Friday, March 14, 2008

Coffee Snobs

For some years now, I've had a reputation as a "coffee snob". Prior to the advent of Starbucks and Caribou, this phrase would have made very little sense to most people, but now it's rather common. It refers to a person who will not drink "ordinary" coffee like Folger's, Maxwell House, or Hills Brothers, but rather prefers to shell out the $1.50 or more for a cup of joe at a dedicated provider. But there's a reason we coffee snobs do that.

On an icy cold Chicago morning in 1981, I picked up the morning paper to find a wonderful article about coffee. The central concern addressed in the article was why your own coffee never tastes as good as that in a restaurant (well, most restaurants, anyway). The author of this article summed it up by saying that most people simply do not use enough coffee when preparing their morning brew. The article also suggested that for maximum flavor, it was best to buy whole bean coffee and grind it just before brewing. We bought a grinder, began adding more coffee to our mix and found that, indeed, following these steps resulted in a much more robust, satisfying cup of coffee.

We went along at that pace for several years, trying first one coffee, then another -- A&P's Eight O' Clock blends and Chock Full O' Nuts seemed to be our favorites. But then I began to try darker roasts of coffee, and that's when the fun really started.

We lived in Charlotte for two years back in the early 1990's, and for one of our Christmas parties, I mail ordered (there were no shops in the city yet) Starbucks coffee and served it at the party. I lost count, but I know that I made at least eight full pots of both caffeinated and decaffeinated, all of which was consumed that evening. People kept asking, "What kind of coffee IS this?" Many of them had never heard of Starbucks but simply loved the bold taste of this coffee. And the rest is history, as far as Starbucks is concerned.

Coffee can be roasted for varying lengths of time, and what most people do not know is that the longer it is roasted (i.e. the darker the beans appear), the less caffeine and acid it contains. As coffee is roasted, it loses its moisture -- this is why you often see oil on the surface of dark roasted beans. In addition, the roasting process causes caffeine to break down chemically. That cup of espresso that we all find so stimulating actually contains less caffeine ounce for ounce that a light roast cup of regular coffee. It's the dark roast taste (and its being ground to a powder before brewing) which gives espresso its kick.

Almost every morning, my friend Rachelle and I head over to the cafeteria in our adjacent office building to get a cup of Starbucks. On rainy mornings, one of us will generally stop to pick up two cups at the Starbucks drive-thru. A few weeks ago, as a joke, our friend Mike posted a sign at Rachelle's desk which read "Coffee Snob", complete with a cartoon picture of a (six-fingered) woman drinking a cup of coffee. At my desk, he posted a sign saying "Quasi-Coffee Snob...Will Drink Office Swill", with a picture of a rather bohemian looking guy. I liked this, and I took it as a testimony to the fact that I've done my homework.

After all, where do you think I got the name "Whole Bean" for this website?