The Starbucks gap

Published 12:28 pm Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Starbucks has just broken the sound barrier. With its latest paper cup of premium coffee selling for $7, I can hear my long-deceased father screaming from the grave, “Seven dollars for a cup of coffee? My first car didn’t cost seven dollars! My first house didn’t cost seven dollars! Your grandfather had to work on the back of a horse for a week to make seven dollars!”

No doubt you’ve heard similar harangues from your parents or grandparents. “What on earth could make a cup of coffee worth seven dollars?” they ask. “Do they put gold in it, or is it like a lottery? Do you win something?” Telling them that the coffee’s made from Costa Rican Finca Palmilera beans doesn’t seem to mean anything to them.

They are perfectly happy to drink the store-brand coffee they buy in 3-pound cans at the Shop and Go Away, which they make in a contraption called a “percolator” that slowly boils away any coffee goodness that might accidentally have survived. They fail to understand why $7 coffee in a paper cup is so wonderful, even after you tell them that the cup has had your name written on it by a real barista.

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It’s obvious there is a coffee gap between those who are content to swill anything dark first thing in the morning and those who spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on coffee machines, roasters and premium beans to make that perfect cup. It’s not the money; many people who have never stepped into a coffee shop have expensive tastes — boats, homes, horses, art — but to them, spending money on coffee may seem an extravagant waste, as all obsessions are to the people who don’t share them.

Coffee doesn’t just wake you up now, it says something about you, like one of those aptitude tests they used to give us in grade school. (For some reason, I never became the forest fire lookout the test predicted was my destiny.) In the coffee aptitude test, if you still percolate pre-ground, no flavors added, traditional coffee in a can for breakfast, chances are extremely good that you don’t know the words to “Call Me Maybe” and have never watched the “Gangnam Style” video on your iPhone. You have never been in a Starbucks.

If you have a standard 12-cup drip coffeemaker and buy a pre-ground specialty brand, you wonder why people make such a big deal over coffee. The stuff you make at home tastes fine, much better than that stuff they give you on airplanes. You saw “Gangnam Style” on some talk show and thought it was stupid/silly. Is that all it takes to make a hit record now?

If you have one of those machines that makes one cup of coffee at a time with a little vacuum-packed pod in flavors like French Vanilla and Mucho Mocha, you have a job where your boss wants you to waste a week making a “Gangnam Style” spoof video using everyone in the office. He thinks it would boost morale. You think it would boost morale if he got fired and you took his job. You have an exercise mix on your iPod with “Call Me Maybe” on it.

If you slam on the brakes every time you see a Starbucks, and all the baristas in your neck of the woods know your complicated order by heart, you were over “Gangnam Style” back when it had only 68,000 views on YouTube, and the only people you know who like “Call Me Maybe” are your parents.

You roast your own fair trade organic coffee that you buy direct from the importer. You grind it yourself after deciding how you will prepare it — in your glass coffee press or your $900 espresso machine. You have unfriended people on Facebook who post mashups of “Call Me Maybe” and “Gangnam Style.” You wouldn’t be caught dead drinking a cheap $7 cup of coffee. Old friends are avoiding you because sometimes they like to talk about things besides coffee. You wonder what’s the matter with them.