Why do Americans make such bad coffee?

‘What is this? Brown water?’ He said with a look of disgust after sipping from his cup.

‘Isn’t it supposed to be coffee?’ I said.

‘Americans make such bad coffee it barely deserves to be called coffee at all,’ he said. ‘I once spilled a cup on my lap. After it dried, there was nothing, no stain. Coffee is supposed to leave a decent, black stain’.

We were on a long haul train journey across the USA (Amtrak is one of the great hidden gems here), having breakfast somewhere between Colorado and New Mexico. Our meal companions were a couple of young Chinese men who had been sent to Kansas from Tokyo for a year by their employer. Apart from getting used to the culture shock of such a move and the absence of public transport, they found they had to come to terms with the dreadful coffee.

It is difficult not to agree. Only in the USA can Starbucks seem like good coffee. Elsewhere it might universally be regarded as dreadful coffee, but in the USA it seems like a good drink. Less watery, with a trace of taste, and an effort at socially responsible business practices – Starbucks at least tries. Or I should say it used to try. Now they have succumbed to the status quo. Gone are the individually ground cups of coffee; gone are the bang, twist, hiss and gurgle of a something that might resemble coffee. Instead, they now have computerised machines that require a mere press of a button. A trickle of brown water flows into a cup and that is it.

Watery, tasteless, lukewarm. Making such bad coffee is not laziness. It requires dedicated attention over many years to come up with that formula.

Is coffee in the USA a metaphor for the failure of neoliberal economic policies that have been pursued here with such energy? Possibly. Travel by train through the back yard of the country. Stop a while in a trailerized town, witness the sea of poverty all around, and realize that the propaganda of the American dream applies only to a privileged few. Islands of privilege in a sea of poverty. The economic ‘benefits’ are for the majority barely that at all: watered down, tasteless, lukewarm. You are better off without it.

Yet what astounds me is the way such an economic approach can in any way be touted as the model for others. How can this approach to economic life be regarded as anything but a failure? Why would anyone in the right mind think that it should be copied anywhere else?


17 thoughts on “Why do Americans make such bad coffee?

  1. Agree about the sea of poverty in the US– our local TV stations in the mountains of Virginia have numerous adverts about food drives (with names like Operation Christmas Cheer) so that “folks can have food for the festive season”.

    1. Not only is taking the train a bit of an insight into the back yard of the USA, but any bus trip through the various parts of LA, which we did recently, takes you past endless razor wire and vast sectors of poverty.

  2. “Is coffee in the USA a metaphor for the failure of neoliberal economic policies that have been pursued here with such energy? Possibly.”

    Compare your observations on American coffee with those made by Mark Twain in the nineteenth century.

    O tempora! O mores!

      1. “In Venice we had a luxury which very seldom fell to our lot on the continent—a home dinner with a private family. If one could always stop with private families, when traveling, Europe would have a charm which it now lacks. As it is, one must live in the hotels, of course, and that is a sorrowful business. A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery would not starve to death suddenly in Europe; but I think he would gradually waste away, and eventually die.

        He would have to do without his accustomed morning meal. That is too formidable a change altogether; he would necessarily suffer from it. He could get the shadow, the sham, the base counterfeit of that meal; but it would do him no good, and money could not buy the reality.

        To particularize: the average American’s simplest and commonest form of breakfast consists of coffee and beefsteak; well, in Europe, coffee is an unknown beverage. You can get what the European hotel-keeper thinks is coffee, but it resembles the real thing as hypocrisy resembles holiness. It is a feeble, characterless, uninspiring sort of stuff, and almost as undrinkable as if it had been made in an American hotel. The milk used for it is what the French call “Christian” milk—milk which has been baptized.

        After a few months’ acquaintance with European “coffee,” one’s mind weakens, and his faith with it, and he begins to wonder if the rich beverage of home, with its clotted layer of yellow cream on top of it, is not a mere dream, after all, and a thing which never existed.

        Next comes the European bread—fair enough, good enough, after a fashion, but cold; cold and tough, and unsympathetic; and never any change, never any variety—always the same tiresome thing.

        Next, the butter—the sham and tasteless butter; no salt in it, and made of goodness knows what.

        Then there is the beefsteak. They have it in Europe, but they don’t know how to cook it. Neither will they cut it right. It comes on the table in a small, round pewter platter. It lies in the center of this platter, in a bordering bed of grease-soaked potatoes; it is the size, shape, and thickness of a man’s hand with the thumb and fingers cut off. It is a little overdone, is rather dry, it tastes pretty insipidly, it rouses no enthusiasm.

        Imagine a poor exile contemplating that inert thing; and imagine an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better land and setting before him a mighty porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle; dusted with a fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy, archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender, yellowish fat gracing an outlying district of this ample county of beefsteak; the long white bone which divides the sirloin from the tenderloin still in its place; and imagine that the angel also adds a great cup of American home-made coffee, with a cream a-froth on top, some real butter, firm and yellow and fresh, some smoking hot-biscuits, a plate of hot buckwheat cakes, with transparent syrup—could words describe the gratitude of this exile? ”

        A Tramp Abroad CHAPTER XLIX (1880)

  3. I agree. I am an avid coffee drinker. There is an old diner in my town that served great coffee since my youth, but I felt nostalgic, so I visited the diner the other day and the coffee tasted very different and was watery- almost like instant. I do like starbucks coffee, but you should try Turkish coffee. I first had it while visiting Greece years ago, and I have been hooked ever since.

  4. You’re so right about their insipid coffee.

    The first time I ordered a coffee in the US, the person serving me asked how many milk containers I wanted. Hesitantly I said, “Just one, please.” He looked at me kind of oddly, which I later understood when he handed me a bucket of watery coffee which was about a foot tall, and a tiny little milk container. Everybody, I found out, asks for at least three or four of these little containers, which each have to be pealed open and then thrown away.

    This would never have happened if the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor had won.

      1. This was the first time I was in the US. On later visits I was an expert in coffee-ordering. I even stopped asking for water and began asking for waaaaaterrr. On my first trip I gave up on receiving water and just asked for beer.

  5. I am still puzzling over the ‘Non-dairy creamer’ I was given on the Delta flight home to add to my tea. The content listed was … milk.

    1. ‘Milk’ apparently has many sources and meanings, far from any ‘dairy’ connections. I also wonder about the source of all that ‘cheese’ in the USA – found in almost everything one eats. Surely there aren’t sufficient cows to produce that much. In an analogous manner to free-range eggs: there is more cheese sold in the USA than cows to produce it.

      1. I suspect that most of it is really knob cheese. Some entrepreneurial type has managed to harvest it commercially.

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