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05/08/2012 / van berger

‘I’ll have a decaf grande skinny low-fat mocha with whipped cream on the side’

coffee beans

Coffee: that irresistibly creamy caffeinated, miracle liquid that gets millions of Americans through the day. From what I’ve observed in the last two months, America seems to be driven by coffee culture. It’s the one place where carrying a huge cup of coffee is like an accessory to the clothes you choose to wear everyday. When you’re not wearing a cup of coffee- you’re sure to feel like a part of you is missing instantly. But never fear – all you have to do is run to the nearest Starbucks (there’s one on EVERY SINGLE corner) and you’re socially acceptable. Don’t assume that a normal sized coffee cup is enough to get you through the morning though- you should ideally grab a 20oz (+_600ml) cup and you’ll be wired (until your next hit later). Make sure you ask for the skinny milk option though (because you’re ‘healthy’).

I enjoy coffee in moderate amounts, but I don’t like drinking average coffee just for the sake of something to keep me busy or to look cool. That’s why I find it interesting that because coffee is so ingrained in the culture here,  it’s normal for so many people to flock to places like Starbucks for pretty average coffee. In our two months here I’ve noticed that the ritual of drinking coffee in America seems to be quite different to South Africa. The large majority of coffee shops in the States have a wifi-network which is one of the main reasons why so many people head out the house to get their fix. Many people visit coffee shops for hours by themselves, drinking coffee while playing on their laptops (or pretending to work). In South Africa I’ve found the experience to be quite different. Even though you do see people working in coffee shops in bigger cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, the social emphasis of meeting up with someone in a coffee shop takes preference over the professional one.

After first arriving in this coffee-driven land, I struggled to order a normal cup of filter coffee at many of the chain stores. The options were either cappuccino, latte, mocha or what is known as drip coffee. Drip coffee (in my opinion) is pretty gross as it usually stands for hours in a coffee jugs on a hot plate meaning it usually tastes burnt or old. Eventually I landed up ordering an Americano (which is essentially expresso with added hot water, but tastes way better and fresher than drip coffee). The options you can choose from are endless (as seen in the title of this blog post)- I always get asked if I want cream in my coffee and there are loads of toppings and syrups you can usually add. You can also choose from about four different milk options (full fat, cream, half and half and no-fat). The times I have ordered coffee in Starbucks- I’ve felt ripped off. The coffee was average tasting, yet cost more than other cafes charged. After many unsatisfying cups of coffee, D and I eventually found our favourite coffee spot in Mountain View called ‘Dana Roasting Company’ which not only charges way less, but just seems less mass-produced and commercial. They grind their own beans in the store and have live bands performing on most evenings. Also how can you not trust a coffee shop with this kind of anti-Starbucks sign?

Dana Roasting Company

These stats say it all…Sourced from

Coffee drinking stats

Today work hours aren’t always 9 to 5 and in big cities like New York people are always on the go and work all hours of the day. Coffee is a handy stimulant that gets the day started (or a night shift) and gets the worker through their work hours. Office coffee machines are everywhere and mutually beneficial to both employees and employers- productivity is boosted for employers who want their workers to start work right away and at the same time it’s more convenient for the employer who doesn’t have to leave their desk for a coffee break. Think about it- what’s the one thing your place of employment usually provides in the office kitchen? Not nutritious snacks like fruit or even margarine for your measly lunch sandwich- It’s coffee.

Think of your favourite American TV shows- Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld? What do they all have in common? Coffee! They all use coffee as a main character and as a prop in the background for socialising. This is where we start to relate to coffee as almost a friend, which gets you through almost anything (especially when served in those awesome cups in the Friends coffee shop). Everyone in movies seems to either walk past a Starbucks or have a Starbucks coffee in hand. Think about the Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep always drinks Starbucks – an easy association can be made here with living a powerful lifestyle and drinking Starbucks (and getting exactly the individualised coffee style you want).

