If I’ve accomplished nothing else this year (and some would say I haven’t), I feel like I’ve at least established a healthy balance between my life as a semi-professional libertarian guy and my interests in more eccentric endeavors like coffee. But yesterday I was forced to choose between my loyalties not once, but twice in a single afternoon.
For the first occurrence I have ABC News’ John Stossel to blame [Hat tip: Starbucks Gossip]. I admire a lot of John’s work and his would definitely be the news broadcast I watched if I were ever to watch an evening news program. Alas, I have to take issue with his most recent column, in which he sets his sights on debunking gourmet coffee:
Do you pay big bucks for “better quality” coffee? Maybe you spring for Dean & DeLuca’s beans, which cost $12 per pound. Well, wake up — have someone give you a blind taste test — because you’re probably wasting your money…
On our unscientific test, Starbucks came in first. A close second went to, surprise, the Sam’s Club brand, Marques de Paiva. Oren’s came in a distant third, closely followed by Nescafe, the instant coffee. The most expensive brand, the $12 a pound Dean & DeLuca’s, ranked second to last, and dead last was Folgers, America’s best seller.
I haven’t seen the broadcast version of the segment, but coffee blogger extraordinaire Fortune Elkins was among the tasters in the studio. She wrote about her experience there last month and offers an interesting behind the scenes perspective on how the testing was done. Of most relevance is her unequivocal judgment that the coffees were brewed too weakly; Oren’s rep Genevieve Kappler (or Felix?) contended the same thing. Stossel responds that the coffee was brewed by coffee expert Kevin Sinnott, who should certainly know what he’s doing.
Sinnott says he brewed the coffee at 3.25 oz. ground coffee to 64 oz. water. That’s within SCAA‘s recommended range of proportions, but at the absolute bottom of it. If an experienced taster like Fortune could tell from the beginning that it was underextracted, I’m willing to take her word for it. The test could have been flawed from the beginning by not bringing out the full flavors of the coffees, a fact that would surely disadvantage the more complex ones of the lot.
All of that is a bit beside the point, however. What really matters is that it’s silly to ask a group of people who all use coffee for different purposes and who have different levels of experience with the drink to rank a wide range of beans as better or worse than one another. Some people use it as a morning pick-me-up when they’re too groggy to even care about taste, others use it as a social lubricant, and an even smaller number use it as a drink to be enjoyed purely on its own terms. Most use it as all three to some extent. How a person uses coffee and how consciously he focuses on the taste will determine whether more expensive coffees are worth the money to them.
If Stossel had tried the same test with wine — asking a room full of random New Yorkers to taste test some cheap wines against some pricier bottles — he would have been laughed out of the studio. That’s because most of us realize that while our own palates limit the returns we’d get by spending more on a bottle of wine, the differences between them are real and noticeable to skilled oenophiles. Coffee doesn’t get the same respect, and that’s what needs to change.
A few more quick remarks on Stossel’s column:
1. In the print version, at least, Stossel gives proper kudos to Genevieve Kappler for being the only coffee rep willing to put her credibility on the line and take the blind taste test. That took guts and scored one for the coffee lovers.
2. Stossel’s concluding point — “expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better” — is a weaker, truer claim than his initial statement that spending money on expensive coffees is probably a waste of money. Of course not all expensive coffees are going to be good, but quality coffees definitely will cost more than Folgers or Sam’s Club. That’s why being an educated consumer matters.
3. Finally, let’s have a little perspective on price. $12 a pound may sound like a lot, but that still comes out to less than a dollar a cup. That’s about what one would pay for a soda or the cheapest of wines. Considering that some really great coffee can be had from $8 – $15 per pound, it’s a relatively cheap habit to enjoy.
I compared coffee to wine twice in the above paragraphs, a comparison of which some may be skeptical (though if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I hope you’ve been convinced otherwise by now). I had my first real “cupping” yesterday at Murky and that, like the espresso tasting before it, brought home to me the aptness of the metaphor. (Cupping is the formal process for evaluating coffees side by side. First, we measured out the various coffees and freshly ground them into cups. We then smelled the grounds and took notes on the fragrance. After that we poured in hot water to brew the coffee. After four minutes, we stirred in the grounds and took note of the aroma. Then we moved on to actual tasting, taking each in turn and noting our impressions of brightness, flavor, body, and aftertaste. The session ended by all of us comparing our notes.)
This wasn’t a blind tasting, so it’s likely that the labels affected our impressions of what was better and worse. I ranked the coffees from Intelligentsia and Counter Culture higher than the others, and I’m not entirely sure that I would have drawn exactly the same conclusion without labels. What is striking, however, is the consistency of the descriptors the people in our cupping group employed. For example, in comparing two Kenyan coffees from two different roasters, we agreed that one had a bright, lemony character while another had a sweeter, less citrusy taste. We made similarly consistent notes about all the characteristics of the six different coffees we tried. Tasted side by side, it’s amazing how complex coffees can be. To get an idea of the range of descriptors tasters apply, just take a glance at the SCAA flavor wheel.
My point? It’s ok to stick to cheap coffee like John Stossel says you should, but if you do you’re missing out on one of the great pleasures in life. Contrary to the impression given in his taste test, coffee doesn’t have just one flavor that can be ranked from better to worse across brands. Rather, it’s a wonderfully complex beverage, offering a whole suite of tastes, textures, and aromas to those willing to explore its possibilities.
Furthermore, paying for high-quality coffee doesn’t mean one has fallen victim to a false consciousness imposed by the Starbucks corporation. Differences among coffees are real and readily apparent to a coffee lover. To borrow a few sentences from a recent thoughtful post from Will Wilkinson that has nothing to do with coffee, “People can have wrong opinions about beauty, because the relevent capacities might be insufficiently developed, or because they haven’t learned to pay attention to right thing, or because their judgment is clouded by a specious theory. So there can be right or wrong answers about value questions within the class of people who share the relevant capacities [emphasis his].” Fortunately, coffee is a very accessible drink and pretty much anyone with a working mouth shares the relevant capacities necessary to appreciate it.
But enough about Stossel. I said there were two occasions yesterday when my worlds of coffee and libertarianism collided. The second happened when a group of economists came in to Murky for an afternoon break. There’s nothing unusual about this, but this time they were joined by none other than Nobel Prize-winning economist Vernon Smith. The Vernon Smith. And one of my friends was also in the group and invited me to come hang out with them. A very cool opportunity, but… this was right in the middle of our coffee cupping. What to do?
I went with the cupping. Yes, faced with the choice of hanging out with a Nobel Prize winner whose work I admire or tasting coffee, I went with the latter. In hindsight, I’m not sure that was the best choice, but the fact that I even had to think about illustrates just how far into geekdom I’ve descended and how powerful a good cup of coffee really is.