Thursday, August 6, 2009

Coffee Taste Test

A post on today's Slate blog on MSN detailed a chain coffee taste testing done by some of the Slate staff. The results were interesting, and a little surprising at times (see here: http://www.slate.com/id/2223965 for yourself), but it got me thinking about that most beloved of beverages. The kick start to most days: coffee.

I've been drinking coffee for years, since I was probably about six. I saw my parents drinking it most weekends and wanted to be more grown up so of course I wanted to try it. My early forays into the world of coffee were mostly a splash of coffee in a mug of milk with about three spoon fulls of sugar, or a splash of coffee in my McDonald's hot chocolate. But, over the years the amounts of mixers dwindled and I became a full fledged coffee-holic.

The height of this was high school, starting each day with a cup of triple strength instant coffee and loads of cream and sugar. This would last me through, maybe, third period before I crashed, and with no pop or coffee available to me I spent the rest of the day in a zombie-like stupor--it didn't help, I'm sure, that I was also staying up until about 1am most nights and getting up around 7. This was also at a time when I would drink coffee at every opportunity I had, cups upon cups at weekend breakfast, in the evenings after dinner, right after school. It didn't matter what, when, or where: I didn't just want it, I needed it.

Sometime around the end of high school my taste buds kicked in and I could no longer consume any old swill posing as coffee, it had to have some taste, some body, just something other than a high temperature and a brownish hue (I subscribe wholeheartedly to the age old idiom: "if you can see through it, it ain't coffee). This was also around the time that I discovered Starbucks. Sure, I'd had it a few times, but it wasn't until my senior year in high school that Starbucks moved into the eastern suburbs of Cleveland in any significant number. The bracing strength of their brew really did a number on my palette. For the first time ever I discovered that coffee can taste good all the time.

My early coffee drinking days were also skewed somewhat by my time working at McDonald's (I hope that bit of information doesn't get me kicked off this blog...). As I said before, some of my earliest coffee drinking experiences were at McDonald's, so there was always a soft spot for their coffee on my tongue (it also happened to be the spot that was blistered and scalded by their lava-hot brew). But during the brief six months I was employed there, the McD's corporation decided to reformulate their coffee. It was meant to be a time saving device, as the new coffee came in pre-measured filter bags--this as opposed to the pre-measured bags of grounds that were emptied by us wage slaves into filters, thanks McDonald's, you saved me three seconds! For whatever reason this new filter bag tasted different and, oh!, did people complain about it. And, truth be told, it really did taste different. Say what you will about their food, and I could say a lot, for a while there McDonald's made a helluva cup of coffee, leagues beyond any other fast food joint. (Aside: my favorite coffee story from my summer at the Deez is: one morning during the breakfast rush a woman ordered a cup of decaf, I poured and handed to her a cup i thought had come from the orange handled pot--btw, how did orange become the default decaf demarcation?--about five minutes later the aforementioned lady comes to the counter demanding a new cup since I had given her regular. Looking down at the steaming cup of nondescript brown liquid set before me on the counter I asked, "are you sure?" "Of course!" she replied, "it tastes too good to be decaf!")

Somehow, in college I managed to drink less coffee than I had in high school. Sure there were nights at the Corner Grill (pretty decent coffee) or Big Boy's (really terrible coffee) where I'd put away a pot or so, but these nights were few and far between. There was rarely a time or place on campus to get a decent cup with any regularity, and walking to Cosmo's once a day wasn't really an option (I'll get to Grounds in a minute) so I went without. Best thing I could've done. this really allowed my coffee palette to refine and repair itself after the years of damage I had done prior.

Now, I know there's a lot of fuss to be made about Grounds for Thought in BG. Aside from their tired, tired name it was a pretty decent hang out. Their waitstaff was friendly and knowledgeable, and the coffee was nothing if not consistent. Plus, they knew how to run a business! Unlike Cosmo's who, despite a cozier atmosphere and superior coffee, had difficulty bringing in customers and therefore paying their employees, Grounds thrived, due at least partly to the second-hand-books biz they were running. But we're talking about coffee here, not used books, and Cosmo's had the coffee making down, it wasn't until their closing that Grounds emerged as a great cup of coffee. Whether this is due to the lack of competition or a change in the roasting or brewing, I'm not sure, but the last year or so I was there I found myself drinking it much more frequently, this despite the addition of a Starbucks to the union dining hall.

Back in Cleveland I've found a wellspring of great coffee choices. A trip to almost any neighborhood in Cleveland will yield a Phoenix. Locally owned and operated, as well as roasting their beans here in Cleveland, Phoenix is definitely the place to go. When in Akron I get my coffee from Angel Falls. Their light roast is everything a cup of coffee should be, a great balance of bitterness and acidity, great roast flavor, and a boatload of caffine (try their Volcans in the winter, woah!). But avoid Arabica, despite being a favorite hang-out in high school the quality of their roast has gone way, way, way down over their years. And there are actually a few decent local coffee shops in my home town of Chardon, neither of whose names I can recall, but the shop on the square make a perfectly drinkable cup as I recall. The other, Center Perk maybe, also boasts a delicious ice cream shop.

Now, most days I drink Dunkin Donuts coffee. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, DD brews up a pretty tasty cup of coffee. It's frills-free coffee, the way it should be. No fancy roasts or exotic regions, just good, old coffee. Hot, dark, and a just bitter enough, DD's coffee is the perfect anytime coffee. That said, I have serious reservations about the new "Dunkin Beats Starbucks" campaign. Both are good, I like them a lot, and as far as readily available coffees go, these are probably the two best. But Dunkin' over Starbucks? This feels similar to Justin's earlier gripe about Pizza Hut passing off their pasta at restaurants in Italy. Sure, if you ask just any-old-one to compare, most people are going to favor the simpler flavor, but any real pasta fan or coffee drinker is going to recognize a richer, fuller, more complex flavor when they taste it. What next: 9 out of 10 people surveyed prefer Arbor Mist to real wine? Of course, people like sweet, people like simple. It's the "Pepsi Challenge" all over again.

Back in those turbulent times we now call "The Cola Wars!" the young upstarts at Pepsi-Cola issued a mighty challenge to reigning soda-gods Coca-Cola. Pepsi believed in their product so strongly that they believed just one taste was enough to make people change their minds. They set out around the country with a truckload of both sodas and whole lot of cups labeled "a" and "b." A few states later many, including Coke, were surprised to discover that Pepsi wasn't just doing a little better but were, in fact, dominating the polls. This sent Coke into a tizzy that eventually yielded a reformulated, and ill-conceived, "New Coke." New Coke was about as successful as other novelty beverage brethren like Holiday Spice Pepsi, Clear Pepsi, and Big Red. Was this the end of Coke? Had Pepsi, this David of soft drinks, usurped soda's would-be Goliath? It seemed so until Coke took the taste testing a little farther and it was discovered that while Pepsi does test better on single tastings Coke fares better in the long haul. This has been largely attributed to the fact that Pepsi has an overall sweeter taste than Coke, which is more appealing to most at first sip, but can become too overpowering during the course of a full can or bottle, and, let's face it, who out there is really drinking just one sip of their pop? This also explains people's revulsion towards New Coke, whose new formula was designed to be sweeter, like Pepsi's. For more on this and other endlessly fascinating subjects read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

Anyways, I still find if difficult to believe that Dunkin' tests better than Starbucks, but it seems that may be true if their data and link posted above have anything to say about it.

Jeez, this is way longer than I had anticipated. And I would kind of like a cup now after all this, but all we brew here is barely palatable so I think I'll skip it.

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