A Stinking, Watery Brew

It’s funny when you’re living in Italy and you’re entering a Starbucks – almost everything on offer has an Italian name, from the cappuccino to the caffè americano, and the menu tells you that it’s all made with ‘espresso coffee’, whatever that means, but none of what they have on offer is remotely Italian.

I have never seen a Starbucks in Italy. I don’t think there are any, simply because the Italian coffee culture is very popular in it’s own right. A Starbucks wouldn’t last a week here – maybe in Rome they could try, just to serve the millions of American tourists, but not out here on the edge of Europe. Italians prefer a bar, a quick espresso or ristretto (betcha didn’t know that one, ya barbarians!) on the fly, without sitting down, or a longer pause with a newspaper and maybe a dolce to accompany their choice of coffee.

Last week in Paris I had that craving for good coffee; the French generally don’t know how to make that and ask extortionist prices for their brew. I entered a Starbucks, thinking that a chain which makes coffee their business would at least serve me something decent. Maybe not Italian, but drinkable, pleasurable, close to what I was used to in Holland perhaps. Which, by Italian standards, is still acqua colorata – coloured water.

What I got after ordering a caffè americano, which in Italy is an espresso with a bit too much water in a larger cup, was a fastfood style bucket with a ‘travel lid’, containing a hot brown liquid – about half a liter of it.

I lifted the lid to add sugar and was greeted by a rather unpleasant yet hard-to-describe stench – somewhere between boiled cardboard and soggy shoes. Although that wasn’t very inviting, I did take a sip. And that triggered a memory.

Once, as a boy, I worked in the workshop of the furniture shop where my father was interior designer. I shared lunch and coffee breaks with the craftsmen and in the afternoon they made tea with the same coffee machine they used for coffee in the morning, which inevitably resulted in cups of scalding hot water with a slight taste of coffee, completely overwhelming whatever tea was in there as well. And that’s what Starbucks caffè americano tasted like. Albeit that the furniture shop ‘tea’ was not in the least bit smelly.

Perhaps Starbucks’ ‘frappuccinos’ or whatever the hell it is they sell with whip cream and fancy flavourings are actually a delight. But they market themselves as coffee makers and serve a stinking, watery brew in a cardboard cup. Which probably also serves as basis for their fancier stuff – and that just about tells me enough.

No matter how often Starbucks uses the word ‘handcrafted’ on their site as if they chisel their damn coffee from blocks of wood or marble – it’s the worst few sips of machine sludge I’ve ever had. If the future of food and drink enjoyment is in these giant chains with their standardized tastes and standardized recipes, we’re about to enter the Dark Age.



  1. The worst thing that can happy to you in any coffee joint in the States is the free refill. Happily in many places in California (and in Las Vegas, Nevada) they have real Italian coffee machines nowadays and though they for some reason múst serve the brew in a paper mug, most of the time it is rather drinkable — perhaps due to the fact that in that kind of shops latino’s do the work. The only strange thing I saw in Las Vegas was the local cappuccino: served in what in Holland would be a peasoup bowl; containing three quarters of a litre rather passable cappucino.

    And for the benefit of your readers: unless you want to be recognized as a bloody foreigner, never ask for an espresso, but ‘un caffè’. Never a cappuccino, but ‘un cappuccio’. And never drink cappuccino after dinner, or even after 10.30 am.

  2. I would like to direct a small ray of light your way, as well as some old fashioned, schadenfrau. Starbucks has been having less than expected revenue and profit over the last year and a half, and recently closed hundreds of its stores in the United States. The CEO issued a long letter to investors and executives detailing the causes for this and mentioned that the decision to switch to a more automated and mass-production method for its coffee was a significant factor in its decline.

    To quote a local cafe near my house, “Friends don’t let friends go to Starbucks.”

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