Not Feeling the Burn
(Apologies for accidentally sending out a hacked up rough draft of this to some subscribers, before posting the finished version!)
Americans love their burn.
Ninety-six percent of them admit to intentionally burning their mouths regularly.
And scalding hot "coffee" is the number one weapon of choice for that self abuse.
So it's not surprising that most people treat coffee no better than their own mouths.
They burn it when they "roast" it, they burn it when they brew it, and they burn their mouths when they drink it.
Coffee and "burnt" are synonymous.
Or that's what I thought, like most Americans, for most of my coffee drinking life.
Because all the coffee I'd ever tried tasted like something that could have been made on a camp fire.
Like anyone with impeccable logic based on subjective personal experience, I "knew" coffee had to have that smokey, carbon flavor. It had to, because, well... it's coffee!
Except (surprise!) it doesn't. Have to.
Like most folks, I just hadn't really thought about it much.
But coffee is a plant.
And plants don't taste like charcoal.
Unless you burn them first.
My assumption that the "burnt flavor" was somehow a necessary part of coffee went unchallenged for years. It was the thing that made it "adult" (like whiskey, or cigarettes.)
I grew to appreciate some esoterically burned coffee (like the primitive roasted-on-the-side-of-the-road Vietnamese stuff a friend brought back, which I used to make "smoky" mochas.)
(In the days when it seemed like a good idea to put cocoa powder in burnt coffee.)
It never occurred to me that coffee (or coffee beans) didn't naturally taste like carbon.
The truth, of course, is that Coffee tastes more like this:
Before we turn "that" into charred jujubees.
Then scald it at such extreme temperatures that we need special insulation just to handle it, before forcing it into our mouths, and burning off layers of skin cells.
No wonder so many of us go, "Ah! Ah! Ah!" before we go, "Ahhhh..."
But does coffee need to be all about the Burn to make it "coffee?" Must we punish ourselves to get the coffee "experience?" Or is that self abuse just a relic of our masochistic puritanical culture, and the days coffee was made over open flames?
Does burning coffee make it taste better? "Richer?" Like Mrs. Olson's?
Or have we been preparing it that way for so long that the "burnt" has become imprinted in our brains? Just part of the ritual of satisfying our caffeine addiction?
Does part of burning our mouths have to do with forcing an adrenaline rush to make us wake up from not enough sleep, in order to go to jobs we'd rather not?
Of course we can make coffee any way we like. It's a (sorta) "free" country. And Voltage 110 is all about celebrating individual taste. There is no "right and wrong," when it comes to Art, or taste.
But in high school I thought Schlitz Malt Liquor was drinkable.
In college I graduated to "imports," and our local Anchor Steam.
Then micro brew happened.
Now Schlitz is a distant memory, and I'm fully aware it's a corporate imitation of "real beer."
Like the smartass teenager who can pound a 16 ounce "Bull" at a house party, I was "ok" with burnt coffee.
Until I tasted some that wasn't burned.
Now I'm not.
And that's really not about becoming a "coffee snob." It's called "growing up."
It didn't happen overnight, but things changed.
I can't drink a six pack of malt liquor now without puking. (Ok, never could.) But I REALLY can't hack burnt coffee anymore.
Whether it's at a motel, a corner donut shop, Starbuck's, or a well intentioned "Indy" coffee house in Timbuktu that's has pretensions, but is just as clueless as the donut shop.
After trying to find a decent latte on various road trips around the US over the last couple years, I've come to realize that finding "modern" coffee is not easy outside the bubble of a place like San Francisco. Even in California.
Most of coffee drinking America hasn't gotten to the "imports" stage yet, let alone "third or fourth wave" coffee. They're still drinking pretty much the same stuff their parents did.
The paradigm shift may be as simple as moving coffee out of the "comfort drug" category, and into the Food column.
Of course that will be way easier said, than done.
But if you value the care many farmer's are now putting into growing your coffee, and the back breaking effort poorly paid workers put into harvesting it, you have to consider respecting the plant.
In that regard, a roaster would stop around the "first crack," rather than carbonize their beans.
A barista would make sure the brew stays under 200 hundred degrees F. (preferably under 195!) keeping the milk sweet, not scalded, with fine texture, not big burnt bubbles.
And the cup put in your hand would be ready to drink without calling a paramedic. (Needing extra cardboard just to hold your cup should give you a clue, dude.)
Those beautiful, shiny black, post 2nd crack beans, which smell remarkably like sewage in a couple days, are just that for me now. And seem an incredible waste of naturally wonderful fruit (or as some of us call fruit, "food.")
It is possible to stop treating coffee like Mrs. Olson's commodity.
That's obviously an easier personal evolution if you live in a coastal metro area, or have your own espresso gear (especially a home roaster.)
Commercial roasters still fear to buck the existing market, and most consumers still don't have much of an opportunity to "evolve" their taste (and create the imperative for roasters to change.)
The geographical map of decent American espresso is still minuscule compared to the vast wasteland surrounding it.
Most cafes still scald their coffee, burn their milk, and use beans that are charred.
And most drinkers have habituated those conditions with their "addiction."
But some people are open to making the change. (And if you're still reading this far, you may be one of them!)
Beautiful, huh? Like smooth black marbles.
Except these are history, if you're after "fresh food."
And they taste like the "coffee" we're all familiar with. That smoky burnt drink is predictable wherever you go. But the coffee plant is dead at this point, not cooked "fresh" food.
Fresh food is naturally complex. Unpredictable. And far more variable than we traditionally think of "coffee."
Stopping the roast sooner and preserving some of the "plant" in the brewed bean, may mean the taste of that hot beverage we drink in the morning is all over the map. And changes from batch to batch. Some "nut," some "grass," some "sweet," and some "sour." And maybe even sometimes "bitter." Kinda like the variation of vegetables and fruit we find at a Farmer's Market, rather than the "lettuce" we might find on a Big Mac.
The fact is the seed of the coffee plant has a vast range of potential flavors and notes that most people have never experienced.