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Back Buzz - February 19, 2001

[pumping heart] J.D. Wetherspoons, 1-3 Baptist Galleries, Rendezvous Street, Folkestone, Kent

Yes, I know Wetherspoon's is a pub chain and I should be writing a Pint Pleasures column on it. I will soon, believe me. But on my second visit to Wetherspoon's I was intrigued by the highly visible advertisement for Wetherspoon's coffee beverages. "Freshly ground coffee", the chalkboard says, followed by a menu listing of Coffee, Cappuccino, Latte, Mocha, and Espresso. And only 49 pence for any of these?

That blanket 49p looked suspicious in the first place. But I figured if they freshly grind their coffee they aren't using one of those automatic dispensing machines to which prepackaged espresso powder must be added. They've got to be using a real espresso machine, right?

When I returned to try a cappuccino I couldn't help noticing this particular Wetherspoon's keeps its espresso-making area well concealed from the public. So I can't honestly say just how authentically, if at all, the cappuccinos are made. I did catch a glimpse of my bartender/barista plunging the steaming wands into the huge mug-o'-capp he was preparing for me. So that much is real.

But what about this tasteless drink I ended up with, coated with that ever-present and ever-disgusting layer of chocolate sprinkles? Assuming I'd naturally wish to bury any remaining vestige of espresso flavour under a thick sucrotic blanket the cashier then directed me to the sugar bowl.

Ah, such a pathetic attempt at "espresso". I wouldn't recommend this drink to a narcoleptic warthog, much less your average coffee drinker in search of a pick-me-up. If you really have to come to Wetherspoon's, stick to the beer.

Actually the place is quite scenic and pleasant in atmosphere. Located in a former Baptist church on Folkestone's Grace Hill, the pub has an upstairs area where one can sit closer to the cloudy sky murals painted across the ceiling. And the chandeliers are almost within reach as well. On the far end of the balcony are a couple of pulpits and what remains of the church organ pipes. (I'll review the lower floors in my next Pint Pleasures column.) So if you're in need of a Sunday-go-to-church-and-afterwards-have-a-coffee experience, you've got Wetherspoon's express coffee-in-church service.

But why can't they get their coffee right? Is it because their emphasis is financial and not gustatory? Wetherspoon's seems proud of its "Cappuccino Watch", where prices of coffee chain cappuccinos are compared. Simply because Wetherspoon's cappuccino is only 49 pence, compared to Coffee Republic's £1.60, Costa Coffee's £1.70, and Starbucks' £1.75, this is supposed to make it more desirable? If Wetherspoon's cappuccino was half as good as Costa or even Starbucks, this might make a difference to a handful of financially strapped coffee lovers -- but only a handful. Wetherspoon's is also proud to point out its beef burgers are 50 percent bigger than McDonald's quarter pounders, making them a better deal. But when one is dealing with coffee one must pay for quality. If I ever start recommending McDonald's coffee as a sound deal, please, somebody call the vet and have me euthanised!

Speaking of McDonald's and lousy food, following is an e-mail exchange from last year with my Bay Area friend:

The other day I heard a report on our NPR station's "California Report" about a kind of fuel called bio diesel. Originally it was developed from corn oil (like "gasohol" I guess), but it had to be new oil (virgin corn oil?). Now someone has worked out a process for making bio diesel from used cooking oil. Imagine, now environmentalists may be thanking people who eat french fries, KFC, and donuts for contributing to a renewable energy source. Supposedly bio diesel burns cleaner than its fossil fuel counterpart. Still, I expect that I'll be riding my bicycle behind an AC Transit bus in traffic someday, gasping in an odd bouquet of chicken-fried donuts.

Let's hope it's not fuelled by microwave popcorn!

I've gotten so used to the ever-present aroma of French fries everywhere you go in England, whether you're sitting in a pub, strolling a city street, or riding on a bus or a train. Sometimes I think the entire British empire is run on beer, roll-up cigarettes, Marmite, and chips -- those are the pervading odours.

Perhaps they should start using used chip oil to run all those big London taxis.