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Coffee-induced sleeplessness in Seattle

[An article I wrote for Cara magazine in 2002; of which I was reminded by Dick Ahlstrom's article in the Irish Times recently pointing out that coffee does not make us more alert, and by @darraghdoyle's attending "Starbucks Coffee College".]

I never saw the film Sleepless in Seattle, but now that I’ve visited the city I’m pretty sure I know where they got the title. There’s coffee everywhere in this place and everyone is drinking it all the time, in every imaginable form.

Caffeine: alkaloid, organic substance (C8H10N402) found in tea, coffee and kola nuts, which when imbibed stimulates the human heart and central nervous system.

My own first fix of the day is in our hotel room … well, in the bathroom, to be exact, from the miniature coffee percolator provided. Home of Starbucks or not, I just can’t resist the novelty of watching a pot brew while having my shower. It looks and smells like the stuff I would use at home, but because of the bathroom water it doesn’t taste so good.

Coffee: bitter tasting drink made from soaking the roasted ground seeds of Coffea berries in water; first drunk in Arab society around the 14th century, spreading to Europe in the 17th century through Viennese coffee houses; now the second most traded commodity in the world.

My second cup is drunk at an altitude of 520 feet, atop the O Deck of the famous Seattle Space Needle. God knows why with such spectacular views of Elliot Bay, of downtown Seattle, and of the Cascade Mountains beyond, everyone feels the need to consume, but we do, and it’s mostly coffee in some form or other. “We proudly brew Starbucks coffee,” a sign states, confirming that the Java giant is everywhere here. Fifteen flavours to choose from, vanilla to raspberry, four different sizes (up to 20 ounces), countless bean varietal and blend options, and even special iced coffee concoctions. Paralysed by too much choice, I opt for a boring old double espresso. It’s excellent, with good crema on top, even if it comes in a paper cup.

Espresso: coffee drink made by forcing steam at high pressure through about 7 grams of ground Arabica coffee beans to form about one ounce of liquid, or a type of Italian bar where such coffee is consumed.

Next, we’re strolling around downtown when suddenly I see this hole-in-the-wall, take-away place up ahead. It’s the long line-up of locals that attracts me. This must be where the real Seattelites go, I decide, and join the end of the queue. Yet again, the vast choice overwhelms me, and the best I can do is ask for a Small Verona. “Would you like room for cream, sir?” “Er, no thank you.” I feel distinctly tongue-tied in a city of people who can say things like: “A half-caf soy grande granite double-tall for me, please, Barista, and a Thunder Thighs on a leash for my friend here.”

We have lunch (clam chowder) at one of the fish stalls in the colourful and bustling Pike Place Market. Shane, who serves it up, advises us against Starbucks for postprandial coffee – Evil Corporation, in his estimation. He recommends, instead, Seattle’s Best Coffee.

In 1982, a decade after the small gourmet coffee retailer called Starbucks opened its first shop at Pike Place, Howard Schultz joined the company and began implementing his plan to bring the Italian espresso bar culture to every street corner in America. Starbucks Corporation now has over 3,000 outlets worldwide.

But as tourists we feel obliged to visit the original Starbucks. We find it surrounded by a crowd of people listening to a busking gospel group. For a moment I wonder if the “Evil Corporation” are paying them to play outside; might they be singing about Starbucks? The queue inside is lengthy, so I get plenty of time to study what’s on offer. More of the same, I conclude. A lot more. In honour of nights spent at the Coffee Inn on South Anne Street in Dublin during the 1990s, I try a Mocha, and am moved beyond words … and beyond coffee.

The Third Place is Schultz’s idea that every branch of Starbucks should be a stress-free space of contemplation between home and work. “The drinks are just vehicles for creating an experience,” Schultz has said. It’s a theatrical display of lighting, music and people.

My fifth cup, not five minutes later, comes from Seattle’s Best Coffee around the corner on Post Alley. Under pressure to beat the terrible Seattle traffic, I decide on a take-away, but make the fundamental error of asking for a Frappuccino without realising that’s a Starbucks registered beverage.

From Starbucks’s website: “The Company’s objective is to establish Starbucks as the most recognised and respected brand in the world. To achieve this goal, the Company plans to continue to rapidly expand… and selectively pursue opportunities to leverage Starbucks brand."

I get this iced coffee cocktail, blended with chocolate and caramel, served in a translucent plastic tower, with whipped “cream” oozing out of the straw-hole in its domed roof. Odd though it feels to suck coffee, cold, I am not disappointed.

Caffeine-Induced Organic Mental Disorder (from American Psychiatric Association) – after recently consuming in excess of 250 mg of caffeine (say 5 cups) the sufferer experiences some or all of the following symptoms: restlessness, nervousness, excitement, insomnia, flushed face, diuresis, gastrointestinal disturbance, muscle twitching, rambling flow of thought and speech …

Leaving, I somehow end up on the wrong highway for the airport, and become extremely irate about the appalling quality of Seattle signposts, and eventually babble to an air hostess about tasting coffee in my gin and tonic.

Sleep tight, Seattle! Not.

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