Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Here's one I missed: coffee shops!

In my rant the other week against all the recent innovations in modern living that I most loathe, I got into a bit of a groove on IT-related things, and omitted to consider broader aspects of fashion and commerce. And thus I overlooked one of my biggest bugbears of all - the coffee shop.

I can see this might be one of my harder pet hates to justify. With Twitter and smartphones and so on, there are a good many people - substantial minorities, at the every least - who share my 'Luddite' stance. But everyone LOVES coffee shops, right? How else could they have become so popular, so ubiquitous in the last 20 years? Certainly the resistant minority, I would suppose, is much, much smaller.

But I most emphatically do NOT love coffee shops, and here are some of the reasons why.

I am not a coffee snob
I like coffee. I'm curious about it. I appreciate the good stuff once in a while. But it's never become a major obsession with me. I don't have that restless desire to be trying out new styles and varieties all the time.

'Instant' is good enough for me, most of the time
So, the antithesis of a coffee snob, in fact. We love things that were comforting elements of our childhood; and I came from a very modest background, a family with very unsophisticated tastes. We always drank instant coffee in my house, and thus I still find it perfectly enjoyable. (Although I'm really more of a tea man.)

I'm thrifty
Coffee in coffee shops is obscenely expensive - compared to the cost of making it (even the good stuff) for yourself at home.

The chief joy of 'good coffee', for me, is not drinking it... but making it
On the odd occasion when I do fancy treating myself to a really good cup of coffee, I'd far rather make it for myself, regardless of cost considerations. It's the ritual of preparation, and the gorgeous smell permeating your apartment for hours afterwards that make it such a potent pleasure - rather than the drinking, which is over in a few minutes.

I've never understood the supposed social dimension of coffee shops
I loved Frasier and Friends, the two best American sitcoms of the late '90s; but I couldn't help wondering if they received covert sponsorship from Starbucks. Even though they were largely set in what appeared to be small independent coffee shops, it was likely to be the great franchise behemoth that would most benefit from the further popularisation of the coffee shop idea. That idea might already have been well-entrenched - nearing saturation? - in the States, but in the UK, and around the rest of the world, it was only just taking off; and I suspect the success of these two shows made no small contribution to that. But to me it was a complete mystery: why would people want to - or be able to?? - 'hang out' during the day? If they did, why would they not go to a bar or a restaurant instead? And WHY would they choose to drink coffee to accompany their conversation - caffeine having way more of the diuretic property of alcohol but none of the desirable effects of relaxation and disinhibition? Does not compute. I don't want to spend an hour or two watching my friends get progressively more wired while my bladder fills up.

Haven't you got no homes to go to?
In a country like China, where people don't do much socialising at home, and often, indeed, do not have much of a 'home' to do any socialising in, coffee shops (along with McDonald's) have been ecstatically welcomed, especially by the young, as a comfortable place to spend time, whether with friends or alone. Unfortunately, this tends to make them even less attractive to a foreigner, as the IKEA syndrome takes effect -  Chinese punters taking up residence all day long (without buying anything, if they can get away with it), making loud telephone calls, watching noisy films on their computers, taking their shoes off to air their feet, taking a snooze for an hour or two...

They're so bloody twee
I have some kind of psychological allergy to soft furnishings. I would never decorate my own home in the way that coffee shops are typically decorated. I do not find coffee shops 'comfortable' because I am constantly fighting to master my aesthetic nausea.

I prefer bars!
If I'm meeting friends for a chat, I prefer a dark interior to a light one, hardwood fittings to soft cushions, alcohol to caffeine, and a range of proper foods on offer rather than just muffins and cheesecakes. That's my idea of 'cosy'. One of my great problems in China has been that most Chinese 'bars' go for the coffee shop aesthetic, and thus have no appeal for me (or to most other Westerners, I think). A more global problem, I suspect, may be that the spread of the coffee shop phenomenon is damaging the bar trade; people who are hanging out in coffee shops (even if it's mostly in the daytime) are not hanging out in bars (even in the evening). That's a very worrying trend for someone who loves bars as much as I do!

And of course... Starbucks is an evil empire
The numerous competitor chains and the little indie outfits are no more appealing to me in terms of their basic offering, but the market leader is achieving a global domination that is truly scary. Resist now, while you still can!


JES said...

Do you know of the home "perfect coffee" makers manufactured by Keurig and now, I'm pretty sure, by others as well? You fill a plastic reservoir with water, fit a little (maybe 1.5-inch) container of coffee grounds into its designated slot, and pull down on a handle; a spike punctures the so-called K-cup, and boiling water runs through it into your waiting mug or cup.

These things have taken over here in the US.

Luckily, I too am mostly a tea man. They make K-cups filled with tea leaves but I'll never use one.

Froog said...

I don't keep up with these technological trends much, though I have sometimes hankered to get one of those Italian espresso/capuccino makers - such beautiful objects, all gleaming chrome and volcanic gasps of steam. They have a rather good but very compact one at my favourite bar, which I may try to buy off them if/when they close. (Oh, what does that say about my plans to leave China??)

I had a friend at university who became such a coffee obsessive that he bought a home roaster. It was through him that I developed whatever knowledge, interest, or enthusiasm I have in regard to the finer points of making coffee, but I found I was happy enough to indulge vicariously through him.