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Is Coffee Getting Better?
Back in the 1960s and 70s mainstream coffee sunk to a new low, previously experienced only during wartime. Coke and Pepsi were the rage, and dominated younger people’s taste preference as their main drink. Coffee was usually electric percolated, which often mean “burned this morning”. Canned blends chock full of Robusta variety bean were the norm; instant was used in many homes.
Then along came specialty coffee. In many ways, it was the coffee that had dominated the marketplace pre-World War II, but became a niche after the mainstream industry stuck to their new habits, learned of necessity and now kept for their benefit to the bottom line.
Specialty coffee is by definition drunk for taste, or at least the appearance of taste. Pretty soon, specialty coffee was popular, and profitable enough that mainstream coffees began re-outfitting their coffees to appeal to this new niche market, enough so that the line between specialty and commodity went softly out of focus.
Can McDonalds be specialty, even by simple math? Has Starbucks ever been? If yes, have they left it?
Please keep in mind I’m talking past snob appeal. Every product has a curb appeal designed to appeal to status, not performance. I’m happy to report genuine bargains as well as mass producers who treat the product, and our taste buds, with respect. It’s all about the flavor with me.
Still, is it being delivered as promised?
As a practical matter, I’m dividing the categories into bean quality, freshness/packaging and preparation.
BEAN QUALITY – No matter how hard they try, a mass merchandiser can never deliver the microlots of coffee jewels like George Howell, John Martinez, for that matter Christy Thorns at Allegro. I mention Allegro because they are actually a large player by specialty standards. The only way the big guys can deliver the goods is by making blends. This way, they can supply large accounts, consistently. If you go to micro roasters, the menu’s always changing. Large roasters shine with their blends, which is fine with me, as long as they’re creative. A number of the old coffee guys I met when I first began exploring coffee were great blenders. They produced a coffee flavor that was better than the individual parts. I recently had McDonald’s new coffee and, while the coffee tasted burnt from being held too long, the blend was certainly improved over their previous one. Dunkin’ Donuts’ blend is a reliable standby, and I recall a smaller roaster who once boasted he held it in great esteem, and used it as a model for his own house breakfast blend, although he claimed his was better of course. The little specialty roasters really do seek out single origin coffee from tiny family farms that have unique flavors and tastes. Whether the difference counts to you is worth a taste test or two. But, there are differences.
I don’t think bean quality is the biggest issue between the big and small guys or between commodity and specialty.
Roast – The roasting of the large roasters is always more consistent, because they can afford all the technology to make it so. I still know small roasters who occasionally stumble, or who excel beyond the usual and admit to me they don’t know why this batch is so good. Roasting is part science, a lot of experience and some luck. Weather is a factor. Dark roasts are supposedly easier, but I don’t think so. I know roasters like Jim Reynolds at Peets who know how to roast darker than imaginable and still get the coffee flavor to remain, which is still a mystery to me. All thinks equal, I’d say the large guys know more about and have more control of their roasts. Once in a while, a talent emerges from the small guys, but to be perfectly honest, I know a lot of small specialty roasters who know less about roasting than I wish they did. It’s hit or miss. When it comes to roasting, I would say the commodity guys can match the specialty guys, which according to this article’s premise, means they ARE specialty.
Freshness/packaging – I’ll split these up, although they are linked in outcome. Freshness: Here the specialty small batch roaster has it all over the large commodity roaster. The supermarket distribution system is inherently unfriendly to coffee roast freshness. The specialty coffee dictum is that coffee beans are fresh for around two weeks maximum. Large roasters answer by claiming packaging advantages. Well, okay, I would say this: If I had a choice of getting a bag of coffee knowing I would not be able to use it for a couple of weeks, I’d rather it be from a larger roaster, say Boyds, Allegro, Coffeemasters, Green Mountain. They simply really know how to package; they’ve refined the oxygen-free atmosphere thing down and can make the most of it. I’ve had samples from all of them and they can make it work, whereas smaller roasters, even when they have a valve on the bag, aren’t packaging it as if you’ll use it. Not everyone packages coffee the same. Most small batch specialty roasters are ill-equipped and ill-informed. So it’s O or O on this one. Small batch are the freshness winners but large batch are packaging winners.
Big and Bigger - Folgers and Dunkin' Donuts are both big, but there are differences. Folgers is buying almost entirely commodity coffee. Dunkin' Donuts is subbing their roasting out to a large roaster, but one that's buying some higher quality beans. I've never cupped a canned coffee from the big guys that I would classify as Specialty, whereas I would classify Dunkin' Donuts, Superior and even Eight O'clock as Specialty.
Conclusion – When it comes to using the word specialty, I think the large guys have split up their businesses. Like wineries, they own a big commodity brand that dishes out the same lousy coffee they always have. Don’t count on Folgers to become a specialty brand ever. Meanwhile, they own a smaller, boutique roaster and this brand can in many ways match the small so-called true specialty roaster. Also remember that some of the best micro roasters have become very successful larger roasters. This just happens in capitalism. Intelligentsia is a growing company, yet they still buy some award winning micro-lots. They are a great example of a true specialty coffee roaster, but as I said, the line is getting softer focused.
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