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Confessions of a Newly-Minted Starbucks Decaf Regular

Coffee is one of those things that has always perplexed me. I remember trying it as a kid, the bitterness was unpleasant and it burned my tongue. Why would anyone drink that stuff when there is soda in the world? I’d rather have a Coke. At least that’s how I grew up.

I pretty much avoided coffee in my youth. I avoided coffee in my 20’s and most of my 30’s as well. I did learn to appreciate the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, but never quite got around to enjoying the flavor. Even as an ingredient, that coffee flavor would jump right out at me and take over whatever I contained it. Tiramisu was right out. Anything mocha was politely refused entry to my plate.

So no fan of coffee, I would nonetheless have an occasional chance to stop in a place like Starbucks. If I want a hot beverage, which is rare, I go with tea. If I am at a Starbucks and want a hot beverage, which is even rarer, I also have tea. I like tea. Pretty much any flavor is fine. Regular, herbal, etc., although I try to avoid caffeine, so it’s usually decaf or herbal tea.

Yet the siren call of coffee keeps me curious. I stare at the Starbucks menu and wonder what riches may lie beneath the carefully encoded words.

Frankly, the menu at Starbucks perplexes both me and my wife. We go in and watch the customers who know what they want bark off 20-word orders: “Venti double cappuccino with an extra shot, room for cream, and …” my eyes are glazing over. How is coffee this dammed complicated? It’s a cup of hot water filtered through a few beans and maybe a little frothy milk added in!

The regulars have their scripts memorized and they want their liquid caffeine delivery system now. So when a Starbucks newbie like me or Mrs. Vargas comes in to order, with the deer-in-headlights stare at the menu, the regulars go into an interesting holding pattern. It usually starts with an eye roll and a step back, as if someone who doesn’t know how to order coffee the Starbucks regular way might go into spasm and take out a regular, possibly injuring them and preventing caffeine reception.

Depending on how intense the regular’s caffeine jones is, the next step is either more eye rolling and a glance back at other regulars to confirm how silly the newbie is, or for the really intense ones, another half-step back (apparently someone once exploded while ordering coffee for the first time and word got around to the regulars) and finger drumming or foot tapping.

It’s almost as if the coffee newbie took out a sign with “LEPER” written on it to put around their neck.

Part of the confusion starts with the sizes: “tall”, “grande” and “venti”. Excuse me, but what’s wrong with “small”, “medium”, and “large”? When did they get sent to the back of the bus? I’d rather not have to wade through the pretense of figuring out some arcane size code before even trying to delve into what type of hot flavored water I want. I have been in restaurants where if you ordered a “venti” anything, you would simply get slapped.

The next confusion is what kind of coffee. I admit I have virtually no coffee drinking experience, so I cannot offer much advice here except to ask. It will have two good effects. The first is that a very helpful Starbucks employee will talk with you to discover what you want.

I have been to quite a few Starbucks and the employees are invariably knowledgeable and helpful to the extreme. It’s very comforting. The second benefit is that is will piss off the caffeine addicts in back of you to no end. Take advantage of this and ask some in-depth questions about the coffees and teas. The greater the pretentiousness of the person in back of you, the longer you should take in deciding.

This was all confirmed by a Starbucks employee I met the other day in a non-Starbucks environment. I shared my fears of being a coffee newbie and she confirmed my suspicions about the regulars, the eye rolls, and the tapping feet. The good news is that I’m not paranoid. The bad news is that they are out to get me.

So you’re probably thinking, “Hey Lars! You started out talking about how you hate coffee but somehow you know all these inside Starbucks things pretty well.” And you are 100% correct in thinking that. You see, I have a confession to make. It’s a dirty, coffee-stained confession: “I now like coffee and I drink it regularly.”

It started out when I joined a group that meets once a week. After the meetings a few of the members go to coffee at Starbucks. At the first few coffee outings, I did the tea thing. After about tow months, curiosity got the best of me. I wasn’t in a devious mood, so I waited for the line to abate and made my sheepish approach. As I said before, the person who helped me was terrific, even explaining (possibly against company policy) that tall was small, grande was medium, and venti was large. The code was broken!

We then went on to discuss the different brews, their characteristics, and other fine points of coffee. I had no idea when I entered, but I left informed. I even learned about leaving room for milk. You can ask for a little room or a lot. This was all interesting stuff.

I forgot what I ordered that night, but do remember I wanted a lot of room for cream, which dampens the bitterness while cooling the coffee down. I also remember enjoying it tremendously. It was a revelation. The coffee wasn’t bitter at all. It was nicely flavored, subtle even.

Ever since then it’s been coffee each week. I still don’t consume much caffeine, so it’s usually decaf for me. I have also nearly weaned myself away from cream, but still need a few packets of Splenda for my venti. And when I order, I still consult the menu, now more as a refresher or a cue card rather than trying to figure out which of the many options I want.

Last week was the clincher though. I walked in, straight up to the counter, and in aloud confident voice I ordered “a venti decaf with a little room”. (I learned that the “for cream” can be implied.) It was a little scary, moving over form newbie-dom to full fledged “regular” status. I was disappointed that no golden light descended from the heavens, nor did the caffeine seraphim bestow heavenly blessings upon me. I did, however, get a really great cup of java. And that alone was worth all the effort, the learning, the stares from others, and the general pain.

Tomorrow I’m going to my meeting. I’m hope that we will go to Starbucks afterward. A little part of me wants a newbie to be in front of me when I order. I’m already practicing my eye rolling and sneer, and I hate myself for it. But damn it all, that’s some delicious coffee.


Although I enjoy coffee at Starbucks and the occasional restaurant, I still haven’t brought my newfound habit home. I might in the near future, if only to save a few dollars. $3.85 for 16 ounces of coffee is out of line, not matter how nice the employees are and how well their health care is covered.

I like Starbucks and plan to continue to be a regular customer, just not a daily regular. Unless they start putting crack in the coffee and don’t tell anyone, I cannot imagine that addiction getting bad enough to spend over $900 a year on hot water. Before that happens, something named Krupps or even the venerable Mr. Coffee will make an appearance in Casa Vargas. In the meantime, $3.85 a week (usually less, actually) is tolerable.

Published Mon 12/19/05 at 10:36pm

Categorized in Food & Drink, Journal, Lars Vargas