Last week, certain sections of the Internet were whipped into a foamy lather at the news that Starbucks had introduced the Flat White (upper case theirs) to its stores in the US and Canada, apparently targeting North America’s disturbing influx of expatriate Australians and New Zealanders and general coffee tossers.
David Marr, one of Australia’s most credible and respected journalists, weighed in on the matter for The Guardian with his crucial assessment: “Well, it’s strong and milky and hot.” Thanks David.
A couple of years ago I too was distraught about the toxic effluvia that passes for coffee in America, where people look at you funny if you offer a “cuppa”. But as someone who now spends more time in New York coffee shops than most full-time New York coffee shop employees, I can report that there are more and more joints in Manhattan that will serve you a flat white. Whether the item is explicitly listed on the chalkboard menu or not, any barista worth his or her beans can squirt one out.
There’s the Aussie- and Kiwi-operated establishments, naturally: Toby’s Estate in the Flatiron District, a number of Bluestone Lane locations, Little Collins on Lexington Avenue, the Hugh Jackman-owned Laughing Man in TriBeCa, Flinders Lane in the East Village, and Two Hands in Chinatown, where they’ll throw in a single Tim Tam biscuit for a bastardly $US1.50 but frankly have the most good-looking clientele.
American coffee chains Joe and Blue Bottle Coffee are also well worth a visit. The latter has the honour of the implicit endorsement of Craig Spencer, New York’s celebrated first Ebola patient, who presumably breathed all over the chain’s Chelsea location on his preposterously wide-ranging pilgrimage to infect as much of the city as possible in 2014.
Honestly you can even get a decent pour at the new cafe at New York’s Museum of Sex if you feel like partaking in your morning brew while browsing literature on other sorts of grinding mechanisms. It’s right next to the Museum store, just in case you want to follow up your caffeine buzz with something that really buzzes.
So why resort to Starbucks? Unless you’re a jobbing writer strategically capitalising on fleeting Internet hype?
In any case, with the same glowing sense of journalistic duty and self-importance that must warm reporters embedded with military units on the front lines, I made my way to a Starbucks location on the Upper East Side – it would be Woody Allen’s local Starbucks if he had one – and handed over $US4.30 (before tip) for a 12 oz. Flat White. Enthusiastic signage led me to expect an experience “bolder than a latte, smoother than a cappuccino.”
“The Starbucks® Flat White is an espresso beverage made with two ristretto shots, combined with a thin layer of velvety steamed whole milk and finished with a latte art dot [incredulous emphasis mine].”
Having written extensively about the arts I feel I’m qualified to conclude that there was no discernible “latte art dot” nor indeed “latte art” of any kind, not even the sort that could perhaps generously be called “outsider latte art”. Where the delicious melty marshmallow texture of microfoam might have been was instead an unappealing agitation of what more closely resembled soapy bath water froth. As for aromatics, all I could smell at this point was the figurative rat.
Beneath that bubbly layer of disappointment was murky, vaguely coffee-flavoured water distinctly lacking in the promised-for luscious, velvety mouthfeel, with only the weakest passing rumour of the proper bitter notes one would ordinarily hope for.
As far as American coffees go, I’ve had much worse. I’ve choked down caffeinated swill that smelled like burnt rubber, looked like motor oil and tasted like moist black earth.
But this was more ‘flat’ than ‘flat white’. If coffee is meant to be an overall sensory experience the prevailing sense was that I’d been ripped off.
No doubt, the quality of Starbucks® Flat Whites will vary from location to location, depending on the specific diagnostic skills of the barista. But, with the steadily growing number of other options in the city, why bother taking the risk?
Of course, especially stateside, coffee lovers actually have Starbucks to thank for the proliferation of better coffee. Without the corporate coffee giant and the enticing siren call of its slutty mermaid mascot, an alternative coffee culture wouldn’t have emerged at all. Starbucks is perfectly entitled to put their variously qualified baristas’ hands to work whipping up increasingly exotic brews. And the sensible consumer will continue to seek their fix elsewhere.
Oh, and don’t forget, there’s no shortage of coffee options in Brooklyn. Except that over there the real problem is stomaching the company of the kinds of people who hang out in Brooklyn.
This piece originally appeared on SBS Comedy.