On espresso and Starbucks

We would never have bought an inexpensive espresso machine, because we’re serious about our coffee, and we though you’d need an expensive machine to make a really good shot. But surprise: a cheap machine came as a gift from a relative. Now that we’ve perfected our technique, our home-made espresso is awesome! We’ve got flavour, we’ve got crema, we’ve got happy coffee-drinkers.

This gets me wondering about coffeeshops. Take Starbucks, for example. They sell the machine we’ve got, and you know the machines their baristas use are way more expensive and serious than our home model. Yet Starbucks’ espresso is crap. It has caffeine, so it will help a coffee addict prevent a withdrawal headache, but that’s about its only merit. Starbucks’ espresso is to coffee addicts what methadone is to heroin addicts.

This is puzzling. Starbucks claims to specialize in coffee, so why is their espresso so bad? To make it even more puzzling, Starbucks has started displaying signs that say "Come in for the neighbourhood’s best espresso" and "Espresso is at the heart of everything we do."

Baffling. Hey Starbucks, why on earth can’t you make good espresso? I can make awesome espresso, and you’ve got way more resources than I do.


9 thoughts on “On espresso and Starbucks

  1. Starbucks no longer has baristas. They don’t grind coffee. They don’t pack it in filter baskets. They don’t tamp it. They don’t time the shots. All they do is press the button. The machine does everything else, and the goal is consistency not quality. It is the Mcdonald’s syndrome: customers expect absolutely no variation in the branded product. The only possible way to achieve this is to industrialise production, through division of labour and/or mechanisation. Espresso is traditionally the exact opposite of this process: the making of an individual coffee by one individual for another individual, requiring an intimate engagement that is matched perhaps only by the making of Turkish coffee.

  2. Your blog popped up when I was searching for info on the Michelangelo drawing of St. Peter’s posted last December, and I must say, you post some interesting stuff. Now I am dying to know which espresso machine you have.

    I grew up in Vancouver, but now live in the U.S., and I miss Canada and Canadians.

  3. Hello, Allyson! Hope you’ll be able to move home soon if you miss Canada and Canadians.

    We have a Saeco Via Veneto. It can make horrible espresso or excellent espresso — it all depends on the beans, the roast, the quality of the grind, the tamping, and the time of the shot. (At the moment we’re using Salt Spring Coffee‘s Metta Espresso Dark Roast Blend beans, and grinding them just so.) If you’re interested in buying an espresso machine, take a look at How to Buy an Espresso Machine at coffeegeek.com.

    Hello, John. Well said!

  4. When it comes to espresso, Starbucks is a joke. First of all, I would venture to say that 99.9% of the people who go to Starbucks do not order an espresso. They are looking for all of the other coffee drinks in the Starbucks galaxy. The only way to find good espresso, is in a decent restaurant or another establishment that prides itself on making quality espresso. For me, I have used my Gaggia Classic for the last 14 years, and it is the closest thing to true Italian espresso that I have used in the USA.

    This article is true because folks who have a home espresso machine take the time to make it right. They buy quality beans, and they learn how to become experts at the craft. You are not going to find this in a Starbucks. We all know what we have in Starbucks. What we don’t have are people that really care to make good espresso. You do not have to go broke to find a machine that will make great espresso. Buy a quality product and buy high quality beans and learn to make it on your own. It will be the best, and least expensive way to enjoy espresso outside of Italy.

  5. Most of the drinks Starbucks sells are some variation on a latte. So typically they have one or two shots of espresso diluted with a fair amount of milk (not to mention flavorings or whipped cream on some drinks). The dilution makes the quality of the espresso less important, which is how they can get away with it.

    I suspect Starbucks isn’t all that interested in people who just buy an espresso anyway, since they make more money off of the more complicated drinks.

  6. Good points, Giovanni, mwg, and everybody else. Now I understand how Starbucks is making the awful espresso: automating the process, and going for mediocre consistency instead of excellence. And now I see why my espresso – and Giovanni’s – is so much better than Starbucks’.

    What I still don’t understand is is why Starbucks would allow themselves to sink to this level. And, having sunk, why they would put up those signs. Neighbourhood’s best espresso? My patoot. Who do they think they’re fooling?

  7. Well obviously they are not fooling you. Lets face it, Starbucks is a brand. People don’t say, lets go get a cup of coffee, they say, “lets go to Starbucks”. They have, for good or ill, built up a reputation for good coffee I suppose. Now some of us may not drink most of what they have to offer, but the great majority of the public do in fact consume large quantities from green tea latte’s to just a plain cup of american coffee. Starbucks is viewed as the coffee expert.

    A small segment of American society prefer espresso as their primary coffee choice. Quite honestly, I have never seen a sign like the one you are describing where I live. But Starbuck’s knows their customer base and I can say with a large degree of confidence that most do not go to Starbucks for an espresso. Therefore, for people like me it is simply a waste of time and money to go to Starbucks for an espresso. I have never actually had an espresso at Starbucks but I am willing to bet there is no schiuma/crema because the beans used are the same for an espresso as well as their milk based drinks, which I believe are different from what Starbucks markets as their high quality espresso beans. Plus, they don’t take the time to get it right. The amount of coffee, the grind, the tamp, and the pressure needed to make a good espresso all have to come together to make it right.

    Also, for me, I take a little dash of Molinari Sambuca in my espresso, which I can’t get at Starbucks. Caffè corretto as we say in Italy. So even if they made a good quality espresso, I would not be buying regardless.

  8. Molinari Sambuca! Really? That’s interesting. I’m going to try that, Giovanni, as soon as I can find some. Thanks for your comments.

  9. I take Sambuca instead of sugar or other sweeteners. I prefer Molinari because I think it is the best made, but you can use what ever suits your taste as long as it is a higher end type of Sambuca like Luxardo or even Romana. Although I have never seen Romana in Italy. I think it is made entirely for export. Also, a good Anisette like Marie Brizard goes well. This is if you like anise based liquers. I find Sambuca holds up to the espresso better than Anisette which tends to get overpowered by the strength. The cheaper Sambuca does not enhance the experience.

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