Out of America: A tall Ethiopian with a floral bouquet, sir?

WASHINGTON - Few things are sadder than the death of a national characteristic. America is a country of bewildering complexity, but it always offered even the first-time visitor a few comforting and eternal verities by which to set his compass. No matter where you were, the steaks would be terrific, petrol fantastically cheap and the coffee unspeakably and uniquely awful. The first two more than hold up. The third, alas, no longer obtains. The scalding brownish liquid that once passed for coffee and all its attendant rituals are under dire threat. Savour the 'Honey, can I freshen up your cup?' of a breezy waitress while you may, for the phrase may soon become an archaism. The US is in serious danger of becoming a nation of connoisseur coffee bores.

It was during an election campaign trip out West in autumn 1992 that I first noticed a most un-American proliferation of coffee shops, intruding into the familiar culture of regular-or-decaf and peddling caffe macchiato, latte with foam and sundry other pseudo-Italian concoctions. But it seemed a purely local fad and I paid little attention. Which shows how wrong one can be. A month or so ago Starbucks, the Seattle-based company which is doing for fancy coffee what Colonel Sanders of Kentucky did for the humble chicken, opened a coffee- shop on Connecticut Avenue a mile from my home, completing its conquest of the national capital. In March 1993 not a single Starbucks was to be found on the entire Eastern seaboard. Now there are a couple of dozen in the DC area alone.

Coffee bars in general, and Starbucks in particular, are a wonderful example of this country's ability to take something foreign and make it utterly American. On Connecticut Avenue, resemblances to the motherland of the espresso bar extend little further than the basic product sold and a special offer of 'original Italian' ceramic mugs. The atmosphere is that peculiarly American one of slightly earnest informality. The ideal customer goes to Starbucks to enjoy the coffee, but also to broaden his mind. At the slightest bidding, keen young women operating the machines can deliver a brief lecture on the superiority of arabica over robusta. Next to the counter is a rack of leaflets detailing, among other things, the principles of espresso-making and the relationship between coffee and caffeine. Need to know the difference between direct contact decaffeination and the Swiss water decaf process? Just in case you did, the leaflet explains all.

No less baffling is the terminology. I ordered a small espresso: 'You mean a solo,' said the girl. The correct pronunciation is also imparted to neophytes in the gourmet coffee jungle. A brochure lists Espresso Macchiato ('a light and foamy lid' of milk to 'hold in the warmth of the espresso') with the phonetic rendering ESS-PRESS'-O MOCK-E-AH'-TOE. That is as close as we get to the language of Dante. The rest is 100 per cent Made in the USA. The choice seems overwhelming but is as carefully programmed as at McDonald's: eight or so basic permutations and combinations of espresso coffee, milk, whipped cream and cocoa, all available regular or decaf, and in three sizes - short, tall or (largest of all) grande. On top of that are optional flavourings of hazelnut, vanilla or almond. It's not cheap: anything between dollars 1 and dollars 2.50 a go, compared with 50 cents for the first cup of standard coffee in a deli. But even designer coffee doesn't come in china cups. Starbucks may be for connoisseurs but you still get paper cups, wooden stirsticks and tiny packets of sugar or saccharine. Not quite your corner bar in Rome or Milan. Still, the formula works wonderfully.

Starbucks, which began life in 1971 as a coffee bar in Seattle, ranks among the 30 fastest-growing companies in the US and is one of the hottest stocks on Wall Street. The chief executive, Howard Schultz, has brought to the coffee shop business marketing skills to rival Silvio Berlusconi. Apart from a cup of coffee, you can buy a range of franchised products. Alongside 400- plus shops, Mr Schultz runs a booming mail-order business. For true coffee buffs there are weekly specials - on Connecticut Avenue a blend called Ethiopian Sidamo billed as having 'a floral bouquet, delicate aroma,' at dollars 4.10 a half pound. Welcome to the wonderful world of designer coffee.

And Starbucks is no more than leader of the pack. There are said to be 10,000 'specialty coffee outlets' in the US: not many perhaps when compared to the 200,000 in Italy, but enough to scare the wits out of the likes of Nescafe, Folgers and Maxwell House. This year gourmet brands could capture a third of the entire dollars 5 billion coffee market. What is America coming to?

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