Until recently, coffee snobs didn't rate New York City highly. It was easy to find a cart selling the cheap, basic stuff for less than a dollar. Far rarer was an independent coffee shop selling exotic Arabica and Robusta beans and brews from southeast Asia, Africa and Central America. Cities like Seattle were stars on the coffee map, but Manhattan was a relative backwater, better known for its bagel snobs. Now the Starbucks chain has penetrated just about every nook and cranny of New York City. But, to the real coffee freak, it isn't the real thing. Indeed, to many, Starbucks is the enemy: only a few seconds' searching on the Web brings up a number of anti-Starbucks sites, with allegations ranging from burned and expensive coffee to brainwashed employees. It doesn't matter what Starbucks does - it gets criticised. The company backs coffee growers, pledges money to local communities and donates to charities. But, to a real New York coffee geek it is still uncool: a capitalist money-making machine that has prettied up its image. These critics are part of what is described with all seriousness as a 'coffee intelligentsia', or members of the 'artisanal coffee movement'. To them, a good cup of coffee is a reason to live. They argue over one degree of temperature, the fineness of the grind, who has the most expensive espresso machine (some now cost about US$10,000) and who are the best roasters in town. Increasingly, they are even arguing over the patterns on the milky froth. Which brings me to an encounter I had recently with one Chinese espresso expert, or barista, Sammy Lin. Sammy had barely drunk a cup of coffee when he came to New York from his native Fujian province six years ago. A music teacher by background, he started in New York as a busboy in an Italian restaurant but got his chance to learn Italian coffee making skills when one of the baristas resigned. One day when he was pouring the foam into a cup to make a cappuccino, he realised he had a textured canvas on which to work. Pour the foam one way and get one kind of pattern; pour it another and get a different image. He was soon producing pictures of snowmen, leaves and monkey faces on the foam. Now his customers ask him for different images, and their caffeine intake goes up accordingly. A number of other cafes in Manhattan and Brooklyn are starting to do the same, reinforcing the image of the barista as a craftsman - as pretentious as that may seem. There's only one problem: as this catches on - and it will - the US$10 cup of coffee may not be so far away, with US$5 for the frothy brew and US$5 for the art work. If that starts to happen, I think I would prefer to be an uneducated coffee nut and return to Starbucks. After all, the caffeine hit is the same.