In the window of the Avalon House on Aungier Street, in Dublin’s city centre, the Starbucks mermaid glows like a secular sacred heart in the window.
Late last month the 51st branch of the American coffee chain in the capital moved into the front part of the building, which also houses a hostel. There was a time when this would have been seen as a welcome sort of gentrification, back when Starbucks still conjured up images of Seattle and internet start-ups and the cast of Friends. It was our new “third space” then. But in the intervening decade since the first one opened here, the chain has become more of a McDonald’s for the middle classes.
People slowly cottoned on that the coffee itself wasn’t far off what you’d get in a petrol station and the food was like something they might serve in an American prison. It also endured the PR disaster of looking like it was avoiding tax in a time of austerity. And so there is outrage at the thought of expensive lattes being served on the site of a hostel.
A councillor, Mannix Flynn, registered his opposition by letter. The online rabble gave out from a safe distance. But the Starbucks siren is an irresistibly reliable rent and rate payer.
That the coffee chain continues to spread through Ireland despite nobody particularly wanting it is testament to the place coffee occupies in our society. The writer and filmmaker Iain Sinclair recently called it “the marching powder of the shared desk classes”, a hot, sour jolt of energy and edginess that most of us need before facing the office.
Our national drink used to be tea, which is gentle and designed for afternoon lingering. Now it’s coffee fuelling us in our long hours and digital daze. We can’t get enough of it. Last year a survey showed that one in five of us can’t get through 24 hours without a cup of coffee. Our propensity to treat ourselves to a daily barista coffee is seen as a bellwether of general consumer confidence. It’s a cheap way for that generation who may never own a home to feel like they’re living like people for a few minutes. And because of this everyone is now a coffee snob.
Bean to cup: Rebecca McNamara serves customers in The Bear Market Coffee Shop in Blackrock. Photo: INM
The price of a cup of coffee in Dublin has crept slowly towards €3 — and we’ll shell out for ambience. Instead of Starbucks we want small, fancy, neighbourhood coffee places, where we can live out our pretensions.
The little coffee place I go to every day in Dublin city centre is at the fault line of old Dublin corporation housing and yuppified silicon docks apartments. When it opened I felt slightly sorry for the owner — I thought there would be very little footfall where the place was, at the edge of the docklands.
Then the boom and bust and boom again happened and I nursed myself through the recession a cup of his coffee at a time. Now the crowds at weekends are almost biblical. An army of staff gets refined carbs and caffeine into cranky tech workers as quickly as humanly possible.
This is far from the self-conscious bespokeness of Costa or other major chains. A request for anything elaborate ending in “chino”, or topped with syrup, would be met with horror. Equally, getting “skinny” anything shows you belong in Starbucks.
While actual skinny girls drink pastel-coloured tea, coffee has slowly got manlier. The last few years have seen the rise of the flat white, which doesn’t have the effete overtones of ordering a cappuccino. George Clooney is the patron saint of coffee drinkers. The shop that sells the pods the actor promotes, situated off Grafton Street, looks and feels like a church.
The type of marketing nonsense you see on the walls of coffee shops has also slowly changed. It used to be that coffee shops tried to make you feel you were part of some beautiful consumer ecosystem that helped farmers in the Third World. Now they try hard to make you feel like a connoisseur. At another coffee shop within a few yards of my apartment they boast that the coffee was roasted just 12km away — today. Others brag about the opposite, that their coffee has come all the way from Italy. Mercifully the full vocabulary of “earthiness” and “ferment” and “astringency” has not entered the mainstream for coffee shops yet.
It could be, too, that the mania for coffee is part of our national effort to drink like a grown-up nation. Coffee helps many a hungover head power through until lunchtime and is a more or less harmless addiction substitute. The writer Augusten Burroughs says Starbucks owes a free coffee to every recovering alcoholic, because former alcoholics buy so much coffee anyway. And perhaps it would take a gesture like that for Starbucks to be truly loved here.
Before the opening of the Aungier Street branch, an ominous sign outside read “buy Irish not Starbucks”. It’s a sweet thought but even if Starbucks was run out of town it wouldn’t mean coffee shops wouldn’t continue to encroach on the habitat of hostels. In modern Ireland there are no spare rooms but you can get a cup of pretension on every corner.