Just now I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Manchester, New Hampshire enjoying a caffé latte and people watching, my favorite spectator sport. By now Starbucks has taken over the world. In the United States we have become a society that thrives on caffeine. We work 40+ hours a week, carry multiple jobs to pay for our health care and bills, we juggle laundry with taking our children to school, then practice, then tutoring, then homework, and if there is enough time, some quality family bonding over glasses of iced tea, soda, or coffee.
Once a quaint little coffee shop in Seattle, Washington, Starbucks has become synonymous with the American way of life as mom, baseball, and apple pie. We Americans do love our coffee. Consumed in the morning over the newspaper (conviently read on our computers or iPads), at breaks throughout the day, after dinner with a piece of pie, or with that glorious drag of a cigarette (for those who have refused to nip that bad habit in the bud), coffee has become more essential to our survival than water itself. For proof of this just take a look at all of those people carrying around cups of hot or iced coffee drinks. Those people also seem to be getting younger.
As I said, I am enjoying a caffé latte, a superb concoction of espresso and steamed milk. Tasting somewhat like a dessert, the latte gives us the pickup we need without the bitter, acidic taste of my personal favorite, the black coffee. I have tried to limit myself to only three lattes a week. However, sometimes I give in and have four or five. An espresso is a character-building drink that separates the serious drinkers from the pretenders. Yet, when the barista adds steamed milk the opportunity to enjoy an espresso is widened to the general public. Add a dash of cinnamon or chocolate and one has the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. Simply put, when consumed in moderation coffee makes us feel better.
But does Starbucks serve the best tasting coffee in the world? As good as I find this particular elixir of the gods to be, I find it hard to believe that Starbucks can brew the perfect cup of coffee. For me, a black regular from Starbucks often tastes as if the beans were burnt in the roasting process. The best coffee, again for me, often comes from diners or small, out of the way places. In Europe, the best cup of coffee I have ever had was in Urbino, Italy in 1996. There one enters a small café and stands at the bar ordering a coffee. It’s made fresh and served in a cute little china cup and saucer with a slim bill neatly placed under the cup. The experience is surreal. The espresso is gulped quickly and one feels the jolt of energy provided by the drink and the chaos of conversation in a foreign country. This is how people should live in the world.
As admirable as Starbucks is, especially as a company with a global conscience, I am sad, but given our addiction to caffeine, not surprised to see one on every corner. Like America’s two other powerhouses who have put smaller shops out of business, Wal-Mart and Barnes $ Noble, the day of the neighborhood café seems to be in crisis. They exist, but are increasingly rare. According to the Starbucks website, they have over 16, 000 stores, and operate in over 50 countries. That’s one hell of a business. A few years ago I paid a visit to the original store in Seattle. It was smaller than I expected, and was wall to wall with visitors waiting for their favorite caffeinated beverage. I ordered a Pike Place Roast and was only slightly impressed with the flavor. Nevertheless, I was glad I stopped in. The store can be easy to miss in this touristy section of town.
A plan of action then: I will go out in search of the perfect cup of coffee. I will refuse to let time zones, borders, or jet lag deter me from my mission. Surely, someone, somewhere, can serve me up a better cup of coffee.
P.S. I hope someone from the Travel Channel reads this. Send me across the globe on this important mission!