Last week brought us yet another coffee article about wine analogies and making the “perfect” (groan) cup: The Art of the Perfect Cup of Coffee | CulturePOP | Ingredients for an Artful Life. What was different about this one is it consisted of an interview with reigning WBC champ Michael Phillips of Chicago’s Intelligentsia.
In response to the question, “What should you look for when purchasing coffee beans?,” Mr. Phillips added:
Also, don’t buy blends. These extra flavors are often used to cover up the taste of bad coffee.
And there you have it: a rule of thumb that makes sense when you’re dealing with the mass-produced, supermarket-shelf coffee out there, but yet it makes absolutely no sense when you’re dealing with high quality coffee supplies. Spoken by someone who supposedly represents quality coffee to the American public. Someone who, ironically, won the WBC last year with a specialty drink where different-tasting coffees used in each of two components (actually, the same coffee processed differently) were blended to make a third component.
Now we love a good single-origin cup as much as the next coffee geek. Philz Coffee and their black magic approach to blends even creeps us out more than just a little. But it’s ridiculous that we always find ourselves defending the honor of good quality blends and good blending practices in the face of a lot of misinformation and blind bias. Because nobody else in the coffee industry seems to be standing up to this nonsense.
Conventional wisdom has it that one of the first things you do in a political revolution is round up and jail/kill all the intellectuals, ensuring control and eliminating the possibility of informed dissent. You burn your history books and destroy your past artistic and cultural icons. However, this practice also makes you culturally stoopid.
Now enter quality coffee’s wannabe revolution. It’s as if many in the coffee industry believe that advancement could only be achieved through a scorched earth policy that destroys every practice and idea previously associated with decent coffee in its wake: blends, any roast level into the second crack, etc. And yet today we see the same people fawning over Chemex brewer and espresso machine technology invented in the early 20th century — not to mention siphon bar technology developed in the early 19th century. Blindness to the past is not the same thing as enlightenment.
A recent coffee “experiment” to prove our point
Case and point: recently we were experimenting with Chemex-brewed Four Barrel Costa Rica Cafetín 1900 Reserve. It produced an unusually clean cup, with some elements of sweetness and cherry-like acidity and a decent weight to it. But the flavor profile was tame, narrow, and a bit limited. While clearly a refined and well-sourced coffee, it was definitely lacking a few dimensions in the cup.
Meanwhile, we had some Four Barrel Guatemala Concepción Pixcaya leftover from previous use. So we decided to add a modest percentage to the Cafetín in the grinder. To our delightful surprise, the resulting Chemex brew broke out with a more rounded, fuller flavor profile with additional dimensions that were completely lacking in the Cafetín cup.
We were so taken by the improvement, we shared it with some “wine snobs” and budding coffeephiles across the street who had some of our Chemex-brewed Cafetín earlier that morning. The opinion was universally positive. To be fair, as straight-up single-origins go, we preferred the Pixcaya to the Cafetín. But we could make the case that the blend was an improvement over the straight single-origin Pixcaya in mouthfeel and an edge of sweetness it didn’t otherwise have.
What kind of mad scientist alchemy is this?
Were we covering up the taste of bad coffee? We certainly don’t see it that way. Did we defile purist coffees in the process? Who cares! The results were noticeably better. You tell Château Margaux that they’re defiling their cabernet sauvignon grapes with merlot. Not to mention our reigning WBC champ, who used blending to make part of his specialty drink in the competition.
Taste is, of course, subjective. But if advancing the art of coffee is supposed to involve experimentation, questioning assumptions, and learning from the results, we’re dumbfounded by many of the distinguished coffee reps in the industry who put up mental barriers when it comes to things like blends. When we value coffee purity above its flavor, do we want to be museum curators or do we want to drink better coffee? Are we making coffees to win pure bred dog shows or to taste good?
The more this blind bias and spread of misinformation continues, the more we are not convinced their passion is only for the resulting taste in our cups.
3 Comments »