A Coffee Drinker Is Born
Very slowly, over the course of eleven years, Kel turned me into a coffee drinker. To clarify – a latte drinker – where only a small amount coffee is actually involved. One of the simple pleasures in our day is brewing and sipping our very personal version of a latte. I say it’s personal because we are very particular. To the point of – to anyone near enough to witness our ritual – annoyance. The ratio of soy milk (much preferred in our household over almond or coconut) to freshly brewed coffee is key, as is the deliberate lack of foam to wade through before getting to the important stuff: the rich, caramel-ly coffee/milk combination underneath. To create our lattes we use a Krups Grind & Brew with a burr grinder, though Kel sometimes uses a single cup pour-over or French press (his preferred method lately) if he’s making a solo cup.
On rare occasions we leave the grassy confines of our 160 acres and cannot always enjoy our latte at home. But our afternoons still require that little pleasure, that simple ritual. We seek our fix in coffee shops. A scary prospect, indeed.
Four Words We Hate to Hear From A Barista, “I can try, but…”
Just as there is pleasure in our coffee ritual, there is enjoyment in discovering coffee joints. It’s fun checking out the décor, chatting with the baristas and soaking up the vibes at these places. What kind of people are hanging out? What are they doing there? Are they camped out for the day? Quickly picking up some caffeine before getting back to work? Meeting a friend? Let’s call it each coffee shop’s unique culture.
My travels across the U.S. and overseas have afforded me the opportunity to sip many a soy latte and the one thing that is consistent is their inconsistency. I’ve had cups that blew my socks off (in a good way), but many more have been dump-right-in-the-garbage awful despite lengthy and impassioned explanations about the dangers of over-heating soy milk. (I’ve been told time and again that I really should try almond milk, coconut milk, or rice milk instead. They just don’t work for my taste buds.) When a barista begins his or her sentence with the words, “I can try, but…” the probability of being served a terrible latte is high.
Edward Abbey (who very likely would have been anti-Starbucks…)
Which leads me to the benefits of “fast coffee.” And specifically, Starbucks. I realize that Starbucks is often the butt of jokes and the object of derision. It’s been compared unfavorably to fast food restaurants and blamed for all kinds of things from the shrinking of the polar ice caps to the abolishment of Christmas (you know I’m just joking, right?). I’ve been known to make a few snide comments myself and Kel has put them on (and taken them off again. And back on.) his personal “blacklist.” But time and experience have given me respect for what Starbucks is able to do.
Just as I’ve been to many “homegrown” coffee shops, I’ve visited and taste-tested Starbucks shops all over this great land of ours and beyond. From Colby, KS to Washington, DC (where there is one on almost every corner) to the busiest franchise in Utah (at the University of Utah hospital) to the Kuwait airport to the store near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. The thing that stands out is the reliable and consistent taste and quality. Ask for, as I do, a grande no-foam soy latte, and what you get is exactly that: a perfectly heated, smooth and rich latte with just the slightest trace of bubbles on the top. Now, I have my beef with Starbucks, mainly that their soy milk is both flavored and sweetened. I mean, if I ordered a dairy latte, would they add vanilla and sugar to it? I didn’t think so. But, overall, when I can’t find a good “mom and pop” coffee shop, I know that I’ll always be able to enjoy a delicious soy latte at Starbucks.
Coffee Is The New Beer, Or – People Were Once Happy With Folgers
Getting back to that whole coffee shop culture thing… It has an ancestor. My dad, whose father owned and ran several neighborhood bars on Cleveland’s east side, describes his father’s bars as gathering places for the locals. The menfolk went to Oliver’s or Dove Café to get out of the house, to escape their cares and woes, to chat with the bartender (my grandfather), to while away the long hours of the day, and, of course, to drink. Dad believes that coffee shops have replaced bars like Oliver’s and Dove’s as hang-outs*: where people go to be with other people without necessarily having to interact and be social. To feel the warmth and vitality of humanity while imbibing in a glass or cup of comfort. I think dad is onto something and whether you think this is good or bad, I believe Starbucks is responsible for this shift: from nighttime bar culture to all-day café culture and that’s a fairly seismic social phenomenon. (In an interesting historical twist, my grandfather once owned a bar in Chagrin Falls, Ohio that now houses a thriving Starbucks.)
