Coffee in Europe has been pretty much crud so far. Bear with me for a second.
I agree with Coffee Geek in that there are two kinds of coffee: coffee-coffee and culinary coffee, for lack of better terms. One’s the sludgy, often drip, really bitter coffee many people like a cup of in the morning. I have a fondness for this myself. The other starts to include good beans, reasonably fresh roasts, and processes that do more for the flavor, like french press or espresso machines.
I think of this sometimes in terms of who sells what: 7-11’s pot of drip coffee is the coffee-coffee. Starbucks establishes the culinary coffee spectrum. People who want to pay 79c for a cup of joe don’t want what Starbucks is offering. People who want a decent latte don’t want to pay 79c for the other option.
In Germany and Belgium, it was all super-automatic machines. These are the beasts that have a hopper of beans on top and when the operator presses the button, they make a lot of noise and shake a little and a drink comes out the other end. They produce culinary coffee, of a sorts. On a scale where “1” is “awful” and “10” is “best I’ve ever had” the super-automatic machines, given decent beans, will consistently hit a 4, which is not bad at all. But getting beyond that requires better beans. And getting way beyond that requires better equipment, a lot more attention to the beans, a whole extra level of training and attention (and here I’m thinking of Cafe Vivace). But sometimes you get just wretched coffee and you have to be prepared for that — there’s a risk not present otherwise.
For most places, the super-auto is good enough. I had coffee a couple of times where it was pretty bad, but if you’re going to start serving espresso, a super-auto means almost no additional investment and you’re in business. But it’s not good culinary coffee, especially when they’re feeding it awful beans. It just means they’re checking off a box that says you offer lattes because you have x coffee with y steamed milk.
But when I got my first really good restaurant espresso here today, I wasn’t surprised when I checked it out and found they were using an old-school, semi-automatic machine. They’d have had to grind, tamp, and time the whole thing themselves. And the result was I got the first decent coffee in weeks.
Now this whole thing has an application to the Starbucks-McDonald’s thing, which I’ll get to soon.
Or not… Belgian beers are ridiculous.