This morning I’m sipping a Starbucks Italian Roast coffee. I could have chosen Peets or something else. I’ve grown lazy in my coffee habit. I have coffee beans and could have ground them using my hand grinder, poured them into a French press and savored the rich results. Brewing coffee is a ritual. Some days I’m into ritual. Today I’m into having a cup of coffee in my hand in under a minute.
Coffee probably came to New England sometime in the early 17th century, but New Englanders were tea drinkers like their cousins in the mother country. Coffee didn’t really take off here until after the Boston Tea Party, when coffee became an anti-establishment beverage of choice. Boston still wasn’t known as a coffee mecca though. Coffee was something you sucked down to give you a boost or warm you up on a cold day. And the choices were the same as in most of America – Folgers, Maxwell House, etc.
Now anyone from Boston better mention Dunkin Donuts when talking about coffee. Some of my earliest childhood memories were sitting at a Dunkin Donuts counter eating an Old Fashioned Donut. Coffee memories with Dunkin started much later. Back before the McDonalds lawsuit, I remember the coffee was scalding hot and you had to wait it out for a bit before you could safely drink it. Being of questionable intelligence, I always tried to start drinking my coffee a bit sooner than I should have. Since that lawsuit coffee seems to have throttled back on the temperatures. Probably for the best but it does take some of the adventure out of the morning. We all must be protected from ourselves.
Like many people after college I started paying more attention to the stuff I ate and drank. Beer was the first thing to get upgraded. Coffee followed shortly after. I know it’s sacrilege in New England, but to me Dunkin Donuts is like that K-Cup coffee. It does the job, but it’s not something I’ll savor. But savoring coffee wasn’t a thing around New England for the first half of my life. It became a thing in the 90’s.
Around Boston, Coffee Connection was our first exposure to a truly rich coffee experience. It was a place you stopped in when you went to Harvard Square. Then they started growing and you could find it elsewhere. Coffee Connection peaked in the mid-90’s and then was acquired by Starbucks.
Starbucks changed the way we looked at coffee. It changed the way I looked at coffee. The first time I had it was on a ferry between Seattle and the San Juan Islands. I was in line to buy a coffee and when I got up to the front they had two kinds; “coffee” and “Starbucks”. I remember asking “What’s Starbucks?” The answer, “It’s like coffee but stronger.” still makes me smile. Starbucks coffee is not just stronger coffee. It’s more robust, more flavorful, richer coffee.
Starbucks jump-started their presence in Boston when they acquired Coffee Connection. And started a religious war in the process. Starbucks vs. Dunks. West vs. East. Lakers vs. Celtics. Flashy and expensive vs. working class. Dunkin Donuts has seized on this in their ads, and customers followed suit.
I’m an unapologetically diehard Starbucks fan. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll buy DD when I need to, and I love Peets and some of the local coffee houses that serve rich dark roast coffees. Coffee, like beer, is something to savor. And the growth of microbreweries coincided with the growth of the coffee industry. But it’s not for everyone. Just as InBev owns 45% of the American beer market, and MillerCoors owns the next 26%, Folgers and Maxwell House own the majority of market share in coffee. Sometimes taste matters, sometimes people only care about the net result.