Higher ground

Ordering a venti, non-fat, vanilla dose of virtue.

Walking into the Starbucks on Hamdan Street is like walking into any other Starbucks in the world. There are hardwood floors. Chalkboards advertise seasonal bean blends and new breeds of Frappucino in arts-and-craftsy lettering. A vaguely affluent multinational crowd sits on plush armchairs and couches. Semi-sweet strains of muzakish soft rock float through the climate-controlled air. Local touches are few and light. The sandwiches lack bacon. There are Arabic translations on the menu, but they produce a decorative effect that would not be wildly out of place on the same menu in New York or London. There are UAE mugs for sale, but they're tucked on a shelf in the back of a couchless nook where you will probably never sit - unless you attend a Starbucks in-store seminar.

Last Saturday, I arrived hoping to attend one such seminar on the working conditions of coffee bean farmers in northern Thailand. A friend had seen it advertised on a chalkboard while waiting for his tall cappuccino the week before. This sort of thing - the coupling of consumption and virtue - is common in America and much of Europe, especially in high-end organic groceries and coffee shops. Starbucks in particular has sought to pre-empt being seen as a soulless international coffee cartel by suggesting that buying its Cafe Estima Blend® (Fair Trade Certified™), for example, improves the world and its coffee-producing citizens in innumerable ways. "Good coffee does good for others", reads a typical handout. Also: "The Starbucks Roast™ is not a time, temperature or colour - it's a philosophy."

By the time I found the seminar nook and took a seat, a coffee tasting was already underway. I presumed it was coffee from Thailand. The seminar leader, a perpetually smiling Filipino woman, passed around tiny paper cups and led us (three visitors and seven uniformed Starbucks employees) through the Starbucks-prescribed steps of coffee appreciation. First, we smelled. "What do you smell?" the seminar leader asked us. Noses dipped obediently into cups.

"I smell chocolate," said a neatly dressed Malaysian man. "And a bit of fruit. It's light." "Yes, it's very light and balanced aroma," announced a Costa Rican man. Everyone turned expectantly to me. I suspect my note-taking had created the false impression that I was some sort of visiting coffee connoisseur. "It smells like coffee," I said, and everyone had a hearty laugh. Next, we slurped. "Slurping is how you get the full taste of the coffee and its acidity," noted our leader. "What do you taste?"

"It's light," said the Malaysian. "And a little acidic." "It's mild and well-balanced," chimed in the Costa Rican. "It tastes like coffee," I said when it was my turn. No one laughed. "Can you taste the mildness?" wondered our leader, looking concerned for my gustatory health. As more coffees were poured, the discussion meandered between: various questions of grind coarseness; the relative merits of the French press, percolators and automatic coffee makers; the proper storage of beans; iced coffee production techniques; and the radical evil of Nescafé ("Nescafé is just ... so ... ooooohhhhhhhhhh!" shuddered the Malaysian man). The employees wrote carefully in their Starbucks "coffee passports": records of the coffees of the world that they have "visited". They even get stamps.

Eventually, everyone was quiet for long enough that the seminar was obviously over. My stomach felt funny from all the caffeine, so I lingered by the glass display case of sandwiches and cakes, unsure whether food would help. Perusing the menu, I found myself looking at a picture of a proudly smiling Thai woman carrying a basket of coffee beans. "Here's wishing you 'wholehearted happiness'," proclaimed some overlaid text. "That's what muan jai means in North Thailand."

"Hey!" I nearly shouted. "What about the Thai farmers?" "Oh, the woman never came," said the seminar leader, already back at work behind the counter. "So maybe next time."

Published: June 27, 2008 04:00 AM

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