Wake Up and Smell the Medium Roast
The 30-something man put down the coffee bean menu, tilted his chin authoritatively, and said, "I'd like a pound of the deepest, darkest roast."
This, I'd learned as the occasional counter-girl at my husband's coffee roastery and caf√©, is code for, "I'm sophisticated, I'm picky, and I've been to Europe." I smiled, and for what would be the first of many times that day, tossed out a metaphorical line in order to save him from drowning again in a sea of burnt and bitter brews.
I explained that we did everything a "medium-roast," a phrase that inevitably evokes confusion. I could see him riffling his mental Rolodex of coffee data: there was that watery stuff his parents drank; there was Starbucks, there was espresso....
I jumped in, explaining that the sort of coffee he'd asked for is indicative of coffee that's been over-roasted, and though the beans look like what he thinks good coffee should look like, all black and oily, in fact, they've had all the subtleties incinerated out of them. Too dark a roast obliterates the soft chocolate tones of a Guatemala Medina, the intense blueberry hit of an Ethiopian Harrar....
"You add blueberry to your coffee?" he interrupted, looking alarmed and maybe a little smug. I resisted the urge to say, the pumpkin-pie lattes were down street, and explained the flavors of our coffees come from the beans themselves, not something sprayed on or blended in. That there's not only no need to flavor great coffee, but an imperative not to. More, that flavors tend to be added to coffee that is so burnt, when you drink it straight, what you taste is not the coffee, but the roast.
Here, he brightened. "I drink French Roast!" he said. "I'm totally hooked on that taste."
I told him, I understood; that a lot of our customers came in with a big thing for French Roast, but if he would just bear with me, I'd like to have him taste the Mexican Chiapas. I handed him a cup, asked him to smell it, and to tell me, what did he smell?
He looked unsure; it was, after all, his first time being asked to actually decode coffee, and he wasn't sure he was going to get it right.
"Vanilla?" he said. I told him, yes, and maybe cloves?
"Yeah," he said. "But that's weird, because, it's coffee."
Right, I explained, but that there's really no such thing as coffee tasting like coffee.
Coffee beans are grown in dozens of countries. There are hundreds of species, and they all have their own characteristics. If you open, say, a can of desiccated, pre-ground supermarket-brand coffee, chances are you're getting most if not all Robusta beans, which are high in caffeine and low in flavor; the chum of the coffee bean world. Arabica beans are what make up specialty coffees. While many places offer blends of beans, there is a push, often by small-batch and specialty roasters, to offer single-origin coffees, because these beans are so complex and captivating in and of themselves. There are coffees that taste like honey, like apricot, like almonds. Coffees that smell like jasmine, or lemon, or leather; coffees that are bright, and coffees that are mellow, and by the way, why didn't he go ahead and taste that Chiapas.
He took a sip; his brow seemed to soften. "That's really smooth," he said. "It's almost... creamy."
I told him I agreed, and that to me, Chiapas tastes like flan. And this is with nothing added, just straight black coffee. I could not help but add that, had these beans been roasted super-dark, it would not hit these same notes; we'd sip it and get little more than that flat bitter taste on the back of the tongue.
"Because you would have overcooked it," he said. Right, I said, and that a good analogy is steak: while there are people who like their meat charred, it's hard to argue that burned beef is beef at its best.
He seemed to enjoy the coffee primer. I told him that whenever he came back, we'd have new coffees for him to try, and that coffee really can be an adventure, and one you can have everyday.
Did he buy a pound of Chiapas? He did not. A small victory.
" 'Bold, with lots of body, earth tones, and a touch of chocolate'," he said, reading the description of Sumatra Mandheling. He looked at me. "And it's a medium roast, right?"
Special Bonus Feature: Ms. Swan at Starbucks
Nancy Rommelmann is a columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Bon Appetit and other publications, and a frequent contributor to Portland Food & Drink. She is the author of several books, including Everything You Pretend to Know About Food And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, and the recently completed memoir, Leaving Los Angeles. Her personal blog can be read here.