Frazier and Central Perk coffee shops

Left: Many episodes of the popular sitcom Frasier are based around this coffee shop- source: . Right: Everyone knows ‘Central Perk’, where our favourite ‘Friends’ hang out- source:

Although the first coffeehouse was opened in Venice in 1683, the beverage has been around since around 1608 and was mainly consumed by the elite during those days. During the French revolution, revolutionists began discussions over the bourgeoisie in Parisian coffeehouses. In 1960’s America, coffee was branded to appeal to an older audience, while soft-drinks were popular amongst the younger generation (anyone who has watched Mad Men will see this referenced). Starbucks, which originated in Seattle in 1971 has had a large hand in changing that perception. Three friends took their hard-earned cash and started a coffee shop, but in 1981 the company was sold to investors and that’s when the huge corporation took hold. Statistics vary across the internet, but it seems that they now have over 19 000 stores in over 50 countries worldwide. Their partnering with brands like Barnes and Noble (bookshop)  and Safeway (grocery store) have meant they have expanded even further and have begun to represent a place where ‘people can network, relax and enjoy the simple pleasures of a cup of coffee.’

This expansion hasn’t been all smooth-sailing as many people have bashed the brand for their questionable sourcing of coffee beans and labour practices. Some of the ways they have expanded have included buying out competitors’ leases, operating at a loss on purpose and saturating the market with chains so close to each other. There is also talk of them starting their own coffee plantation in China to help satisfy the emerging demand for coffee there (and hence satisfy many of the Chinese who look to Starbucks as a way of living the Western lifestyle). Critics have also questioned the companies decision to move away from sourcing quality beans from more expensive farmers in regions like Costa Rica because of the sheer volume they need to source. This means that they will start using cheaper beans from larger farms in Brazil and other places (more information). If Starbucks starts to change the way they source their supply, many other coffee chains may follow.

The anti-Starbucks following has spread across the interwebs with many parodies and imitations of their logo popping up all over the show. There are websites like which up until 2004 actually owned the domain name (until Starbucks managed to buy it off them). The website is pretty entertaining and shows how people have ripped off the logo (see below). They state that they have even received quite a few CV’s from people trying to apply for a job at Starbucks through their site. Their main reason for hating Starbucks: “Take McDonalds and make it into a coffee house, bingo you’ve got Starbucks!” – which is pretty self-explanatory.


Above left: Starbucks are on every corner in big cities in America -source: Above right: Two images from the website which encourages users to send in spoof Starbucks logos- source:

Yay – something positive! This growing movement aims to enhance the way coffee is not only seen in the community, but produced. These days coffee is seen more of a commodity in the US – on equal level with something like wheat. Instead third wave coffee is trying to make it be seen as a ‘artisanal foodstuff’ like wine. This means better bean growing, harvesting and processing to produce a more quality product. A better relationship between coffee growers, traders and roasters needs to be promoted. I’ve seen this in a way more successful level in South Africa- maybe because the smaller places stand out more because we don’t have huge corporations like Starbucks taking over everywhere. When I think about the coffee at places like Truth Coffee and Espresso Lab Microroasters in Cape Town I feel homesick!

The farmers markets are one of the few places I’ve seen micro roasters selling their coffee here. That along with an emphasis on organic fresh produce seems like a great way of starting to convert Americans to go for quality over quantity and convenience.  The irony of the situation is that I often see people buying loads of organic veggies, but then they’re carrying the standard Starbucks cup of coffee, when they have access to better quality stuff at the market! I don’t get it. I guess I’m just glad that although McDonalds has spread to South Africa, Starbucks hasn’t gained access there yet. I hope it stays that way. In the meantime I’ll probably be sticking to my Bialetti coffee at home. 



Leave a Comment
  1. Megan muirhead / May 8 2012 13:37

    I think I can safely say that I am 99 % sure I will never be drinking a starbucks coffee, I don’t even like it!!

  2. Marisa / May 9 2012 04:42

    Awesome read lady! Actually, I’ve just recently read that Starbucks coffee is going to be stocked in Checkers. Just the bags so you buy it and make it at home but still. I’m tempted to try it just for novelty’s sake since I don’t think I’ve tried it before. I might’ve had one cup at Dubai International but I can’t recall… I guess that would say something then 🙂

  3. van berger / May 9 2012 08:50

    Marisa-Wow are you being serious? Checkers! Strange. Well give it a try- just don’t have high expectations. although it might be better than checkers no name brand coffee 😉

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