Let’s be brutally honest: without Starbucks we would not have speciality coffee in the United Kingdom. They came into the UK in September of ’98, capitalising on the growth of the coffee movement, helped significantly at the time by the popularity of the TV show Friends and the new idea of the ‘coffee shop hangout’.
If you frequent these shops, great! I’m glad you enjoy it, I honestly am. Everyone is allowed their own opinion and I am not trying to tell you that you're wrong. This is merely food for thought.
Howard Schultz, Executive Chairman of Starbucks, was interviewed by the BBC back in 1998. Mr. Schultz was quoted not mentioning anything to do with the quality of the Starbucks product, rather focusing on the creation of 500 stores in Europe and building an “enduring global brand’”. The goal at the time was 4000 stores worldwide, there are now more than 27,000. Howard himself now has a net worth of over $3.1 billion American Dollars and still remains in his position as Executive Chairman.
Also interviewed was Howard Behar, then President of Starbucks Coffee International. Again, no mention of product, but only of a “hope to benefit from the pub culture in the UK to make Starbucks a natural meeting place for people.”
To be fair to them, this is incredibly smart business. Don’t establish a product, but a culture, a brand, a lifestyle. It’s also probably why they didn’t even last 8 years in Australia before pulling out - the coffee culture and lifestyle already was there and their product just was not up to standard.
It wasn’t just Starbucks who settled in the UK; there was also Costa, Cafe Nero, Greggs, Pret a Manger, and Coffee Republic. Let’s just say for the sake of a streamlined article: Starbucks = Starbucks, Greggs, Pret, Costa etc.
So after 20 years of Starbucks, why are we still following this brand-established lifestyle - which is purely designed to make a profit - rather than visiting local independent businesses who are producing what is conceivably a ‘better’ product?
By ‘better’ I am taking my personal opinions out and for now purely looking at the base product. Now Starbucks aren’t the villains in the coffee industry. They don’t treat coffee farmers badly, they don’t ruin the environment - quite the opposite actually. They have outstanding records when it comes to sustainability. The problem is though, to be an ‘enduring global brand’ one has to offer a consistent product throughout the world. Which, while still an outstanding achievement, it does mean they have to essentially roast the bean so dark that it may as well be ash..
Next time you visit a local Starbucks, look inside the beans in their machines. It’s almost as if they paint each individual bean the same colour, they’re all incredibly dark brown and oily. Then go home and Google how a coffee cherry looks like as it begins its journey into your cup. The difference is disturbing.
There will be no roast dates on their beans nor an exact statement of origin on their store-served espresso roasts. Merely a vague description that covers almost about half the world, such as ’Latin America’ or ‘Asia/Pacific’.
Speciality coffee for the most part does the opposite. They will always inform you of where the beans are from, what day they were roasted and how it should be prepared. While sometimes it can be a little less consistent than Starbucks, you know an individual has put their heart into the getting the most out of this singular product. These coffees are specifically chosen for their own individual characteristics and roasted in a way to highlight those accordingly.
The easiest way to describe it is: Starbucks is the child who puts tomato sauce on everything. No matter what you try to feed this child, everything will eventually always taste like tomato sauce. So what is the point taking this child out to a nicer restaurant and spending extra money, when in the end, tomato sauce.
It's exactly the same. Why should Starbucks go out and source the best beans in the world? There is absolutely no point. They know this, they’re an extremely intelligent business.
So I think we can safely say the 'better' base product goes to speciality coffee.
I mentioned consistency, and yes Starbucks do win on this factor when it comes to the shot of espresso. It is consistent no matter where you go in the world, impressive. But unfortunately it’s consistently not great. I'd like to point out that coffee is a volatile product, the smallest variable can completely change the actual taste of the coffee. Half a gram either way can be a big deal. I think it's also quite impressive how speciality coffee copes with and negates as many variables as humanly possible.
There will be places using scales to get coffee to the exact weight. Independent shops spending £15-20,000 on machines. Baristas throwing out multiple shots of coffee each day to make sure consistency and quality is the same as the start of the morning. Some shops will even alter the pH levels of the water to obtain optimal extraction. It's crazy some of the stuff the industry will do to refine the product.
All Starbucks do is roast it to a crisp to where it no longer resembles what it originally was, a fruit (yes - coffee is a fruit). That's how they get their consistency.
Thinking all coffee should taste the same is like travelling the world thinking all apples taste the same. Or tomatoes, or wines. All fruit! To even attempt to make all coffee taste the same is a bit crazy when you actually think about it.
But this brings me to my actual point. A very simple point.
At the end of the day, it is all the same price.
Why are we paying the same price for something that just isn't as good?
It is easy, yes. It is usually convenient. It is familiar. But is this enough? Why are we taking the easy option rather than the better option?
If I'm presented with an amazing morning coffee my day is usually made, it's something I look forward to. It's not something I robotically consume to get a little bit of a kick.
When speciality coffee first entered Edinburgh, at least, it did have an attitude problem. This is not my opinion, I didn't even live here at the time. This is based solely on the opinions of speciality coffee shop owners that I've spoken to. Accessibility was a huge problem. Instead of purely offering an alternative, some shops took it upon themselves to 'educate'. To tell people what they could and couldn't have, how it will be prepared and why it was that way.
It probably turned some people away, and some have probably stayed away. Speciality coffee developed this 'hipster' tag because they decided they were different, that they were better.
But in this city at least, I believe that to have changed. Cairngorm are absolutely nailing an open environment. Fortitude are fronted by the nicest man in the world (you should see his eyes light up when talking about his newborn kid). The other great coffee shops are doing the same and all have their own individual characteristics.
Coffee should be fun, not just a habit. It should make you happy.
If Starbucks does that for you, I'm glad you're happy. But giving speciality coffee just one more chance may be the best decision you ever make.
Edinburgh Speciality Coffee Shops, should you need them.