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Another XaoS rendered fractal.  Reminds me of a Mardi Gras face mask.

A colleague from the U.S. was up for some meetings this week, and brought me a mighty fine pound of coffee from a boutique roaster in San Francisco.  It’s kinda an inside joke about the fact that I work really weird hours, and I’m pretty much never seen without a mug of coffee in hand.  Also, I have been known to go off about the lousy state of coffee culture in North America from time to time.

You see, your average coffee snob is actually an FP who thinks that the muddy, burnt, pig-slop they serve at Starbucks is actually good coffee.  Let me explain to you why that just isn’t the case.

First off, and perhaps most importantly, Starbucks burns their beans.  What most peasant paletted goons don’t realize is that there’s a VAST difference between “dark roast” and “charcoal.”  Starbucks, as a corporation, is well aware of this, and burns their beans for two very good business reasons:

  1. The masses are asses, and associate the heavy, strong taste of an over roasted bean with “strong” coffee – they think it has more of a kick, that it will contain more caffeine, and give them a bigger energy boost (they’re wrong, and we’ll talk about that in a minute).
  2. It’s cheaper to burn the bean than it is to roast it properly, which is big $$ when you’re doing things on the industrial scale that Starbucks is.  You see, Starbucks roasts its beans at a high heat, but for a shorter period of time, than a properly roasted bean.  This allows a much larger throughput, and results in a big savings.  It also results in a crappy bean.

So, let’s get one thing straight right off the bat.  Dark coffee may taste stronger, but it’s actually much less potent.  And the reasons come down to some fairly basic chemistry.  Caffeine is a relatively volatile molecule, and if you subject it to too high a heat, it reacts, disassociates, and produces some crappy side chemicals.  A classically trained Barista will be able to tell you that as a rule, the darker, stronger tasting the coffee, the less potent it actually is.   Quite simply, by darkening the roast (whether you do it properly by low temperature roasting for a long period of time, or the wrong way like Starbucks and charring it in a blast furnace), you burn off the caffeine and reduce the overall potency.

That’s not to say all dark roasts are bad.  A good dark roast, done properly, can be quite tasty.  It just isn’t going to have the same kick.

The second side effect of an improper roast is a bit more complex, but has a nastier side effect than just the taste.  It actually makes the coffee a lot harder on your digestive tract.  Chemistry is a complex thing, as any good cook will tell you.  Slight variations in heat can produce markedly different effects – sticking a soufflé in the oven at double the heat won’t just reduce the cooking time, it will destroy the soufflé.

With coffee beans, the roasting process triggers off several important chemical reactions.  Among the most important, is that it reduces the acidity of the bean.  Green coffee beans are quite acidic, and would give you one heckuva stomachache if you tried to eat them raw.  To break down the acidity, you need to roast them for a fairly long period of time.  Ever get the infamous “gut rot” from drinking too much coffee?  Well, odds are, you got it as a result of poorly roasted beans.  Roasting them at a high temperature for too short a period of time does NOT break down the acidity.  You need to roast them for a fairly extended period in order to do this.  Also, when you roast at too high a temperature, it “burns” the coffee which releases a whole raft of other nasty chemicals.

Over roasting has one positive effect for the big chains.  It produces a much more consistent flavour.  It’s going to taste like the same burnt crap no matter what the original bean.  Lighter roasts maintain the original signature of the beans you roast.  Burnt beans taste like burnt beans.  (source)  For an outfit like Starbucks, that’s great.  They can buy the cheapest crap available, burn the hell out of it, and it all comes out tasting the same.  And let me assure you, this is exactly what they do (in spite of all the touchy feely marketing pamphlets they have in the store).  They almost have no choice – given the vast quantities they purchase, they can’t expect a lot of fine grained quality control.

In the end, I’m not asking for people to give up on coffee snobbery.  All I’m asking is that you practice intelligent coffee snobbery.  Yah, that’s probably asking too much.

2 Responses to “Coffee snobbery.”

    I like Starbucks coffee! Well, actually I like the speciality coffees that are mostly milk. Their actual coffee is AWFUL – except the instant stuff which oddly is half decent in a universe bending sort of way.

    When it comes to coffee, at least in Canada, remember that most people are hooked on Timmy’s. They fail to notice that there is a reason that “double double” is an actual, meaningful, part of the day to day language. It is that way because no one in their right mind drinks that stuff black – it is a horrible burnt nightmare. If you need to pump your stomach, you could use Timmy’s grounds in place of activated carbon.

    Which STILL makes it all about a billion times better than Maxwell House – whose coffee redefines the whole burn scale. Once you get used to drinking that stuff, you might as well give up – your tastebuds have long since left home. Oddly, I’ve noticed MH has finally noticed this and started branching out to different roast.

    Incidently, anyone ever notice the instructions for brewing coffee on the side of the package? They suggest an INSANE amount of grounds.

    People, go out, get a good scale and try making a few pots with different amounts of coffee. I’m betting you find you need WAAAY less than they suggest to get a nice, enjoyable pot.

    And do yourself a favour – find a nice medium roast. It doesn’t taste like charcoal OR green twigs (who thinks light coffee is drinkable anyways????)

    I could go on and on….

    Hmm. Time to put another order in to have x pounds of Kona estate shipped direct from the sandwich islands….

Something to say?


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