He takes his coffee plain, thanks, and hold the attitude

March 02, 2006|By KEVIN COWHERD

For as long as I've been swilling coffee, my philosophy on the stuff has remained constant: Give me regular joe for regular Joes.

I don't need all these fancy high-priced "specialty" coffees strong enough to leave you twitching at your work cubicle for a week.

Don't need no lattes, espressos, cappuccinos or frappuccinos.

Don't need no sleek plastic cups with little paper sleeves and space-age lids and little green emblems that feature the Goddess of Macchiato, or whoever she's supposed to be.

Don't need no stinkin' baristas, either.

(God, I'm getting so worked up, I'm channeling the Mexican bandit in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre!

(By the way, a barista, technically, is someone trained in preparing espresso, although in this country it's come to mean anyone who prepares and serves coffee drinks.

(Also, technically, I'd rather have my coffee prepared and served by a fat guy named Nick who's wearing a greasy apron and running a diner with a dozen 18-wheelers parked outside.)

Yep, just give me a basic cup of joe at a reasonable price and I'm a happy guy.

Give me your Folgers, your Maxwell House.

Give me your Nescafe and Taster's Choice and all the other tasty, unpretentious brands millions of Americans have enjoyed for years.

If there's an emblem on my Styrofoam cup, let it be of Juan Valdez and his mule -- assuming the longtime symbol of 100 percent Colombian joe hasn't ditched coffee-farming in favor of coca-growing and narco-trafficking.

But the problem is: It's getting harder and harder to find a basic cup of coffee at a decent price -- especially on the road.

Everywhere you look, convenience stores, minimarts, donut shops and fast-food joints are trotting out "gourmet coffees" designed to lure some of the same wild-eyed caffeine junkies who now get their daily fix at Starbucks.

Now, God help us, even McDonald's is getting into the act.

Yes, starting Monday, the fast-food empire will begin serving "premium roast" coffee, which is said to be richer and stronger and will come in a new plastic container complete with la-dee-da paper-sleeve and hip black lid.

At a McDonald's not far from my house, they've already tacked up the promotional banners ("Now Richer, Bolder Coffee") and distributed the counter literature heralding this great event.

"It's supposed to be pretty good, the new coffee," a woman who works there said.

"I like the swill you serve now," I told her.

"Me, too," she whispered. "I don't like Starbucks. Too strong."

For a few minutes, standing next to a cardboard cutout of Ronald McDonald, we bonded over our mutual dislike of Starbucks.

It was like something out of a movie.

It was two strangers clinging to their sanity in a crazy, mixed-up world, where even what kind of coffee you drink becomes this politicized statement of ... OK, forget all that for a moment.

Look, I've got to get something off my chest here.

You know what ticks me off most about Starbucks?

It's not the whole We-Know-Coffee-Like-No-One-Else-mentality it cultivates so aggressively.

It's not the supercilious attitude of some of the employees, who act like they've been sent down from Great Coffee Heaven to educate the heathens.

It's not even the smug Mission Statement on the company's Web site and the self-congratulatory "green" stance it trumpets at all times. ("From promoting conservation in coffee-growing countries to recycling, Starbucks is committed to contributing positively to the environment," it says on the Web site.)

It's that they still use those pretentious terms tall, grande and venti for small, medium and large coffees.

When is this nonsense going to end?

I figured once they got big enough -- what are there, about 180 million Starbucks in this country alone? Twenty on each block? -- they'd lose this ridiculous affectation and go back to using basic English terms.

But, no. Nothing's changed.

I promise you, not even if I hadn't had a cup of coffee in a month and was now suffering pounding withdrawal headaches and uncontrollable shaking and blurred vision, would I ever walk into a Starbucks and say: "Give me a venti French Roast."

You don't have to worry about that at McDonald's, I might add.

You ask for a medium coffee, you get a medium coffee.

No one stares at you for several seconds and lets out a low whistle of frustration and says: "You mean a grande?"

That better not change when McDonald's rolls out its new coffee, either.

'Cause we don't need no stinkin' grande, either.


To listen to podcasts featuring Kevin Cowherd, go to baltimoresun.com/cowherd.

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