Susie Rushton: Sneer at Starbucks if you will, but coffee-lovers owe it a very big debt

Notebook: We forget that it was Starbucks that pushed the idea of the "third place" that was neither work nor home
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bad news for coffee snobs: Starbucks is planning what it portentously calls a "renaissance" in Europe. After some underwhelming results for the past year, the chain's European boss, Michelle Gass, has announced that what many regard as the Tesco of hot beverages will be redoubling its efforts over here, including opening 300 new outlets in Britain in the next three years, taking the total to 1,000.

The most damning opinion expressed about Starbucks is that the coffee is rubbish. Connoisseurs dismiss it as "milky", or "tasting of burnt rubber" and "like milkshake for grown-ups". But since when did we become so expert on the ideal flavour of a flat white, the perfect texture of froth on a cappuccino?

The bitter truth is that while London had a coffeehouse culture in the 1950s and 60s (not to mention for the preceding 300 years; the first coffeehouse opened near Bank in 1652), after its association with teenagers and counterculture fizzled out, we lost our taste for sipping in public. It was the growth in the 1990s of the chains – not just Starbucks but Costa, Nero, Coffee Republic – that turned us into caffeine connoisseurs again. And we've never looked back.

Now, given a choice, and with educated palettes, the pickiest customers would rather spend their £2.15 at an independent coffee bar. In London, addicts' allegiances long ago switched to the mini-chains like Monmouth or Prufrock, where the emphasis is on home-roasted beans, more coffee, less milk and the baristas are invariably Australian or Kiwi (Antipodeans having laid claim to the art of foam and grind).

Somewhere over the past decade, we also became choosy about the environment of our coffee shops, forgetting that it was Starbucks that pushed the idea of the "third place" that was neither work nor home, but offered wi-fi and music and armchairs and time to linger.

Now we dismiss the Seattle giant as pushing an identikit version of a corporate American café, which is why the brand is desperately trying to redesign stores in its capital. It is now absolute foodie orthodoxy here to bemoan the dominance of the chain, claiming that it kills off competitors, even though it rarely undercuts on price. Really, one could argue that its very ubiquity helped create the British coffee customer and foster posh-cappuccino culture. Without Starbucks, we'd still be drinking Gold Blend.

I say, calm down, coffee police. Starbucks is predictable and standardised – but it's also reliable, unlike certain of the indie outlets. Most of all, it's convenient, and any expansion that has the green mermaid appearing at more British motorway service stations gets my vote. Why can't there be Starbucks for ease of location, and the independents for when you really want to savour a cup? We mightn't like to admit it, but to habitual coffee drinkers, sometimes, especially in the morning, any cappuccino is a good cappuccino.

My chilly reception for warm weather

Spring arrived early this weekend – too early. With joyously blue skies and temperatures about 5-10C higher than normal in late February, we all rushed outside to anoint our pale faces with the first sunrays. At the same time, some of the most annoying things about warm weather were activated. Joggers jostled me on the Thames path. Insects appeared indoors. Smug earlybirds occupied the sunniest café tables. Every idiot with a convertible accelerated round corners, bass turned up, shades on, ladies'-eye scanning the street. The wintery dust that had settled all over our house, usually still concealed in gloomy February, was illuminated, demanding to be wiped away.

Worst of all, I felt that fatal anxiety – unique to the British – that the lovely climate simply wouldn't last, and soon we'd be back to drab, northern European normality. Spring, go away and come again another day.