Saturday, August 25, 2001

Spilling the beans on coffee

No longer just a bitter lacklustre alternative to tea, coffee has, at last, come into its own. In its latest avatar, coffee is more of a lifestyle than a product. It is a rage in America and coffee bars are hip and happening while the drink itself comes in a mind-boggling range of 400 flavours, says Mohinder Singh.

IN 1984 an American plastic salesman named Howard Schultz visited Italy, and was impressed by the coffee culture there; 1500 espresso bars in Milan alone. But what especially fascinated and impressed Schultz was the deft manner in which the bartenders (barista) created a drink. "The barista moved so gracefully that it looked as though he were grinding the coffee beans, pulling shots of espresso, and steaming milk at the same time while conversing merrily with his customers. It was a great theatre," says Schultz.

Flying home, he dreamed of a chain of US espresso bars that would recreate Milan’s coffee-house culture. To ensure that Starbucks generated an authentic feel, he spotlighted his baristas as though they were on the stage, ensured they were experts at their job and invented exotic, Italian-sounding names for his various drinks.


The idea succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. There are now thousands of Starbucks all over the world, and he presides over a multi-million dollar business.

Although selling what used to be essentially a mass-produced and mass-marketed commodity, Starbucks artfully recreate the feel and smell of genuine Italian coffee-houses. The decor, which differs slightly from one store to the next, is in earthy shades of brown and orange, with small tables and wicker baskets filled with newspapers. Thanks to its atmosphere of relaxed self-indulgence, Starbucks became a safe ‘third place’, a secure and friendly yet easily accessible public area where customers could rewind, meet friends, or sit alone savouring the aroma of high-quality coffee.

Photo: Gaurav SoodNearly 10 million customers visit Starbucks every week and the average customer comes back 18 times in a month. Its success has spawned a number of similar coffee chains, such as Quartermaine’s.

Once ice cream was the rage in America. Then came pizza. Now it’s the turn of coffee. People go out for coffee like they go out for a meal or movie.

Starbucks has not only reinvented coffee, it has reinvented the cafe. What if someone could do the same to tea!

To me coffee simply came in the following varieties: black, with milk, with sugar, without sugar. And one was quite content if one’s coffee came hot. Now it’s all a matter of flavour. They tell you, there are at least 400 different coffees. Coffee originally came from Kaffa in Ethiopia which gave it the name ‘coffee’.

At Starbucks they hand over a pamphlet that assures you of "the world’s best beans, roasted to perfection and prepared at peak freshness by our professional baristas".

For people like me unfamiliar with the new jargon of coffee, it’s a job deciding what to order. They have things like Uganda Kona Hazelnut Latte, Peruvian Monkeyfoot Decaf, Jamaican Blue Mountain, Gautemalan Highland, New Guinea Peaberry and Ethiopia Yeragacheffe. And you have to choose between foamed milk and steamed milk, between caf and decaf, between latte and mocha and between umpteen other combinations of espresso-based concoctions. Rows of glittering machines busily brewing the stuff; transfiguring the muddy liquid into high-octane fuel of the information age.

To help you decide which coffee is right for you, they even hand you a bean to chew upon. I thought the whole purpose of grinding the hard, bitter bean and brewing it was to get rid of the bean.

I ended up ordering a plain $4 Columbian with "foamed milk". It arrived with a thick foamy head that would make our Kingfisher beer jealous. Piercing the canopy of foam which had taken two thirds of the cup, I realised that the actual liquid was just two sips — that amounted to two dollars per sip.

Presumably it’s more a part of the new coffee snobbery that rivals wine snobbery. Through marketing and advertising, Starbucks has managed to portray coffee more as a lifestyle than a product.

It’s the era of chic coffee. Not only imbibing pricey coffee, but bringing style into the very act of drinking — from the way you blow on it and wrap your hands around the cup, to the way you lift it to your mouth, the way you sip or gulp.

In India, similar outlets, especially Baristas, are coming up. Baristas offer great coffee, good cookies, pleasant surroundings and enthusiastic services.