In my defense, I live in a neighborhood that has more square feet under the control of Starbucks than it has space devoted to food markets, bank branches or even Duane Reade drugstores. There is just one independent coffee shop, several blocks away, and it serves bad coffee. Plus, it was cold last night, 20 degrees, and the Starbucks was right there, still open, as we walked back from dinner, having just learned that our favorite sushi joint had gone out of business. And I remembered that a relative had given me a $200 Starbucks gift card more than a year ago, and it still had some money left. I needed some beans, having nearly run out of the Indian Mysore. And who knows, if a Starbucks bean turns out to be the object of my quest, that would be convenient. Name: Bella Vista
Origin: F. W. Tres Rios in Costa Rica, "in the rolling hills outside San Jose," according to the bag, "one of the region's oldest and last remaining estates. Guided by a proud tradition of quality and the long-term support of Starbucks, the owners have perfected time-honored farming methods to harvest and process the beans right on the estate and established social programs to improve the farmers' livelihoods."
Roasted: No date listed, but the bag urges "for fresh-roasted flavor, enjoy before 18 July 2009."
Description: I was going to just grab a bag of the Starbucks Pike Place Blend or its espresso, but the above bag with its green leafy motif and small pictures of the farmers themselves caught my attention. "Always a favorite in our tasting room, Bella Vista is surprisingly complex with a satisfying citrus sparkle, floral notes evocative of orange blossoms and a refreshing finish."
The Pour: I have mixed feelings about Starbucks. For years, my wife and I owned some shares of SUBX in our IRAs, and for many years they reliably rose above the market rate. I had always been impressed by the quality of the service, and the cozy "third place" branding. You could always sit in a Starbucks for an hour or two, working, reading, drinking coffee. In a pinch, you could always pop into one to use the bathroom, which was reasonably clean, nothing to scoff at in New York City. But over the last couple of years, stores seemed a little dirtier, some of the staff less knowledgeable and eager to please, and the coffee, not quite so good. That led to the comeback of the founder Howard Schultz, who wondered whether mass production had led the chain on a path to mediocrity. (Around the same time, we were treated to the tale of Schultz -- a New York resident -- wandering into Cafe Grumpy and declaring the cup made on the Chelsea shop's Clover machine the best cup of coffee he had ever tasted).
So I thought I'd see if Schultz has managed to sneak some good culinary beans into the store. Bella Vista is exclusive to SBUX and supposedly the finest coffee from what is the best coffee region in Costa Rica. Not surprisingly, the chain is a dominant force in the Costa Rican coffee industry.
The price of Bella Vista was reasonable, but the quantity was large -- 16 ounces of beans. But, as I mentioned, I had this old gift card -- personalized and customized with a cartoon approximation of a bicycle-riding New Yorker -- in my wallet. I'd been having trouble using up the money on it, because a couple of months after it was given to me as a gift, I bought the refurbished Jura-Capresso machine and embarked on my quest for great home coffee, both to save money and time. The lines at Starbucks near the office were long, and the coffee seemed to be getting worse.
So how's that comeback going? Well, some people often complain that Starbucks coffee tastes overly bitter, in part because of its "over-roasting" technique. Time was, I didn't mind that strong flavor. But I've been tasting many different styles of culinary coffee lately, and perhaps my tastes have changed. I found Bella Vista distinctive and strong but far too bitter. I have tried a number of beans that claimed to have floral or citrus flavors. It is certainly adequate, and probably better in a cappuccino or a regular cup with milk.
With a business model aimed at mass production and mass shipping and gimmicks like customized gift cards, it's hard to see how Starbucks can compete on the high end, which would require fresher beans from more sources -- in other words, more inventory. And if people will line up for "good enough" coffee, why should the chain cater to someone looking for a finer quality? Starbucks is aiming consistently at the middle.
The Bella Vista bean might grow on me, but I doubt it. After my experience with changing perceptions of last week's coffee, I'm willing to give it a few more days. For one thing, just as I started to make these shots, the Jura's computer decided it was time for a cleaning tablet and procedure (it requires this to remove oils from the brewing chamber after about 200 coffees), so perhaps that might make a difference. (Update: It didn't.)
And I will have to go back to Starbucks at some point. I have $34 left on the gift card. Maybe I should stage an espresso blend showdown with Joe the Art of Coffee.