The first time I set foot inside a Starbucks was in 1995.
My high school buddies and I had driven up to Chicago from the Ozarks. We wanted to get away from parents and visit friends over spring break. One of them took us to her favorite downtown hangout, which seemed to be the newest thing. We were as much in awe of the coffee shop’s atmosphere as we were the skyscrapers and the girl. I recall a palpable feeling that we were not cool enough to be there. Back then we didn’t have coffee shops in Springfield, Missouri. We had diners, where we drank copious pots of watery coffee, ate bacon and smoked.
Of course, they’re everywhere now. There are Starbucks drive-throughs in small towns and there are corner shops near every transit stop in the bigger cities. In Europe, you find them in the airports, train stations, and nearly anywhere there are tourists. The Grand Place in Brussels has one; there’s another in the shadow of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. The one in Beijing’s Forbidden City shut back in 2007 when it became, well, forbidden, but the company plans to have 5,000 stores in China by 2021. It already has half that many.
In the meantime, flavorful coffee went mainstream. McDonald’s has it now, even if many of us favor fussier, locally owned coffee shops and roasteries—of which there are plenty. These days the real value of Starbucks is in its free wifi, plentiful electrical outlets and convenient locations. Starbucks isn’t hip anymore. It hasn’t been in years. Its winning trait—like the McDonald’s we utilize when driving cross-country with kids—is plain old usefulness.
Starbucks is on my mind as I contemplate what appears to be a growing international phenomenon: craft beer bar chains. AB InBev announced its plans to launch a chain of Goose Island pubs in Europe, starting in London before the end of this year. Next comes Brussels, capital of the country from which InBev launched itself globally. Then there will be a bunch more, as the chain will be “well-funded, rapidly expanding.” It’s easy to imagine Goose Island IPA on tap alongside Shock Top, Stella and Hoegaarden, with sports on the TV, music blaring, and glossy menus that recommend which one to drink with the pulled pork.
AB InBev has done this sort of thing before. Its international chain of Belgian Beer Cafes now numbers 28, in nine countries from the Netherlands to New Zealand via the United Arab Emirates.
But in the case of Goose Island, it’s easy to suppose that the inspiration could be Brewdog, which now has 47 locations and counting. The newest one opened here in Berlin a couple of weeks ago. Unusually for bars in the Hauptstadt, it offers daylight hours, free wifi and electrical outlets. Among the beers from Brewdog and friends, there tend to be a couple of better traditional beers from the likes of Gänstaller or Ayinger. Again: useful.
Brewdog plans to expand its chain into the United States, including several brewpubs (which might be an elegant solution to dealing with the three-tier distribution system, which generally prevents breweries from owning their own bars to sell their own beers). Following the formula, these bars will no doubt serve local independents alongside their own beers. For now they are novel. They are hip. But for how long? The Brewdog company has grown rapidly since 2007—that was the year, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently noted, that iPhones appeared, Facebook took off, and Airbnb and change.org also got their starts—and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Curiosity took me to the Brewdog outlet recently in Warsaw, despite there being about 50 other craft-centric taphouses in town. It was similar to all the other Brewdog bars I’ve seen—but then again, many craft beer bars aren’t all that different from each other. They tend to be minimalist with exposed brick, dangly light bulbs, chalkboard tap lists, and smartpersons on their smartphones. Twenty years ago, Guinness pushed its faux-Irish pub model around the world, and you could always feel at home in one if you didn’t mind the cookie-cutter appearance. But now instead of faux-Irish it’s faux-Brooklyn. These are not all chains, but if aliens landed and thought they were, we’d understand why.
In the U.S., we have our own chains of beer bars, of course. There are 16 Flying Saucers now, mainly in Middle America. They are still novel in their cities, till you travel to a few other Flying Saucers and suss out the formula, but they still manage to feel warm and local. The World of Beer chain has 75 bars, mostly in the Eastern and Southern U.S., bringing variety to shopping centers in otherwise bleak stretches of suburbia that trendier bars have neglected.
Here and there you can also find McMenamins, Winking Lizards and Ginger Men, among others.
All these chains will do fine when they follow the Starbucks model of usefulness, rather than betting it all on staying cool. If they proliferate, most of us will pop into them eventually, based on convenience, even if all things considered we’d prefer to seek out a local independent with its own personality.
But it’s worth noting that Starbucks normalized flavorful coffee. Variety beer is headed the same direction.
The thing about novelty is that it eventually ceases to become novel. Then, one would hope that we’ll use our hard-earned duckets to vote for beer quality and atmosphere—both often lacking in today’s cold taphouses, which offer lots of noise, few comforts, and the increasingly familiar game of is-the-new-beer-any-good-and-are-the-taps-clean roulette.
Brewdog, a British company initially inspired by American “craft” and bare-bones beer bars, is shipping them back over to us. Meanwhile my personal taste and sense of irony suggest it would be a good time for us to return to emulating Britain’s greatest invention: the cozy pub. There should be well-kept beer, comfortable places to sit, conversation, and places to hide from noise and screens. The exposed brick is optional.