The Starbucks Contradiciton

I like Starbucks. There, I said it. I'm sure Steve will be spiking my next coffee order and I'll have to start sleeping with my eyes open, but there is no denying the truth. In my defense, however, it is not for the reasons you may think. I'm not a slave to the corporate machine, I'm not a caffeine junkie, I don't like huge sizes and I certainly don't want a shot of vanilla and whipped cream in my cappuccino. The many faults of Starbucks, which have been flogged to death all over the web, are superfluous to my reasons. I want to focus on a few changes over the last year and whether or not they are nothing more than marketing ploys; the introduction of the 'Pike Place Roast' in the USA and the switching to Fair Trade in the UK.

Fact, here are over 15000 Starbucks in the world! - WikiAnswers
They may have gone off message since opening their doors, but Starbucks is the largest coffee chain in the world. That may be a negative to some people, but try to consider what the world of coffee was without Starbucks. Have a look in any 'greasy spoon' cafe in the UK and you will see the remnants of the old way of doing things, filter pots left on the hotplate all day, Nescafe instant in bulk quantities, espresso, if it can be called that, from dirty machines and oily beans. The sort of thing we see in the very worst of coffee shops, where coffee is not considered a culinary product, but just another commodity to sell. With the spread of Starbucks has come the spread of coffee shop and most importantly, espresso culture. It's very unlikely that you favourite coffee house today would exist without the legitimacy given to gourmet coffee by Starbucks. You can't buy marketing like that, well you can, they did...

Howard Schultz, taking a leaf from Steve Jobs' book, has returned to the company and earlier this year, announced a series of changes, bringing back manual machines, shorter times keeping brewed coffee and the Pike Place Blend, roasted and delivered to stores within two weeks of brewing. Recognising and attempting to fix mistakes is a quality which in business these days, is avoided like the plague. Pike Place Roast which for anyone unaware and/or leaving outside the US, is a new house blend with a much more palatable roast profile. Whereas the older 'House Blend' was infamous for being darkly roasted and tasting "charred," Pike Place (named after Starbucks original location in Seattle) is a little lighter roasted and from my own experiences this summer, a bit sweeter and more balanced. Along with the new blend comes the obligatory rebrand of cups and store cards bearing the original logo (more or less) and a reemphasis on freshness, which is when I started taking notice.

I bought a 1lb of Pike place back in August and even after a week or two it was still enjoyable. During that time I grabbed a bag of House Blend from my local Starbucks, in Belfast and brewed it up using the same method as the Pike Place. For some reason which I have yet to understand, I didn't actually make any hard notes during this time, not very scientific I know, but I can say with certainty that even 'freshly' out of the bag, the House Blend already tasted like "burnt tarmac."

It left me hoping that Starbucks Europe would make a similar move, but the logistics of roasting and transport within Europe would be more challenging than in the US. That said, if The Coffee Collective can do it, why can't Starbucks?

Speaking of Europe, that brings me back to their other big change, switching to Fairtrade, across their range, in the UK. There has been plenty written about Fairtrade and its branding, how it's not actually as fair as it makes out; the speciality industry has touted the direct trade and relationship coffee as viable alternatives, that give more, financially and technically, back to the producers. You can find articles on fair trade here, here and here, to name a few.

Unlike the Pike Place Roast and improvements in quality and freshness, the Fairtrade switch seems to be more marketing genius, than helping farmers. However that is only my speculation and in turn, my dilemma. The real effect of both these changes remain unseen. The important thing is, that no matter where we stand on the Fairtrade issue, we need to make sure that ethical buying is not to salve our own conscience, but is because we care about our fellow man.

Andrew Gribben @grib