Starbucks is a gateway for coffee love

Starbucks is a gateway for coffee love

IS THIS EVEN REAL COFFEE?: While Starbucks is the world's largest coffee chain, it really doesn't put local coffee shops out of business — but it does get people interested in better coffee. PHOTO Credit: POOLIE FLICKR COMMONS

Starbucks gets a lot of guff from the coffee crowd. Yes, they burn their beans to the point where differences in origins are almost imperceptible to an educated palette. Yes, they concoct calorie-bomb monstrosities and use actual coffee terms like "macchiato" to refer to them, causing no end of irritation and confusion at actual coffee shops. Yes, they're a corporate chain behemoth.

They are also a gateway drug. While you'd think a Starbucks moving into an area would kill off some of the independent shops in the area, recent studies have shown that a Starbucks moving in down the street will in many cases help the overall coffee culture in an area. While you'll still have your soccer moms who must have their green tea soy frapuccino, you'll also get neophyte coffee lovers who are just learning to appreciate coffee. Just as Starbucks was for the national coffee culture in general, a neighborhood Starbucks can be a gateway drug for a real appreciation for coffee.

Of course, this hasn't always been the case. At the height of Starbucks' popularity, an opening of the ubiquitous chain nearby would suck the life out of nearby shops who were, in many cases, simply emulating Starbucks to begin with. With the advent of third wave coffee and the prevalence of single origin roasts, however, Starbucks has been playing catch up with the smaller, independent shops and chains. Starbucks is now like the girl you dated in college who never left town. When you come back for a visit years later you realize you've outgrown her.

Starbucks is trying to catch up, however, with a plan to open local roasting shops in many cities. Even those shops, however, will be beholden to Starbucks' absurdly dark roasting techniques. The changing trends and innovations from various players in the coffee industry aren't as well suited to mass, corporate consumption. A small crop of Guatemalan coffee may be excellent and available at your local roaster but would simply not be able to meet the demands of a behemoth like Starbucks.

So while Starbucks attempts to learn and reshape their image to appeal to both those new to coffee and those who've left it behind for greener (or at least lighter roasted) pastures, we should appreciate it for what it is: the entree into coffee culture which brought us to where we are today; without it we may all still be drinking Folger's and thinking it was great. Or subscribing to Gevalia.

In the coming weeks I will be reporting from Australia, home of some of the best coffee in the world. I'll be visiting St. Ali's in Melbourne, amongst other places, and hopefully bringing back some great Aussie coffee which for some strange reason is never adequately exported.