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06 March 2009 @ 12:19 pm
Coffee and memes  
The happiness meme from ceph and coraa

1. Post about something that made you happy today even if it's just a small thing.
2. Do this every day for a week without fail.
3. Tag 8 of your friends to do the same. i'm it! (I hate tagging, it's everything i don't want to be =P)

I expect i'm gonna fail on point 2, but since i already had something i wanted to post about today that made me happy i figured i might as well sign up for the meme at the same time :)

I do not like Starbucks coffee. I think they burn their beans to a crisp and as a result it tastes like crap. (I've also heard conspiracy theories that the reason they burn their beans to a crisp is because they can use cheaper low quality beans that way without people being able to tell the difference. I have no idea if there's any basis to the rumor or not though.)

I am also from Seattle. My parents drink lots of coffee. I actually have memories from when i was a kid (shock! horror!) of us going to the coffee shop in Southcenter (Southcenter! Not Westfield whatever-the-hell!) where they would buy beans and get them ground. Therefore it seemed entirely reasonable to me, from the limited perception of my very small sample size, that Seattle got a reputation as a coffee mecca. What _still_ weirds me out though is that the symbol of Seattle coffee in the popular perception is Starbucks. The fact that so many coffee shops want to try to be like Starbucks now seems like a crime against something-or-other.

Well i finally figured out a way of thinking about the issue that i can relate to. It doesn't make me happy about the situation, but it makes me happy that i can understand it. And it can be summed up as a simple SAT type question analogy.

Seattle - Rest of US - Coffee - Starbucks
US - Rest of world - Hamburgers - McDonalds

Very few people inside the US are going to argue that McDonalds is the best of all possible hamburgers. I think just about everyone will agree that you can get something better at a real restaurant, and many of us probably think that you can even get something better and equally cheap just by picking a different fast food joint. (My favorite being In-n-Out of course.) And it seems likely that someone from someplace like Texas may have an even more extreme version of that bias (although perhaps they think that grinding up fresh beef to make hamburgers rather than having it as a steak is an abomination, i don't actually know.)

However McDonalds is _the_ icon for American hamburgers in particular and American fast food in general around the world. There may very well be places in the world where McDonalds is the only place to get hamburgers. There may be places in the world where McDonalds is the only way to get any kind of "American cuisine" at all.

Perhaps people from those areas would be shocked to hear many Americans say "McDonalds? Well it's cheap and ubiquitous, but i'd rather have something better than that if i can find it and afford it."

Starbucks has succeeded for exactly the same reasons McDonalds has succeeded, and offers the exact same quality for the iconic product for which its home region is famous. Which isn't really a brilliant deduction, but it's nice to be able to put things into some perspective :)
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Squidceph on March 6th, 2009 08:24 pm (UTC)
Cooks Illustrated reviewed coffees and found that darker roasts taste better with milk than do lighter ones--so that may be part of it.
Ambermaggiedacatt on March 6th, 2009 09:43 pm (UTC)
Probably. I like Starbucks' coffee, and this might be why--I only drink lattes.

Of course, Lucas likes their coffee and drinks it black. He also buys very dark roasts when buying beans (or ground coffee; lately he has gotten lazy) for home/office use.

Maybe more people like darker roasts.
(no subject) - ceph on March 6th, 2009 11:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Johndolohov on March 6th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC)
Bingo. Starbucks at this point is a milk-and-sugar company.

The other issue is that dark roasts are more reliable than light roasts - coffee is an agricultural product and so can be inconsistent and not always available in the same quantities. Smaller roasters can get away with that (or even thrive on it if they're clever), but Starbucks is so big that it probably has a hard time achieving consistency. The funny thing is, Americans are generally perceived as preferring light roasts (a Full City I think is the average) but then, up until recently many Americans drank robusto.
(no subject) - donaithnen on March 6th, 2009 10:39 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Coraacoraa on March 6th, 2009 09:55 pm (UTC)
Yeah. As a person who always puts half and half and sweetener in coffee, I think it tastes just fine. But people who just want sweetener -- or who want it black -- think it tastes vile.

(The particularly interesting part to me was that Cooks Illustrated's corollary was that the coffee that tested best black actually tastes wimpy and flavorless with milk or cream in it, because any kind of liquid addition dilutes the flavor, but particularly because milkfat coats the tongue and dulls flavors in general. This is also why you can tame a too-acidic lemon curd by adding more butter. Sugar, on the other hand, doesn't do anything to the intensity of the flavor -- just dairy and dairy substitutes.)
(no subject) - dolohov on March 6th, 2009 10:46 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - coraa on March 6th, 2009 10:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dolohov on March 6th, 2009 11:02 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - donaithnen on March 7th, 2009 12:57 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - coraa on March 6th, 2009 10:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - donaithnen on March 7th, 2009 01:01 am (UTC) (Expand)
DonAithnendonaithnen on March 6th, 2009 10:38 pm (UTC)
Uh, i think i'm gonna have to chalk this up to personal taste. To me the dark roast coffee tastes vile black and tolerable with milk added, while medium roast tastes good black and even better with milk.
(no subject) - ceph on March 6th, 2009 11:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Chaos Never Blinkssithjawa on March 6th, 2009 09:38 pm (UTC)
Oops I wrote an essay
I think you're missing something. Starbucks is considered somehow trendy. McDonalds is not trendy.

Coffee shops seem to me to be a mirror of the culture of their town. See the hyper-liberal coffee shops of the bay area and parts north, or the more fashion-centric, politically silent coffee shops of most of the greater LA area. It even seems like in some parts of the country coffee shops are pretty much unknown as social hubs or caffeination providers, and one goes to a "diner" to acquire caffeine and hear gossip. But in general, coffee shops are the teetotaller's bar.

