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Real Meals: a double-shot of sanctimony

Starbucks coffee is so bad I'll happily walk several blocks just to avoid drinking the stuff

I visited the Pacific Northwest quite a bit in the early 1990s. Seattle struck me as having a definite coffee hue, just as many other cities have a predominant colour (the piss-green of Paris springs to mind). A coffee hue, and a coffee smell. Starbucks began frothing in the 1970s, and the chain was set to lash out across the US and then the world on the cusp of the 1990s. But this year, Starbucks' CEO, Howard Schultz, announced that there would be significant closures among the approximately 700 Starbucks in the UK, and ruefully admitted that the business had expanded far too recklessly.

I should cocoa. Time was when you couldn't turn your back on a family-run cafe without the twin-tailed corporate siren - a logo, incidentally, that was once replaced with a crown to facilitate market penetration in the Islamic world, which was offended by the display of the female figure - snaffling it up. Starbucks operated at a loss, saturated local areas, doubled up franchise and company-owned outlets and exploited loopholes in planning laws. The headline in the US satire 'zine, The Onion, said it all: "New Starbucks opens in restroom of existing Starbucks".

Skinny-this, frappe-that

I wouldn't mind all those local businesses being swamped in the half-fat tide, if Starbucks didn't serve such dreadful coffee. It's so bad that I'll happily walk several blocks just to avoid drinking the stuff. The company boasts that it employs a "state-of-the-art espresso system", the Mastrena, but that's neither here nor there. Good espresso is a function of two things: high pressure steam, and high quality coffee - end of story.
All that bollocks about skinny-this and frappe-that is enough to make the discerning coffee drinker (or addict, as he or she is known) puke. It's as if your local smack dealer offered a loyalty card, wifi access and "fair-trade" heroin. (Come to think of it, given the parlous state of the Afghan economy and its democratically elected traffickers, the latter isn't such a bad idea.)

Not that the punters only visit Starbucks to get their caffeine fix - they go to eat as well. Popping into Starbucks for a breakfast of muffin and froth has become as much a part of British urban life as bread and dripping were to earlier generations - so much so that in my post-apocalyptic novel, The Book of Dave, the breakfast of the distant future is known simply as "Stabbuk".

Some view the Starbucks ethos with a venti cup full of foaming cynicism. You won't be surprised to learn that I'm one of them. Even on a quiet weekday afternoon, the reek of sanctimony is stronger than the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Starbucks has perfected the hessian-sack, blond-wood school of pseudo-caring capitalism. Relax in this armchair under a ghastly mass-produced daub that looks like an enlarged detail of a Matisse, and let the caffeine'n'sucrose wave sweep you away!

Mrs Jellyby with a lawyer

In British branches, all espresso is made with 100 per cent Fairtrade-certified coffee - everywhere you look, there's a screed on "The Starbucks Coffee Story". I don't doubt that Fairtrade does help some poor farmers, but Starbucks is a Mrs Jellyby armed with a big, stick-shaped lawyer. While you sit there sipping your frappucino and dreaming of all the downtrodden coffee farmers you're helping, remember Howard Schultz's remark about organised labour: "If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn't need a union."

Starbucks employees in the US have claimed they were dissuaded from joining a union. As quite a few of them are immigrants from the coffee-yielding zones, there's a nice symmetry in their labour being directly yoked to a support price back home. But I wouldn't go so far as those soi-disant "anti-capitalists" who smash up branches during G-whatever meetings. The petrol-bombers and the muffin-munchers are two sides of the same foil-wrapped chocolate coin. No amount of equitably bought coffee is going to abolish the US farm support price, just as no amount of beating on "da pigz" is going to end in a cosy world full of bike-riders composting their own shit. But what - I hear you cry - was the food like? It was OK. The tuna was the healthy option - and cheap. As for the cheesecake - there's not a lot anyone can do wrong to that, unless they're vegan. But the coffee? As Seattle's most famous son would say: "Nevermind".

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End