Sunday, July 26, 2009

New Rules

So Starbucks finally opened a store to try to go toe-to-toe with the high-end coffee crowd. The signs were there all along; from half way across the world, even I knew that they had bought the company that manufactures clover and remember people complaining about how Starbucks had apparently gone and bought up all the Blue Batak so that it was difficult for the little independent dudes to get any?

Read the Cho's article, take a look at the photos on flickr: from a five minute glance it looks like the new store is a cold and calculated attempt to jump into the little independent dude space. Take a look at the bolts sticking out of the back of the LM, the old-school kettles, chalkboards and enough recycled timber to take on even MD. This is grunge manufactured with decimal point precision.

Naturally, I think that the gut reaction of anyone interested in high end coffee will look at this venture with cynicism. I mean, they can't really be cool if the process by which they create the image of being cool is detached, calculated and analytical ... can they? These guys are just stepping into the little independent space and presumably regurgitating all the same messages about "single origins" and other buzzwords that the high-end coffee movement has been all about; any bets the coffee won't actually be all that good ... will it?

But let's take a step back for a minute. It's not as though putting together a funky looking cafe, presenting the public with a beguiling array of buzzwords and information about coffee and still selling a pretty crappy product is something that Starbucks has a monopoly on (if, indeed, that is what they are doing here). There are any number of little independent roasteries out there that are free-riding on the work of the good guys. I think that many of us have been to a cafe or roastery where the barista behind the expensive multi-boiler wundermachine has waxed lyrical about the fantastic properties of the coffee of the day, only to serve something that was disappointing, if not defective, but in no way lived up to the hype. Similarly, I think that many of us have been sold coffee accompanied by a whole page of information about it, but that two seconds of research will show is actually one of the cheaper, commodity type coffees right off the offer sheet of a large broker. (Sidebar: I'm in no way bagging the large brokers; they have stunning coffees as well as crappy coffees - the challenge for the roaster, as always, is to find them.)

The good news for the consumer is that Starbucks will hopefully mop the floor with independents who talk the talk, but don't walk the walk. Starbucks has the cash, the marketing brains and the clout to beat these guys at everything that they do. The only advantage that the independents have in wining the marketing "war of words" is that they are not associated with the Starbucks brand and can position themselves free of the baggage that that entails. Hopefully competing with this new entrant will mean that independent little guys will have to deliver better quality. The news is good for those that do; hopefully this new Starbucks store will act as a stepping stone to get consumers in the USA moving towards the best coffee.

So overall, I'm quite optimistic about the impact of this new venture on the consumer (as opposed to on little independent roasteries) - more competition is usually better. I do have one gripe, though - whilst the "inspired by Starbucks" tagline obviously does the job of getting the consumer to understand that it is a Starbucks store, it is a bit of a slap in the face to all of the independent stores that would seem to have been the real inspirations for it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The B Word

OK, so it has been a while since I last updated, but it hasn't exactly been hard to get your fix of Luca coffee rants. My last article, on Fair Trade coffee, was published in BeanScene #3 and is on my other web page, complete with copious footnotes and the full reviews of the featured coffee. My recent article in Cafe Culture gave a very brief overview of the wonderful coffee tasting course that I did in the USA earlier this year. And there is much more in the pipeline ...

The one thing that is decidedly missing in the above is controversy and opinion. After all, what is the bloggosphere if not a virtual soapbox?

There was a tiny bit of controversy in response to my last post, where I dared to use the word "best," albeit with half a billion disclaimers, including prefacing the word with "one of" as opposed to "the". The person who posted the comment since deleted it. I kind of wish that that person hadn't because the comment raised a very good point. From what I remember, the comment was something along the lines of "don't use the word best; can't we all get along and appreciate everthing that everyone is doing without comparing and whilst singing kumbaya." Obviously I'm paraphrasing. The poster of that comment is welcome to take exception and correct me, but is welcome to stay silent, safe in the knowledge that I won't reveal his (or her) name ;P

I certainly agree that the B-word is used indiscriminately online in relation to coffee and its presence often indicates unreliable information. In the past, I have been careful not to use that word where possible. That said, all coffee, all coffee machines and all coffee roasters are most certainly not created equal. I don't think that it's controversial to recognise that some things are better than others and having spent a lot of time exploring the world of coffee I'm happy to mention some things that I like. (I'm even more happy to do so against a background of a disturbing rise in coffee roasters using buzzwords over substance, but that's a rant for another rant!)

In that spirit, let me point out that our good friends at Square Mile have to be amongst the world's best coffee roasters. (Stick that up your pipe and smoke it, anonymous commenter!)

On a more serious note, I have now had the pleasure of tasting coffee from Square Mile on multiple occasions and in each instance I have been quite amazed at the care taken to select different coffees and roast them to present vastly different sensory experiences, which mostly match up pretty closely with the description of the coffee.

Now, there are a few really top notch coffee roasters around and whilst the shelves at Square Mile groan under the weight of many trophies, that's not really enough to merit my dragging my lazy hide to the keyboard for this blog post. What merited this post is that Square Mile seems to be a happy convergence of an abundance of coffee talent and a dearth of accounting talent leading to a ridiculously cheap subscription for us Aussies. Long story short, we can get a 350g bag of coffee delivered to our door from merry old London every month for about $20/month (roasted for filter brewing). That's about $60/kg delivered. I actually wrote an email to Anette to check that this price was correct for Australia, given that postage of anything to Australia from practically anywhere is usually enough to impoverish all but the six richest kings of Europe. To be fair, though, this is also in part due to the AUD being the strongest that it has been against the GBP for a long time.

There's always a catch and this time around it is quarantine. It seems that AQIS has now decided to inspect anything and everything. Green coffee imports quite clearly require a permit, but I have never had a problem having roasted coffee shipped in until a few months ago - presumably because nothing nasty can survive the 200C+ temperatures that coffee is exposed to when it is roasted. The first time around, my order arrived a mere week after it was posted, but this time around it was delayed two. Here's hoping that we return to the situation where roasted coffee is acknowledged to be as low risk as it clearly is.

Great coffee every month and reprieve from the agony of choice. Lovely.

Anyway, with my obligation to put something on this blog fulfiled, I bid you adieu!