For all sorts of reasons, none relevant here, I don’t get to visit as many coffee shops as I would like. In fact, I make it to very few. Consequently, the big chains are not high on my list when drinking coffee out.
This past week, I found myself a bit early for a medical appointment and just like the childrens’ cartoon character, Mr Benn, I suddenly found myself appearing somewhere unexpected. In this case Starbucks.
I have always loved the ambience in Starbucks and indeed it fuelled part of my early coffee journey. The problem for me is that the roast is just too dark for my taste and the milk often far too copious. So imagine my surprise to see a board under the usual menu offering the flat white as an option with a rather niftily drawn image of the ideal sized demitasse, complete with a latte art fern. Despite concern that it might follow the Starbucks trend of the bucket sized macchiato, and buoyed by the image on offer, I immediately abandoned my plan to drink tea and ordered one.
The middle-aged lady on the till asked if I had ever had a flat white and if I knew what it was. That impressed and filled me with hope at the same time. Clearly, I was about to be served something that Starbucks considered very different to the beverage proportions generally expected by their customer base.
After reassuring the lady that all was well, and still having the beverage explained to me in minute proportions anyway, I watched as a Chinese whisper passed amongst the counter staff with an air of electricity until finally the young girl on the espresso machine froze like a rabbit in a headlight.
A call was placed for one particular member of staff who arrived soon after from the back of the shop. After several minutes of giggles and some discussion about not placing the cup on the saucer until after the coffee was made, a perfectly proportioned flat white in a classic 5oz demitasse was presented before me by the rather flustered looking, but clearly very proud, barista. She explained that it had taken her two attempts and that the latte art was not as she had hoped, but clearly she was enthused, and rightly so.
Although the roast remained too dark for my liking, so dark in fact that it dominated the cup as is the way with Starbucks, the quality of the pour was commendable. The milk was nicely textured throughout the cup with very respectable microfoam that although not of the standard of the best indie shops, was surprisingly very close and bettered the masses by some way. A nice free-poured latte art heart adourned the top of the correctly proportioned foam and the milk structure held.
This is all very exciting and it highlights something very important. It has been reported that Starbucks’ baristas taught themselves how to make flat whites. I don’t know if that is correct or not, though it does demonstrate that by empowering staff to try something new, taught or not, and giving them a free hand to show-off their newly honed skills, chains can encapsulate a level of passion behind the counter that is usually only found in independant coffee houses. It was lovely to see the baristas so clearly enjoying themselves and taking pride in their creations.
The barista quite clearly had a great deal of potential and perhaps the opportunity to do something different and more creative will encourage her toward a career in coffee.
Well done Starbucks. Well done that barista.