Tempest in a Coffeepot

Starbucks invades the world.


The Seventh International Festival of Arts and Ideas, held last June in New Haven, Connecticut, was one of those upscale boho fairs filled with puppets and Andean pan pipes aimed at the Birkenstock-and-Volvo set. A guest speaker was explaining why foreigners hate us. He railed against the "homogenization" of global culture and the threat of "monoculture"—that is, the worldwide replacement of individual, indigenous stores and restaurants with international chains.

"Monoculture," according to the speaker, is why they—Europeans, Arabs, everybody—despise us: They're under cultural siege. Starbucks, he warned, had just opened its first store in Zurich, the alleged birthplace of European coffee, and the Seattle-based chain would do everything it could to displace every native coffee shop in the city. Like infesting alien pods, American culture threatens to transmogrify the planet, as the speaker put it, into one big New Jersey. Starbucks was just one example.

The speaker was Benjamin R. Barber, professor of civil society at the University of Maryland, professional anti-capitalist, and relentless self-promoter. (You can tour his glossy temple of ego at My reaction to his scenario was simple: If the Swiss don't like Starbucks, they shouldn't patronize Starbucks. To Barber this is fatuous; he is a proponent of "strong democracy," under which a bureaucracy would restrain Starbucks to protect mom-and-pop coffeehouses.

I suspect there is room in Zurich for both. The Swiss like their coffee so much that a whole institution, the Johann Jacobs Museum, is dedicated to the subject. (The price of admission includes a free cup in its dining room.) What is even more thought provoking than the new Starbucks in Zurich is the chain's expansion into Arab countries, whose people have a much longer connection to the coffee bean.

Coffee's history is worth pausing over, because its complex international development raises the question of whether Barber and like-minded critics know what they're whining about. Coffea arabica originated in the Ethiopian highlands, where the raw, unroasted beans were masticated and the leaves brewed like tea by the locals. How it spread down to the coast and across the Red Sea to Arabia is uncertain, but it is in al-Makkha that, according to popular belief, a cup of coffee was first brewed around 1200 A.D. Soon coffee made al-Makkha fabulously wealthy. Its plantations were guarded by armies, and fortresses served as bean storehouses. Four centuries later, merchants from Egypt to India lined the docks of al-Makkha, the city from which we derive the word mocha, clamoring for the stuff.

A member of the Sufi order of Shadhili mystics is credited with first brewing coffee, or qahwa (short for qahwa al-bon, "wine of the bean" in Arabic), and it quickly spread through the group: Members used it to sustain their all-night spinning ceremonies. These "whirling dervishes," as the West called them, attempted to alter their consciousness through ecstatic gyration, and thus get closer to God. Caffeine helped them do it. Pretty soon, the wandering Shadhilis had transported coffee throughout the Islamic world, where it shed its religious trappings and became an everyday drink enjoyed by commoner and royal alike.

Not that every ruler endorsed it. In 1511 coffee was banned in Mecca as being too similar to alcohol. (The ban was overturned 14 years later.) A century later, the Turkish sultan Murad IV became alarmed that coffeehouses were centers of political criticism, so he enacted the 1633 version of campaign finance reform: Coffee was banned, cafés destroyed, and drinkers beaten or beheaded. In 1675 England's King Charles II ordered closings for the same reasons, but the public outcry was such that he revoked the ban two days before it was to go into effect.

The former coffeehouse owners of the Ottoman world relocated to the more hospitable climate of Europe. Merchant trade, European travelers, and Turkish diplomats also spread the bean west. But coffee didn't enter the Continental mainstream until after the Ottoman Turks were routed from their siege of Vienna by the Poles in 1683, when they left 500 bags of coffee beans behind (the sultan's ban presumably having been reversed). Vienna's first coffeehouse opened two years later. As the result of a single battle, Ottoman expansion was halted and European café culture was born—making Vienna, not Zurich, the birthplace of European coffee.

