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The Caffeine Addict: Palate Fail

I have a Coffee Mea Culpa and it is this: I like bad coffee. Not awful coffee - I care not at all for the taste of two-day-old-and-tasting-of-burnt-gym-socks coffee, of low-grade beans apparently canned sometime during the early days of the Cold War, of Dunkin' Donuts or McDonald's drive-through "Cafes" - but coffee that is, in some objective sense, not ideal.

Blue Bottle Coffee Tasting
Blue Bottle, freshly pressed.

I have a Coffee Mea Culpa and it is this: I like bad coffee. Not awful coffee – I care not at all for the taste of two-day-old-and-tasting-of-burnt-gym-socks coffee, of low-grade beans apparently canned sometime during the early days of the Cold War, of Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s drive-through “Cafes” – but coffee that is, in some objective sense, not ideal.
I know this because I have a competent palate, as far as it goes: Not that of a professional cook’s, but the ability to perceive, in a broadly objective sense, whether or not a dish tastes “right” – whether it’s properly seasoned, exhibits balance, consists of flavors that work well or poorly together, that sort of thing; and the flip side of tasting objectively (OK, fine, “objective taste” may be conceptually oxymoronic, but I’m sticking to my guns on this one: There is such a thing as objective quality with respect to food, and no matter how many shades of subjective gray might litter the middle of the spectrum, the “good” and “bad” extremes remain unequivocal) is that one must – eventually and, more likely, frequently – face the fact that what is good and what one likes do not always coincide in one’s mouth. Case in point and back on-thread: Coffee.
I’ve written elsewhere about the merits of locally-based “micro” roasters, and specifically why freshness – of both the roast and its subsequent percolation – has such a dramatic impact on the flavor of this uniquely stimulative and life-sustaining elixir. The thing is, once you understand why the flavor of coffee goes bad (it’s all about the reduction-oxidation process, as explained by the Specialty Coffee Association people here), you must also accept that most popular, commercially available “fresh” beans are overcooked: Heat is ultimately an enemy of coffee aromatics, so really hard roasting, at least as practiced by industry leaders Starbucks and Peets, inevitably raises the proportion of “bad” flavors and degrades the proportion of many “good” ones. But I do love my Peets, my Badass Coffee Co’s French Roast, my syrupy cup of liquid amphetamine midnight of whatever provenance. (Starbucks may be a godsend in an airport or the middle of Interstate 5, but otherwise, you can keep your SBUX.) Seriously – all those bitter, smoky, dark-chocolate flavors in a good cup of Peet’s? If the price is that I lose some subtlety, that I buy more blends than “single origins”, that there is just a hint of burnt? I will happily settle up on those terms, because everything else strikes me as watery or, worse, dirty.
That being said, I can also recognize when I’m wrong, and in this case, I’m wrong – in an objective sense, Peets et. al. uniformly roast their beans too hot, for too long, or both – I’m not sure which – in order to get their exceptionally dark roast. So, while I love it, I also accept it for what it is, and more importantly, what it isn’t: If I really cared about the terroir of coffee the way I do about wine, I would buy it from somebody like Blue Bottle or, more probably, our own local roaster, the Flying Goat: Both (amongst many others that I’m ignorant of) specialize in fair-trade, organic beans of the highest quality, emphasize the importance of individual terroirs, and – in order to express this specialization – both roast to a significantly lesser degree than Peets or any of their ilk. Case in point: I hadn’t heard of Blue Bottle until recently when La Familia B (who, by any definition, count amongst the ranks of the unrepentant foodie) gifted us the baggie pictured northwesterly. Provenance of the roast? Date-stamped 72 hours prior, somewhere in the East Bay. So my wife and I dutifully brewed up this little baggie of buzz: We dutifully let the water come off the boil; we patiently awaited the French press and tolerated its inevitable lacing of sludge; in short, we gave this coffee whatever chance we could to show off its true colors. The result? Pretty damned good, if you like it in all its medium-roasted, slightly dirty glory. I can accept it as more balanced, more complex, more unique than my crude-oil version. But still and all, I’m sorry, it just wasn’t to my personal taste: Scorched though it may be, give me the black-as-night, stain-your-teeth brew any day. I know I’m wrong, but I just like it that way.

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6 thoughts on “The Caffeine Addict: Palate Fail

  1. As a coffee snob that’s fairly loyal to BlueBottle’s Hayes Valley Espresso – primarily, btw, because I have a hand pulled lever espresso machine that runs quite hot and this blend works very well with it – I can tell you there’s no harm in finding some enjoyment in less than ideal coffee. Why? Anywhere you go that doesn’t have your roast and your machine immediately has *only* coffee that’s not up to your standards, usually nowhere near. Alas, you only realise this long after you’ve been bitten by the bug. I find it really difficult to drink Starbux if that’s all that may be on offer. Nonetheless, what you describe Scott, is the typical flavour of American coffee, to an outsider.

  2. Thanks for the validation on Peet’s. Can’t drink the stuff. SBUX is only for when you don’t know where to find the local top notch (flying goat or Blue Bottle, for example). But they have many roasts, not just incinerator. Keep in mind that anything beyond “medium dark” is extremely bad for your health (possibly even carcinogenic) while lighter roasts are full of antioxidants. Also, it strikes me that this is kind of like wine: if your grapes aren’t so hot, add a bunch of oak and concentrate to cover up. Likewise, flavorless beans, just burn em so that they have SOME flavor. This is what I love about FG and BB–so much flavor and subtlety. If you need flavors to smack you around a little, you might want to switch to red bull or monster as your caffeine-deliver device of choice. Viva medium roasted flaovorful beans!

  3. It’s an enduring mystery to me, my affinity for excessively roasted coffee, particularly because “burnt” is otherwise one of my absolute least favorite flavors – I’ve thrown out whole stews, casseroles, and pan after pan at the slightest hint of “burnt”. Why I wrote the piece, and a moral of addiction perhaps, the apparent disconnect between what I know should taste better and what my body actually dictates? (On a sidenote, Starbucks’ baked goods? Really?!)

  4. Blue Bottle has a fanatical following. I don’t drink coffee daily, but even I am curious about this seemingly magical elixir. I’ve found Thanksgiving and Ecco to be pretty solid choices when I partake. I can’t stand Peet’s — way to bitter and burnt for me. SBUX is the same, but I love their pumpkin scones, so I deal.

    1. No, Kenn, it’s not a promotion, except for whatever I happen to feel like writing about – check out our archives, I think you’ll agree. (For the avoidance of doubt, I am never compensated by anybody that I mention). Yes, I often and without apology try to support local purveyors, so long as I believe their product warrants me doing so, particularly but not by no means exclusively those that I spend my own money on, and often just because I’m just glad that someone is doing what they’re doing. (In point of fact, as I tried to make clear in this post, I don’t generally buy my beans from local roasters, despite the many arguments for doing so.) If you think I’ve glossed over something important, or you have a favorite roaster, then by all means put it in the comment.

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