“We stopped at the IKEA café, where the coffee was cheap and the service friendly, but we didn’t see anyone writing poetry”

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Having just remarked that Australia doesn’t get much attention in the British press, a few articles have just surfaced in the papers about Starbucks closing most of its Australian stores. I don’t know if anyone has bothered to point out that Australian Starbucks was at least one of the lesser failures to be associated with Natasha Stott Despoja’s political career, which coincidentally ended about the same time as the coffee chain’s attempt to dominate the Antipodean market.
There has been some tentative speculation about whether this business decision has more to do with the credit crunch, heroic localised resistance to encroaching globalisation, or just the realisation that Starbucks coffee isn’t very good. British chin-stroking on the subject has been clouded by the difficulty most Brits have in distinguishing a macchiato from Marmite.
It is a truism that the British don’t know how to make coffee – a defining cultural trait, centuries in the making, which still holds sway even in modern-day London. The symptom of this deficiency most immediately visible to the London visitor is the large number of Starbucks, all full to capacity, with queues to the counter sometimes stretching to 20 people. It is an eye-opening contrast to the typical Australian Starbucks experience of a faintly caffeinated morgue, empty save for a small scattering of listless tourists.
Worse still, the majority of British, virtually alone among the Europeans, think it’s what good coffee is supposed to taste like:

Like every other UK coffee geek I’ve conveniently airbrushed from my memory the debt I owe Starbucks; how, before they arrived, coffee was a throat-rasping, lip-puckering laxative tar dispensed in caffs that couldn’t give a toss; how we delighted in our first taste of a cafe culture and how we sucked down the enticing new mixtures.

Sadly, Starbucks was probably a true advancement for the British appreciation of coffee. For coffee lovers, London is a Bizarro city where the small, independent café will generally serve an inferior coffee to that offered by the multinational chains. On my way to work each morning I stop off at the nearby branch of a coffee franchise (not Starbucks) for my long black. Just up the street is a stylish independent café where the bright young things congregate. It has excellent pastries, and weak, milky coffee that costs half as much again, which is all too typical. The swill served at the (overrated) traditional “caffs” doesn’t bear thinking about.
If the girl behind the counter warns you it might be too strong, the coffee will be almost acceptable. After two years in London, my girlfriend made the mistake of ordering a “strong latte” out of habit on her first visit back home to Melbourne, and had the jitters for an hour afterwards.
The trouble in London is that Starbucks has set a standard of burnt, watery mediocrity to which many have risen, but so few aspire to exceed. We probably get the evil multinational conglomerates we deserve. Starbucks coffee may be bad, but badness hasn’t stopped other franchises from spreading around the world – look at McDonald’s. But then again, look at the local variations McDonald’s has made to its menu in Australia, and in other countries all around the world (British Maccas even serve porridge for breakfast). It seems that, when confronted with a particular café culture in Australia, Starbucks could not or would not adapt to survive in it.
Of course, our former colonial masters scoff good-naturedly at the idea of Australians being “too sophisticated” for Starbucks – this light-hearted derision coming from a country where packets of pasta are printed with recommended cooking times giving a minute or two leeway, and the baristas ask if you want ice in your long black. A country in blissful ignorance of an entire continent of excellent coffee that lies just across the Channel.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)