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?

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past