Americans consumed a little over 10 pounds of coffee per capita in 2000, with 52 percent over age 18 saying they drank coffee the day before, according to a survey by the National Coffee Association of USA. But compared to either the Viennese or Barber's beloved Swiss, we're teetotalers. Austrians drink about 14 pounds, the Swiss 15.5. There are over 4,500 Starbucks outlets in the U.S., or one store for every 61,000 people. In Austria, which boasts but five Starbucks outlets, the ratio is one for every 608,000; in Switzerland (12 stores) it's one for every 1.6 million. There's more of a market for coffee in those two countries but fewer Starbucks per capita. Where's the hegemony Barber warns about?

Perhaps Starbucks hasn't had time yet. The chain has been expanding in the Middle East for years, with 80 stores in Arab countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Nearby countries such as Egypt and Syria have none. The absence may be explained by a notable lack of interest in coffee: The average Egyptian consumes only 0.13 pound in a year; the average Syrian, two pounds. Obviously Starbucks goes where there's a taste for joe. The three Arab nations with the lowest Starbucks-to-people ratios are the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (one per 104,000), Kuwait (one per 111,000), and Qatar (one per 267,000). Yet the Lebanese have 11 stores, one for every 336,000 people, and consume 9.5 pounds of coffee per capita, putting them on a par with Americans and outstripping the other three: The UAE consumes five pounds per capita; Kuwait, three; and Qatar, 2.5. Jordanians, who consume five pounds of coffee per capita, have zero Starbucks outlets.

Like every other business in the world, Starbucks has a specific clientele to which it appeals. For whatever reason, Starbucks is attractive not to all Arabs but rather to a particular sort of Arab. This is why Barber's imagined threat of monocultural, chain-driven sprawl across the face of the planet will never materialize. For anything like that to happen, there would have to be homogeneity of taste and thought. Starbucks will never assimilate the entire human race until we all have exactly the same wants and likes. In short, Barber has it backward. Material culture such as a Starbucks store doesn't create cultural conformity. It is cultural conformity—ideas and beliefs accepted individually, then shared by a group of like-minded individuals—that creates material culture.

What those worried about monoculture really fear is cross-cultural contamination: the dilution of foreign cultures by contact with America. But no culture is truly indigenous or untouched by others. Starbucks itself is an American repackaging of Italian coffee culture. The chain was originally indistinguishable from any other coffee shop. But in 1983 Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz (then head of marketing) took a business trip to Milan and was blown away by the grace and style—not to mention the coffee—of the city's 1,500 espresso bars.

Schultz eventually differentiated Starbucks from other American coffeehouses by modeling it on his Italian experience, with certain modifications to suit American tastes. These include chairs for loitering, jazz overhead instead of opera, and an Italian-sounding nonsense language (such as "frappuccino" and "tazo tea") that one ex-Starbucks exec freely admits was concocted in a boardroom. This just adds another stage in the international epic of coffee drinking: Starbucks customers, whether in Zurich or Beirut, are drinking an American version of an Italian evolution of a beverage invented by Arabs brewed from a bean discovered by Africans.

Anti-globalizers often ignore the fact that corporations are not charities giving away their products; they have customers who choose to buy their goods and services. Starbucks is "a mega-corporation destroying hundreds of mom-and-pop cafés," writes Stewart Lee Allen in his 1999 history of coffee, The Devil's Cup. "But that's just something large corporations do."

No, that's just something consumers do—millions of them, making individual decisions every day. Personally, I tend to avoid Starbucks when I can. It has nothing to do with globalization or culture or politics or even coffee; the chain's tall-grandé-venti menu simply presents too steep a learning curve for my small-medium-large brain. If others felt as I do, then Barber and his anti-globalization compadres would have their wish and Starbucks would vanish from the earth like the Ottomans did from the gates of Vienna. With 6,000 Starbucks in the world—and counting—the globe's coffee drinkers evidently feel differently. At least for now.