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.