James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

We Get the Politicians and the Bland Cups of Coffee We Deserve

We Get the Politicians and the Bland Cups of Coffee We Deserve

Coffee in Bahrain

As the Airbus A320 banks for its final descent, and the shimmering blue heat of the Persian Gulf fades into Bahrain’s desert-yellow suburbs, I cannot suppress a familiar tingle of excitement at flying into a world so different from my own, even if it is just for a transfer.

On the ground, there is the early morning’s vast warmth, so different from the low skies of the British winter I have just left, the indecipherable calligraphy of adverts and airport signs, the businessmen in their neatly pressed dishdashas. I make my way through the airport building, indulging in glimpses of the wild blueness of the sky and the unknown city beyond, until I arrive in a departures hall, itself filled with clean desert light.

There, the bubble bursts; I have seen a Costa Coffee—the most British of firms and a personal bête noire.

Founded in 1971 as a London-based wholesale coffee bean supplier, Costa has grown to become the second largest coffeehouse chain in the world. It boasts over 3,000 stores across 31 countries. All this, despite offering what I can only describe as a quite staggeringly mediocre experience.

It’s not that Costa is bad—just inoffensive to the point of offensiveness. While Starbucks markets a brightly cartoonish, distinctly American style, and Caffè Nero (one of Costa’s main British competitors) riffs off an Italian aesthetic, Costa offers little more than a sub-Ikea, maroon-colored, flat-pack blandness.

This is not to say that the business is a void of design, however; quite the opposite. From the saucers, which hold their cups “quirkily” off-centre, to the mass-produced faux-letter-press signs, its product and interior have been meticulously constructed to ride on the distant coat-tails of contemporary style, never more than acceptable but acceptable nevertheless to hipsters and grannies and everyone in between. And it works.

This, I suppose, is my main issue with Costa Coffee: what it says about us. One of the main precepts of capitalism ought to be that it ends up giving the people what they want; thus, the success of Costa, like Britain voting for Brexit or the victory of Donald Trump, is another chalk toward my diminished faith in humanity. For it suggests that what we want (in our coffeehouses, at least) is something that we don’t see, a service that blends into any background, one that requires the least amount of engagement possible, in which we need do nothing but stay safe in our own thoughts.

At the same time, the coffee itself is not terrible, and as Costa seems the only place I can buy caffeine in this staging post between long-haul flights, I figure I’ll leave my boycotting for a later date. I order a steaming half pint of Americano, and am soon enjoying its hot, dark bitterness, while I stare out at the Gulf Air jets as they ascend into the wild blue sky. Reliably, Costa fades into the hubbub, allowing me to enjoy Bahrain once again.

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