Starbucks: The McDonaldization of Coffee

 Coffee made with love – not from Starbucks Coffee made with love – not from Starbucks

How do you take a beverage of beauty and flavor and turn it into an over-priced bland commodity? Ask Starbucks, 'cus that's what they're selling.

Ireland is known more for its alcoholic beverages and consumption of tea rather than coffee. However a recent trip there has demonstrated that even Ireland can produce great - I would even suggest 'magnificent' - coffee.

Coffee shops have sprung up everywhere. In a narrow unassuming corner - formerly a pub - off St. Francis Street, I had the most wonderful Cappuccino - frothy, strong, and delightful. Made to perfection with the tapping and packing of a puck of ground coffee into the portafilter (yes I did look it up) before being slammed home with a loud 'clunk' to release the coffee goodness in a double streaming dribble of hot water. Mmmmmm.

The preparation is part of the ritual of the making of certain coffees. It's the added value that justifies the cost. The making of espresso, cappuccino, frappuccino, and lattes adds anticipation as an essential ingredient of the beverage experience. Any one familiar with drinking Guinness knows what I'm talking about. The preparer has to nurse the drink, coax it to perfection; the result is a feast for the eyes long before we savor it in our mouths. Sure, they could pour it in one go what's the point, all the other drinks do that. The preparation is what makes Guinness different. It used to make Starbucks different too.

Probably in the interests of expediency Starbucks decided to remove the hand-preparation from their stores and now coffee is ground, pucked and drawn hidden from view now a strictly functional process of what was once an art. Gone are the barista-handled portafilers, the aluminum powder compressors. No more dumping of the used grains into the trash, no more clunking, fussing over the packing of the grounds to make them fit just right.

That once famous Starbucks artistry is now done by the coffee-machine. Grinding, packing, setting the drip is all done automatically. To be fair the result in coffee flavors is probably no different to the way it was before - I'm no connoisseur by any means. However we are losing out on half of what we had before - the anticipation is lost. That whole preparation and effort in making the coffee is what justified the cost.

After watching a barista in another outlet 'Costa' in Dublin go through the effort of making my coffee and finishing it off with a flourish of foam in the real cup - by default they assume you're staying - and a heart of powered cocoa. I had become so innocuously numbed by the invisible Starbucks equivalent hidden under a plastic lid in a wax paper cup that I was stunned. I near wept; and the server saw my gratitude. Starbucks in Dublin does try. I was there one day having tea and watched a German girl making practice lattés with a squiggle of color in the froth, bless her soul.

It brought home what we're missing in America. Starbucks brought us great coffee by daring to be different; by bringing the European experience of coffee making and consumption to us at a time when coffee was colored water available in two version, leaded or unleaded. Starbucks was more than coffee; it was a gift that brought with it a new means of socializing, it changed our culture by providing a venue for people like me to sit, write, meet and talk. Have we forgotten? What did we do when we wanted to sit and chat before Starbucks?

Somewhere along the line a corporate worm got into Starbucks management. In an effort to provide a better method of tracking coffee costs, more consistent coffee making and speeding up the service, they changed the formula from making an individual drink to perfection to making many drinks quickly. They've done to coffee-making what McDonalds did to the burger.

While it may make Starbucks more cost-efficient, having seen what is (and in Starbucks case - was) possible with a little effort, Starbucks has lowered itself to the level of the mass coffeemakers - Dunkin', Panera etc. If I want a bland coffee I'll go there, and save some money to boot.

Me? I want my coffee hand-made again. Starbucks, remember the mantra. Do one thing and do it well; go back to making great coffee properly.

[Evin Daly is a journalist and the publisher of the ButlerReport.com. Contact: edaly@goldcoastmedia.net]