Seattle, USA: What coffee is really like in the home of Starbucks

"It's a love-hate thing," says Val, our guide on the Seattle Coffee Crawl walking tour. "Plenty of people in Seattle drink Starbucks, and plenty wouldn't be seen dead there. But I do remind visitors that they brought coffee culture to this country."

If I'm going to explore Seattle's coffee scene without sneering, I'm off to a bad start. As our group stands on the edge of the city's iconic Pike Place Market, I can see a long line of people waiting to enter the Starbucks opposite.

Mind you, it is the earliest surviving Starbucks store. The company sold only coffee beans until Howard Schultz returned from an eye-opening trip to Italy, bought the company and started serving espresso.

Starbucks grew bigger and bigger (as did its drinks), and now it's a world-beating colossus. Except, of course, in Australia, where it famously crashed and burned in its attempt to take on our well-established independent cafes.

It's tempting, therefore, for an Australian to dismiss Seattle's coffee, though I know you can find good brews in the USA.

Luckily, Val is here to put me straight. Seattle may be the home of Starbucks, but that company's success paved the way for numerous smaller cafes.

Exhibit A is Caffe Ladro, a stone's throw from Pike Place in the city's Downtown district. In a big modern building, it's a lofty space with tiled walls and funky lampshades.

Here our group is given a Chemex demonstration by staff member Amber, using Ladro's own Queen Anne blend.

Amber says the Chemex, an hourglass-shaped vessel that looks like an escapee from a chemistry lab, "brings out the lighter side of coffees" via its hefty filter.

Taste aside, I'm sold on the flask's sleek Jetsons aesthetic, rivalling that of the nearby monorail which takes visitors to the Space Needle.

Our next session in Coffee 101 is at Caffe D'arte, a classic Italian café at which you might lean on the bar to down an espresso.

Here we sample drip coffee, specifically the Velletri blend which is roasted with local alderwood to impart some of the flavour of its smoke. I can't taste the smokiness myself, but then I always find drip coffee too weak compared to a long black.

The following caffe latte – prepared with a latte art flourish – is more flavoursome. The fact it's made with full-cream milk (coincidentally best for latte art) gives rise to a discussion about Americans rarely ordering full-cream coffees.

The next place on the itinerary is something of a ring-in, as we're not visiting it for its coffee. Caffe Lieto has a popular in-house biscuit business, Biscuit Bitch, and we try two of its scone-like treats: one with butter and honey, the other with peanut butter and maple syrup.

America has a genius for making savoury foodstuffs work as sweets (think pumpkin pie), and this peanut/syrup combo is no exception. It's just the thing with which to brace oneself against the cool light rain falling in the city's grey Downtown streets.

From here it's a short walk to the pig statue at the southern end of the Pike Place Market, then down a flight of stairs to an atmospheric alley reminiscent of a Melbourne laneway.

Here we find Ghost Alley Espresso, one of the smallest cafes I've ever encountered. The space it occupies was once used by bathroom attendants who worked in the market above, before being boarded up in the 1950s.

We're served a salted caramel mocha, the sort of elaborate flavour combination I associate with Starbucks. It's good but, you know, sweet.

It keeps us warm as we pass the greatest monstrosity to lurk below Seattle's streets: the Gum Wall, coated in vast amounts of discarded bubble gum. It's since been blasted from the walls, but is likely to rise again.

Fifteen minutes' walk along Post Alley is Pioneer Square, the oldest neighbourhood in Seattle and home to the first-ever Skid Row.

Our first stop here is Intrigue, a chocolate maker which serves just one type of coffee: a cold brew. Brewed over 24 hours, it's low in bitterness and high in caffeine. To my surprise, it works well as a complement to the chocolate.

The chocolatier offers us Jamaican chocolate with a hint of habanero, but when we ask for something spicier he lets us try the tamarind and cayenne. It's fairly hot. A fellow tour member from Michigan and I then up the ante by tasting the ghost chilli chocolate. This is more like it - very spicy indeed.

The tour ends at Caffe Umbria, a big space with bare bricks and large windows, our group seated next to an old coffee roasting machine. The coffee sample here is an espresso con panna, topped with cream.

Val mentions the big Italian influence on Seattle coffee, and signage on the cafe's walls describes the family's coffee heritage stretching back to postwar Perugia.

It's been an interesting tour, but I feel as if I've only scratched the surface of Seattlle coffee with this handful of outlets. So later in the week I visit the local roastery of Portland-based Stumptown Roasters.

Here I meet up with self-professed coffee fanatic Gavin Stephenson, executive chef of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, for his take on Seattle coffee.

"There's definitely a scene," he says. "A lot of times in a restaurant here, people will ask 'What coffee do you serve?' In other parts of the country people would just say 'Do you have espresso?'

"Baristas in Seattle over the past thirty years have evolved immensely. These guys are perfectionists, they're going to make sure it's done perfectly or they're not going to serve it. To a chef, that's ideal."

What about the giant gorilla of the Seattle coffee scene?

"It started so long ago with Howard Schultz and Starbucks, and went a bunch of different directions," says Stephenson. "Starbucks still dominates, but now a bunch of micro-roasters have come along, and everyone's fighting for their piece of the pie.

"The more the merrier. It pushes you to reinvent yourself, to understand what the market's really looking for.

"Cold brew is happening now. The next thing? I think we're going to go back to basics: single origin, really refining the approach. And I think that Hawaiian coffees are really underrated and we'll see more of them."

With this focus on coffee, you might think that Seattle's inhabitants are up with the lark and early to bed. Not so, says the chef.

"In Seattle, it's either alcohol or coffee; there's a fine line where the one mixes with the other. Everyone's up early, it's a great place to live, it's very outdoorsy; but you know what, they party like rock stars. The bar scene's hopping too."


More information

Getting there

Qantas and its partners connect to Seattle, see

Alternatively, Railbookers Australia can arrange train and accommodation packages to Seattle from Los Angeles and other US cities, see

Staying there

Warwick Seattle, Walking distance from Pike Place Market. From US$200 per night.

Sheraton Seattle, Central Downtown location. From US$200 per night.

Fairmont Olympic, Glamorous 1924 hotel, handy for Pioneer Square. From US$250 per night.

Touring there

The Seattle Coffee Crawl costs US$30 when booked online, see

The writer paid for his airfare to the USA, and was hosted in Seattle by, Visit Seattle and Fairmont.

See also: Sorry, world: Australia's coffee is better than yours

See also: It's coffee, but not as you know it