s entirely driven by competition from McDonald’s and the burgeoning loss of market-share doesn’t matter quite as much that it’s a ray of light to the empty wallet, and a decent drinking experience when compared with some average stuff out there. And, damn, if you’re climbing Mt. Everest, you may never be happier.

VIA™ also focused me on what’s not happening at the local level. If you recall, I mentioned I just drank French pressed whole bean grocery store bought Starbucks. Up until a few months ago I was an exclusive Intelligentsia and Metropolis coffee drinker. But with the economy tugging at me and 12 oz of locally roasted beans costing $11.99 or so, I started experimenting with the $8.99 and $6.99 options available at the grocery store. I was convinced I’d probably end up where I started from, but I needed to see what was out there.

I made the switch, not only out of curiosity, but also as a temporary rebellion that despite the general economic hardship, I’d seen prices go up about a buck or so per 12 oz on some of my favorite beans at the retail level, and a rise in single cup prices at the café level. There’s a lot of debate in the local media lately about why this is, whether it’s about making up for a loss of revenue when say local roaster Intelligentsia decided to eliminate larger cups of coffee from their stores, or whether it was when they started eliminating brew pots in favor of single brew Clover machine cups.

It’s tough to tell. One thing that’s apparent is that there’s no question that what Intelligentsia does by going directly to farmers to find the best stuff, and also cultivating relationships that improve quality of farming practices and quality of life for farmers is extraordinary. There’s no question that Intelligentsia’s roasting, barista craft, and attention to working with great retail partners, produces one of the best cups of coffee around. There’s no question that they’ve finally brought seasonality of coffee crops to the forefront. There’s no question that the intrepid coffee buyer and VP Geoff Watts won’t rest until he finds the best beans around. I also believe that CEO Doug Zell is a visionary who believes simultaneously in raising the coffee bar and being a great community partner.

And I know, all of these kinds of “raising the bar” type things require money and investment that cheap bean procurers and industrial milling processers don’t have to worry about when offering an inferior cheap product. I get that, but I also read recently, from Time Out Chicago’s David Tamarkin, the following:

“So I called Intelligentsia and spoke with CEO Doug Zell, who told me that the increase in price was simply due to the fact that he thinks the beans are worth it. “Historically, coffee has been under-priced,” he told me. He also confirmed that the cost of the Clover machines has nothing to do with the price of the coffee—in fact, Intelligentsia didn’t even pay full price for the Clover machines; they bought them used.

… But Zell wants his coffee to be approached the same way a glass of wine is—that is, approached as a nuanced, unique product—and if that means raising prices, he’s “okay with that.””

The thing is, historically, we Chicagoans have also been doing pretty well financially and were able to pay the extra toll for quality. That’s not necessarily the case these days. It would really go a long way if Intelligentsia or Metropolis could cut us a break. Maybe I’m wrong and it would break them, but if not, why not offer a deep regular discounted per lb special (I know they offer discounts via email newsletters and in store occasionally – but I’m looking for a real sustained nod with impact) on a bean each week until things improve. It could be that I’m in the minority, and maybe I’m one of the few people who see the extra couple hundred bucks I’m spending on beans a year to be a tough proposition. After all, wouldn’t these local producers lower their prices before upscaling themselves out of the market?

That all being said, the thing that really bothers me is the equation of price and quality as an absolute, and that somehow by raising prices, this will make people approach coffee as a nuanced, unique product.

The way I see it, high prices are what retarded wine culture. For too long, wine was relegated to the Wall Street bonus set. It created a market where you’re paying 10,000 dollars for a recently released vintage, a smoke and mirrors proposition fueled by the testosterone and witless one-upsmanship of people with too much money. It was only when negociant releases and more efficient wine making practices made wine prices more accessible that the true democratization of wine happened. When there were fifty bottles at Trader Joes under $20, that’s when people could afford to experiment with varietals and truly learn about grapes.

I think the more coffee becomes a luxury item, especially in this economy, the more you risk folks turning back to subpar commercial brands, only to discover how bad coffee can be. Those folks may eventually turn away altogether.

The flipside of course is that lowering the price per pound on one bean could devalue the brand and create an unreasonable expectation and pressure on the prices of a local micro-roaster’s other offerings. And thusly, this might hamper their ability to engage in good corporate citizenship and solid coffee ambassadorship duties.

But, I really think most would see this move as an extension of the good work the local guys have been doing already and would be thankful for the gesture. In the meantime, while I’ll continue to buy Intelly and Metropolis when I can, there is some room in my life for worthwhile experiments like VIA™ or cheaper brands that taste good. I’m reminded that the great food writer MFK Fisher mused during war time rations on coffee that you’re much better off drinking less of the good stuff than trying to drink a ton of the bad stuff. But, despite the fact that we’re experiencing a great war era-like recession, the quality of options available to us now is much greater, and there’s no need to skimp. This just means I’ll have plenty of time to ponder my lazy logic about big corporations over many steamy cups of coffee.


*If you don’t know who M. Doughty is, it probably doesn’t help you much more to provide his affiliation with albeit slightly less, but still relatively obscure Soul Coughing. Though, I suppose I’m banking on the fact that if you were ten or older in 1998 when Soul Coughing released the album El Oso, there is a chance that you heard their single Circles (by no means their best – that’s reserved for the LA zeitgeist capturing anthem, Screenwriter’s Blues) which peaked at no #3 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, and now have some context.

Additionally, if I were David Foster Wallace (may he rest in peace), and not the workaday hack that I am, I would have footnoted M. Doughty, rather than Soul Coughing, because to add that second parenthetical technically breaks up what would be an otherwise relatively good flowing lead sentence. But, I hate footnotes, so I kept the information in (and right now I’m sure so do you, because you’ve been forced to read inordinately small type at the bottom of this article and you wonder whether you even want to return to the main text). But then, I thought, hey, maybe I should discuss why I left both references in, because any editor who went to journalism school would have made me cut both facts out entirely as needless pop cultural pap. On the other hand, these are the same editors who have captained the sinking ship that is American journalism.

All this considered, I love David Foster Wallace, though I definitely thought he was overrated in the pantheon of American writers because he used footnotes. But, footnotes or not, he still managed to be a better food writer than most who call it a profession with his essay, Consider the Lobster.