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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.
Squidceph on March 6th, 2009 11:41 pm (UTC)
I would be interested to see a general-population taste test (presumably people hanging around Cooks Illustrated are not necessarily representative) of different roasts and bean origins, to see what it is people tend to prefer. Americans do seem to like char in other foods, so I wouldn't be surprised if they preferred their coffee a little carbonized.
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.
DonAithnendonaithnen on March 6th, 2009 10:39 pm (UTC)
That sounds like a better and more reasonable description of the conspiracy theory :)
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.)
Johndolohov on March 6th, 2009 10:46 pm (UTC)
That's it in one. That's also why you can make very good chai by just leaving the tea in the pot for an hour with the spices -- the milk blunts the worst of the astringency and the remaining tea flavor is pleasantly strong.

Sugar actually does affect the flavor of the coffee, though, especially refined sugar, which can add a noticeable sour taste. It can carry the flavors in flavored coffees much better than with nothing or just milk. (Though if you're already adding sugar to a flavored coffee, you might as well jsut add a good syrup to good unflavored coffee)
Coraacoraa on March 6th, 2009 10:55 pm (UTC)
You're right, I overspoke -- I meant that sugar doesn't blunt coffee the way dairy does. It certainly does affect the flavor, and, in fact, the increasing-of-sourness is why I don't drink coffee with just sugar -- dairy only, or sugar and dairy, but not just sugar. I don't like the acid-y overtones it imparts.
Johndolohov on March 6th, 2009 11:02 pm (UTC)
Brown sugar is actually pretty good in coffee (and is essential for making good Irish coffee). Demerara sugar is less bad, but I usually prefer it black.
DonAithnendonaithnen on March 7th, 2009 12:57 am (UTC)
My parents really like raw sugar. I generally go with Equal :)
Coraacoraa on March 6th, 2009 10:57 pm (UTC)
(And yes, that's my favorite way to make chai. Actually, I like a lot of black tea blends like that: thoroughly steeped, and then cut with a good quantity of milk.)
DonAithnendonaithnen on March 7th, 2009 01:01 am (UTC)
I like my coffee with half and half and sweetener too, but the last time i got actual coffee from starbucks i had to add far more of both than seemed reasonable to me just to get the taste of char down to a tolerable level. Maybe i just like wimpy coffee, i dunno.
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.
Squidceph on March 6th, 2009 11:38 pm (UTC)
There is, as they say, no accounting for taste. :) I happen to like dark roasts, but my main point was just that Starbucks coffee may be designed the way it is for reasons of taste as well as uniformity.
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...
DonAithnendonaithnen on March 6th, 2009 10:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Oops I wrote an essay
Well Starbucks started to expand about 1985, and McDonalds started to expand about 1955, so presumably about 1975?
Johndolohov on March 6th, 2009 10:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Oops I wrote an essay
Well, I'm not sure that what passed for trendy in the 50s would be recognizable that way now, but I'm led to believe that the Youth Element in those days was quite happy to hang out there. And McD's is always trendy for a few years when it finds its way into a new country, too. I'm not sure there are any new countries left for it now, though (hell, there are probably McDonalds in Baghdad)
Pava: Osaka Sez!jmpava on March 7th, 2009 03:43 am (UTC)
Re: Oops I wrote an essay
My impression of the history of McD's is that it's not so much that it was trendy then and isn't now is that it was SOMETHING ELSE then. Back in the 50's, it was more of a destination/drive-in type (a'la Classic 50's hamburger drive in) with an emphasis on speed and being able to be relatively cheap due to standardized processes. It was not the 'lowest common denominator icon of all that is bad and unhealthy' that McD's represents to a lot of people now.

So, while I think it's safe to say it was trendy... I think you might also need to provide a caveat that the company at that point and the company now don't really (IMO) have enough in common to really compare them AS the same company since the model is entirely different. Basically, the 'trendy' McD's feels a lot more like how, say, In-n-out is today.

* (All factual information in this post derived from dim recolections of reading Fast Food Nation a few years back, so take that into account ;-> )
Chaos Never Blinkssithjawa on March 7th, 2009 05:08 am (UTC)
Re: Oops I wrote an essay
Ok, I can see that.

Now I'll have to keep an eye out for McDonalds in 50s media. Not that I encounter that much 50s media.
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?
Pava: Osaka Sez!jmpava on March 7th, 2009 04:09 am (UTC)
Well, ok, you're right that I was commenting more on the content, not on the 'being happy' aspect, so feel free to disregard my random comments on that note. Fwiw:

1) The reason I see you making that assumption is that otherwise I don't understand your logic. Basically, it seems like what you have here is: a) I think Starbucks is crap; b) I do not understand why Starbucks is everywhere as the symbol of Seattle coffee. A --> B. This only works, however, if it adds in an added a.5) And everyone else thinks Starbucks is crap too, therefore it can't possible be popular because of taste.

Basically, while I am not at all contesting you not liking it (something you should by all means feel free to feel), it is the fact that this then makes it hard for you to understand its prominence implies to me that you can't understand ANYONE ELSE liking it EITHER. Otherwise, why should you not liking it have ANYTHING to do with how popular it is. I don't tend to like Chai or Boba Tea (or Coffee, for that matter!) but that does not lead me to question why it's so popular, since presumably other people like it. There just seems to me to be an intermediate logical fallacy of 'well, if I don't like it, I'm sure no one would, so why is it so popular'.

Basically, it only makes sense to be weirded out by it being popular in the first place if you expect everyone else wouldn't like it AS WELL. If your opinion is not intended to be representative of the entire world, why would your opinion matter as to why it is popular? That doesn't mean you have to like it, of course, but it DOES imply an additional value judgment inherent in there - especially to people who do.

THAT's where I got that from :->

2) Since you seemed to be concerned about it being the symbol of Seattle Coffee by virtue of the fact that you don't like it, I was providing a different explanation that I thought might help explain it on something other then its taste aspects. Since, you know, your whole point seemed to be 'I couldn't find a way to make it make sense to me'. Well, that was a way to make it also make sense, perhaps. My point isn't it's the symbol of Seattle CULTURE, just that the spread of Starbucks and the spread of Seattle culture as a national entity IN GENERAL - one aspect of which is 'Seattle Coffee' - happened at pretty much the same time in the mid-90's.
DonAithnendonaithnen on March 7th, 2009 04:56 am (UTC)

I didn't say i didn't understand it, just that it weirded me out a bit. I'm from Seattle (more or less) and i like coffee. I don't like Starbucks. "Everyone" thinks Starbucks is the personification of what Seattle coffee is/should be (more or less.) So in the popular perception i hate Seattle coffee. That made me feel weird. Understanding or not understanding why Starbucks is popular had nothing to do with it directly.

But by analogy i'm no different from every American who doesn't particularly like McDonalds :)

I guess if i were to assume that i _am_ the ultimate arbiter of good taste then it would help to have an explanation for for how Starbucks did well despite it sucking. But i was really focused on figuring out an easy explanation about how my taste (and the taste of anyone else from Seattle who feels similarly) being independent of the popular perception is entirely reasonable.
Pava: darks&ojmpava on March 7th, 2009 04:14 am (UTC)
All the above said...

YAY for posting about something happy :->
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.