In 1998, reports Taylor Clark in this entertaining and intriguing book, two university researchers performed a chemical analysis of the waters of Boston harbour, in Massachusetts. The results were unexpected: the harbour contained caffeine. Bostonians, like Americans elsewhere, drink such huge amounts of coffee that caffeine had worked its way into the sewage, and thence into the ocean itself.
It's a useful symbol of the coffee frenzy that has swept from America to the wider world, and of the ubiquity of the brand that has driven it: Starbucks. The company that began life in Seattle in the early 1970s as a single shop has morphed into a global phenomenon. In 1989 there were 585 coffee houses in the US. Today, there are 24,000. Globally, Starbucks is a presence in 37 countries. It even has a branch in Guantanamo Bay.
What has made Starbucks such a success? One answer is the drive of its first chief executive, Howard Schultz, who likes to speak in syrupy terms about his company being a "mission" but whose corporate ruthlessness is well attested. Psychology is important, too. In an increasingly fractured world, says Clark, the idea of the coffee house is seductive – comfy armchairs, companionship, luxury products. You can buy into the concept of community even as the company you pay helps to destroy the real thing.
This paradox best exemplifies both the book, and Starbucks itself. Clark details the charges against the chain: its refusal to allow workers to unionise, the low wages its growers receive, its targeting of rivals. He tells entertaining stories about resistance: protesters pacified with free lattes; the $600,000 the company pays a year for Schultz's protection. But some of his conclusions are surprising.
But he also suggests that Starbucks has helped local coffee shops to survive by turning more people on to good coffee. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of independent coffee houses in the US increased by more than 40 per cent. Even so, Clark won't drink at Starbucks: he can't buy into their project of homogenising the planet. On the other hand, if he finds himself stuck at an airport... Like the world as a whole, Clark is not always sure what to think about Starbucks. His ambivalence translates into a wry balance, and makes for a surprisingly gripping read.
Paul Kingsnorth's 'Real England: The Battle Against the Bland' is published in April by Portobello
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