Somehow, Starbucks has hit on a cultural model that fits in acceptably in all parts of the US. It's generic enough not to offend most people, but has enough personality to make one willing to sit down and hang out there. The atmosphere is inviting enough to lure people to go hang out together and share a coffee there, but not so open that one generally has to worry about being approached by strangers.

Sadly, I don't think "generic enough not to offend most people" applies to their coffee. But I know lots of people who go to Starbucks even though they can't stand Starbucks' coffee, because it provides the right environment, and you can rely on finding one when you're lost in a strange place and need to see something familiar.

I just wish there were more alternatives in SoCal. Like, with actual decent coffee.
Johndolohov on March 6th, 2009 09:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Oops I wrote an essay
McDonalds was trendy once too, about when it was as young as Starbucks is now.
Chaos Never Blinkssithjawa on March 6th, 2009 10:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Oops I wrote an essay
When was that? And how was it trendy? Did people hang out there, or what? I feel young now...
Re: Oops I wrote an essay - donaithnen on March 6th, 2009 10:36 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Oops I wrote an essay - dolohov on March 6th, 2009 10:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Oops I wrote an essay - jmpava on March 7th, 2009 03:43 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Oops I wrote an essay - sithjawa on March 7th, 2009 05:08 am (UTC) (Expand)
DonAithnendonaithnen on March 6th, 2009 10:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Oops I wrote an essay
Thanks, i was thinking that was probably the case, but didn't actually know :)
Coraa: boom de yadacoraa on March 6th, 2009 09:56 pm (UTC)
Also, yay, another meme person! :D
cwendy41cwendy41 on March 7th, 2009 02:06 am (UTC)
McDonalds in other countries have different foods. For example, they sell veggie burgers in countries that are predominantly vegetarian or don't eat cow meat.

Also, McDonald's is kind of new in other countries, so there's a different perception of it. Except for France, I think most countries have welcomed it.

It's kind of similar to how Chinese people view Panda Express (cheap Chinese food!) as not classy, yet Americans seem to enjoy the place for a meal.
cwendy41cwendy41 on March 7th, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC)
I forgot to mention that in addition to McD's serving different foods in other countries, I've also been told that the quality of the food is different. People tell me that chicken mcnuggets are tastier in Taiwan. (I've also heard that chickens are killed differently, making the meat more tasty which might affect the mcnugget meat).

People also have said that even within the US the mcnuggets taste different. For example on 99cent Tuesdays, the meat is different than the rest of the week when mcnuggets are more expensive. So, it could be that the food is better in other countries which might partially explain why it's perceived differently.

But this is all hearsay, as I do not eat Chicken McNuggets much.

Also if you're an American food place expanding into a different market, you have to make yourself seem hip and cool. You make them believe that in the US, it's the best place to go for American food. The people in the other countries believe it and will go eat there. Not having much more experience in eating American food, this different food that calls itself American is thus your benchmark for what American food tastes like. This applies to Dunkin' Donuts and Subway too.
Pava: Osaka Sez!jmpava on March 7th, 2009 03:39 am (UTC)
Two things I noticed in this.

1) Your assumption that because YOU don't like starbucks, obviously no one else does and the only reason it's so ubiquitous is becuase people don't have any other options. As has been mentioned above in the comments, I know a fair amount of people who actually like starbucks quite a lot. Now, perhaps that's their particular sense of taste, perhaps that's becuase they aren't used to/exposed to other brands, whatever. But I think saying 'I don't like it, so obviously the reason people like it can't possibly have anything to do with quality' is a false statement. That doesn't mean you need to like it, but I just think that fundamental assumption is logically flawed.

2) Why is Starbucks the symbol of 'Seattle Coffee'? Well, timing, basically. Seattle as a cultural entity and 'Seattle Coffee' as a thing (particular as a contrast to east-coast - that is, Dunkin' Donuts - coffee) both came into the picture during the Seattle Grunge/tech/etc.. cuture boom of the mid 1990's. It just happened that that's EXACTLY when Starbucks was expanding outside of Pac NW. So, for many people who were first becoming exposed to Seattle as a cultural concept, Starbucks was similarly their first exposure to the element in coffee - simply becuase it was the chain that spread through the nation at that time. Everything else comes across as 'following in the Starbucks method', even if they might predate Starbucks in the greater Seattle area itself. And I'm not trying to say they WERE the first chain - just that their spread and rise happened EXACTLY at the same time that the general US cultural sense was looking at it.
DonAithnendonaithnen on March 7th, 2009 03:55 am (UTC)
1) No, that's not an assumption i'm making and i'm not sure why you are assuming that.

I've found an easy for me to understand explanation about how Starbucks popularity is not necessarily indicative of its quality. Therefore i do not have to be weirded out that something that i think isn't particularly good is so popular.

What other people think about it is entirely irrelevant. I'm happy because i've got a setup that makes sense in my own head.

2) Does it matter why Starbucks is the symbol of Seattle culture?
(no subject) - jmpava on March 7th, 2009 04:09 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - donaithnen on March 7th, 2009 04:56 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jmpava on March 7th, 2009 04:14 am (UTC) (Expand)
Andrewneonelephant on March 7th, 2009 07:50 am (UTC)
If you want to get whole bean coffee at Starbucks, I recommend the Breakfast Blend (at least from what you've said). I'm also partial to Seattle's Best's house blend.