Fast forward to today. Think about all of the thousands of towns out there, big and small roasting their own beans and brewing up coffee drinks of all stripes. Even Oklahoma has an embarrassment of coffee riches. It absolutely boggles my mind the coffee snobbery that has descended upon Flyover Country! These are businesses that didn’t exist prior to 1971. Sure, there were places called coffee shops, but their focus was comfort food and not on endless variations of coffee beverages. Coffee came black. Add the milk and sugar (and flavored syrups and whipped cream, cocoa powder and cinnamon) on your own time, Mr. Fancy Pants. 21st century-style sipping is closer to winetasting than simply downing your daily morning jumpstart.
Starbucks paved the way for these “boutique” coffee shops. If the masses weren’t consuming coffee and showing an appreciation for the finer points of Sumatran versus Ethiopian versus Kona versus Guatemalan, etc., etc., there would be no incentive for entrepreneurs to strike out on their own. Bottoms up, I say!
No matter your personal feelings about Starbucks (i.e., they’re too big, their coffee tastes “burnt”), you have to give it to them for creating something from almost nothing. I might lament the sticker shock of a cup of their Joe (actually, I don’t) or complain of long drive-thru lines or get a little grossed out by the (lack of) cleanliness of some of their stores, but one thing is certain: I will get a well-made and delicious latte each and every time, no matter the store.
*Brew pubs serving locally-made craft beers – a relatively new (and apparently thriving) phenomenon – is one big exception. Check out the documentary Crafting A Nation. It’ll make you want to drink a few pints and maybe even brew up some of your own beer.
P.S. Seattle has earned its reputation as a coffee Mecca. On a recent trip, Kel and I were blown away by the quality of the brew no matter where we drank it. With minimal oversight on our OCD parts, pierced, tatted, and man-bunned baristas delivered up the bona fide goods. And, wow, did we get our minds blown by Ms. Brittany! Chica knows her beans (and she’s the real deal – funny, smart, adorable and a joy to hang with). Thanks to Brittany we approach coffee consumption in a completely new light. Cliff Note version: bean origin is key to knowing what kind of coffee you’re going to love.
Coffee Facts & Figures
- 54% of American adults are committed coffee drinkers, consuming an average of three 8-ounce cups per day – that’s about 382 million cups of coffee every day.* We coffee drinkers spend an average of $164.71 per year on our beverage of choice.**
- As of 2015, Starbucks operated 21,536 stores worldwide, employing 182,000 full-time employees. Beverage purchases make up 75% percent of their sales and a total annual revenue an eye-popping $16.4 billion (2014). ++
- Arabica (coffea Arabica) is a shrub indigenous to Ethiopia and Yemen but is now cultivated in South America, China, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Arabica coffee is what most of us drink – and most high-quality coffee is made from Arabica beans.
- Robusto coffee beans are higher in acidity and have more bitterness than Arabica beans and it’s used mostly in instant coffees and blends.
Some Roasters We Like
- Phoenix (Ohio)
- Crimson Cup (Ohio)
- Elemental (Oklahoma)
- Topeca (Oklahoma)
- Rimini (Utah)
- Jack Mormon (Utah)
- Stumptown (Seattle)
- 12 ounces plain unsweetened soy milk (or non-dairy milk of your choice)
- 2 ounces hot, freshly brewed coffee
- sweetener of choice, to taste
- Gently heat up the non-dairy milk; I use a microwave which is probably sacrilege - but it works. Pour in the coffee and sweetener. Stir, taste and adjust - enjoy with something chocolate.