That ubiquitous green siren

My topic today is Starbucks. *Cue startled gasps* These days, everyone loves to hate Starbucks. Though, they must still be buying from them, because Starbucks is doing just fine! While I don't agree with everything the company has done, I have immense respect for what they have done for the coffee scene. I want to take a chance to put things in proper perspective.


Starbucks began in Seattle, Washington in the 70s with three former University of San Francisco students. They had learned their craft from Alfred Peet (of Peet's Coffee and Tea). Starbucks, along with a few other like-minded roasting companies began a new style of coffee. The focus was on better quality, and darker roasts. This contrasted with the mass-market coffee that was being roasted lighter and lighter with low quality beans. At the time, coffee quality was not nearly as good as it is now and so the dark roast really improved the quality of these inconsistent beans. As the company expanded and gained traction, they were the front lines of this new style of coffee all over the world. They taught the language of espresso (latte, macchiato, cappuccino). The biggest thing they did, was convince people that coffee was worth more, and that it was ok to pay $3 for a good beverage.

In the 90s and early 2000s, as third-wave shops started to rise, they presented themselves as a alternative to Starbucks. They started buying higher-quality, more traceable lots and roasting them lighter. But, the truth is, no one would have cared that they existed if Starbucks had not led the way. So when I hear someone bashing the 'Bucks, I remind them gently that Starbucks has played a huge role in the success of small, artisan roasters like me. I write this in the hopes that you, who sheepishly hide your Starbucks cup when you walk by my farmers market booth, will know that I don't judge you for buying from them. They are a part of our history, and with their massive market control, they are likely to play a major role in shaping the future of the coffee world.

One more thing I will share on this topic, and then I'm done. For much of the past 4-5 decades, the small roasters and coffee shops have been struggling to keep up with Starbucks, yet in the past 5 years I have noticed a distinct change. Starbucks, slowly, but surely, has begun to offer their own versions of classic third-wave beverages (Flat white, espresso macchiato, cold brew). Last time I walked by the Starbucks in my neighborhood Kroger, I noticed they were selling a cascara latte (cascara is made from the dried coffee cherry). So Starbucks, in small way, is looking to us for innovation and that is a good sign that we are on to something!

Me and Starbucks, we roast very differently. Their "light" roast is a bit past my medium-dark roast. But, they have a distinct style. And I'm not going to judge you if you pop in for a Frappuccino from time to time. There is a tag line I want to steal from another company. Goose Island Beer Company has the line "we don't want to be the only beer you drink, we just want to be the best beer you drink." I feel the same way about coffee. We don't need to be the only coffee you drink, we just want to be the best coffee you drink.

Bryan HibbardComment