Big disappointment in New York

KI was recently sitting in a café in the Chelsea district of New York. It was Saturday, the place was packed, customers were crowded in front of the counter waiting for their coffee to go; I had only just managed to get a seat on a bar stool by the window. All other seats were occupied. Filter coffee was steaming in front of me in a glass cup, with a dash of milk. I took a sip and was surprised: series like Twin Peaks had suggested to me that “damn fine coffee” could be found on every corner in the USA. But the impression was wrong. The coffee that afternoon tasted awful, way too fruity and sour. After I finished the cup, I was sick for the rest of the afternoon. This wasn’t the first experience I’d had with coffee in New York, whether in a hotel, at an Italian restaurant, or at the hot-dog truck: I couldn’t help but wonder why American coffee tasted so bad.

That Americans have an ambivalent relationship to Coffee have is no secret. This is already evident in the Caffé Americano. This coffee, laced with a little hot water, is said to have originated during World War II when US soldiers stationed in Italy diluted their coffee with water so that it tasted closer to the filter coffee the soldiers were used to. Espresso purists shudder at the thought of diluting a perfectly prepared shot with water.

The USA should be a coffee nation simply because of its history: one of its founding myths is the Boston Tea Party, where crates of tea were dumped into Boston Harbor on a November night in 1773. The action was preceded by a long dispute over taxes and tariffs and a boycott of British tea. If tea was drunk at that time, it was mostly smuggled tea from the Netherlands. No wonder, then, that coffee soon became the beverage of choice. In the 19th century, the coffee pot was an integral part of the camping equipment of pioneers and gold diggers, and men like the Arbuckle brothers and James Folger made a fortune selling ground coffee. Folgers is still one of the most popular coffee brands in the USA.

The triumph of Starbucks

But somehow the USA didn’t get the curve. Maybe it’s because they’re a nation of drip coffee drinkers, or maybe it’s because of Starbucks, the Seattle-based chain that has been threatening to ruin coffee culture around the world with paper cups and outrageous coffee blends called “blends” since the ’70s. In fact: If you want to get a taste of what is served in American cafés, you can simply order a coffee in a German Starbucks. It still tastes bearable compared to the “consumer coffee” that comes out of the (pump) pot in countless US motels, bodegas and delis. In terms of taste and aroma, fruity notes predominate, which quickly become acidic.

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