Monday, June 13, 2005


Kaffee kampf

Where am I now?

Coffee and bakery on Friedrichstrasse, Berlin.

I don’t really like Starbucks. Starbucks lost me, somewhere on its epic journey from cool-concept Seattle-area regional coffee house chain (I lived in Seattle in the late 1980s) to corporate juggernaut whose intergalactic mission will not stop until no one else serves coffee in the entire universe. I actually tell myself that my opposition to Starbucks is a matter of principle.

Being principled is made easy by the fact that I don’t like Starbucks coffee: its exceedingly dark, thick and fruity roast always reminds me that coffee is not so much the “nectar of the wakeful” as it is a burned bean beverage. And I loathe – I loathe – all that tall-means-small-grande-vente crap.

I don’t have a perfect boycott of Starbucks. Back in the U.S., I go there between one and four times per month. You know how it is. Sometimes you’re meeting someone for coffee, and they just have to have their grande decaf vanilla soy latte. Or you pull off the highway for gas on a road trip and desperately want coffee; your choices are McDonald’s, Burger King, the gas station “quik mart” and – whoa! – there’s a Starbucks! Where you gonna go?

So, here in cosmopolitan Berlin, where am I right now? Yeah, you guessed it....


Starbucks, Hackesher Markt, Berlin. Note the tell-tale
cream-colored Mercedes taxi in background.

Here’s my shameful confession. I’ve spent a total of six days in Berlin, and have been in Starbucks, now, .... wait for it ... five times and counting.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit how lame it is to be traveling abroad and whining about how the conveniences of home are hard to find – like internet access for instance. And coffee’s really good in Germany as a rule – not quite up to French standards, where you get a fabulous cup (or bowl) of coffee about 9 times out of 10) – but more often than not you’ll get that strong-but-smooth European roast (when I say “strong-but-smooth” I do not mean Starbucks’ “thick and dank”) with creamy milk foam floating on top and gradually settling into the blend.

But. Here’s the thing. (1) 3 or 4 times out of ten in Germany you’ll get a bad cup of coffee. What’s more, there’s a good chance they’ll put it in a glass. Mmmm, a nice glass of hot coffee. I don’t mean a glass mug with a handle, either. How are you supposed to pick up a hot glass?

(2) Is it just me, or does Starbucks coffee taste better here in Europe? I mean, they are competing for European (not American) coffee tastes.

(3) They have a smoke free environment. This is no small thing. In Europe, usually the only way to escape the inhalation of large quantities of second-hand cigarette smoke is actually to die. This is particularly true when drinking coffee, since as you know coffee and cigarettes go together like – well, like booze and cigarettes. Starbucks is boldly (and cleverly) offering smoke free coffee experience to Europeans, where non-smoking is slowly but surely catching on.

(4) They have wireless internet access.

Capiche? Verstehen?

Moving beyond my own personal kaffee kampf, to the Berlin’s capitalist coffee wars, we find that Starbucks has made powerful inroads. Lots of shops, very busy.

There are two other coffee chains in Berlin – Einstein Kaffee, which I have not yet visited, and Balzac Coffee. I find Balzac interesting for it’s shameless knock-off of Starbucks.

Einstein's, Friedrichstrasse.

From its sign, above, to its logo, ambience and menu signs, below,
Balzac's seems to copy Starbucks, only in brown rather than green.


Balzac even uses the "tall, grande, vente" lingo!

Check out the pastries: which one is Starbucks, and which Balzac?

Answer: Starbucks left, Balzac right.

But one difference for me – and perhaps even for Berliners – makes all the difference: Balzac allows smoking.

In Berlin's ongoing kaffee kampf, Starbucks isn't above a little corporate logo theft of its own. Tchibo is a large German coffee distributor, selling coffee in grocery stores and retail coffee shops like the one below.


Note the logo. It's supposed to be, I think, a coffee bean trailing a swirl of aromatic hot coffee steam. Looks kind of like a spermatazoa, wouldn't you say?

Now note the copy-cat swirl on Starbucks' napkins:


By the way, the photo of Tchibo and Dunkin Donuts at the top of this post was taken from across the street -- at Starbucks!


This is a hilarious post!

I agree that Starbucks coffee tastes like the beans have been badly burned. That place on Monroe St. in Madison is very good, but I forget the name right now.
Starbucks coffee is way burnt, I agree with you for once Bryan. Dunkin Donuts is pretty good, but it's parent company is a little too RED for my taste! Starbucks at least helps the Blue (for now).

-- The Angry Sicilian
What's with all this "red" and "blue" stuff? Why can't we all be a nice shade of purple, like an old bruise?
Is there still a place called Oribeans on Friedrichstrasse, between Unter den Linden and the Bahnhof? When I lived in Berlin a few years ago, I went there quite often. Cafe Aedes at Savignyplatz (also in the Hackescher Markt) does (or did) some of the best coffee in Berlin.

Einstein is also very good. Tchibo's a bit of a port in the storm, though I'm afraid not as much as Starbucks is.
Coffee in glasses -- I can relate to that. Here in Poland, you get served that way many times. They also like to serve it "Turkish style," which means throw a lot of coffee in the bottom of the glass and add boiling water. Oh, and don't forget to stir well before drinking, else you get a mouthful of grounds.
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