Confession: I do not believe the customer is always right. I do, however, give the customer what he or she wants. The other day a customer ordered a certain coffee at a french roast, a coffee which really shined in the lighter roast and in the darker roast, in my opinion, became quite ashy. But, as it goes, I gave the customer exactly what the customer ordered, and that customer was happy. But happiness is not always synonymous with rightness…is it?
In the summer of 2005 I worked for a restaurant in NY called Vine Street Cafe. The chef and owner of Vine St., a very talented and creative chef who prided himself on using only the finest ingredients in his dishes, once instructed me to pour coffee in his cup after I put in the cream and sugar…whenever I made his coffee. He then proceeded to quiz me on this method, taking every chance, as he did, to make even the most banal and obvious situations an opportunity to demonstrate his profundity.
Chef: “Whenever you make my coffee, make sure you put the cream and sugar in before you pour the coffee. ”
Chef: “Now, whyyyy would you do that?”, he asked, in a more-nasally-than-normal tone.
Me: “Because it mixes it up.”
Chef: “Correct” [walking away smugly with sugary coffee-like drink in hand].
Me: [“If you’re such a good chef, why do you drown your coffee in cream and sugar? Why cover up a good thing? Next time I eat one of your steaks, I’m going to baptize it in A1.” I thought to myself smugly; only my smugness was quickly shattered by disillusionment when I remembered the tremendous fear I had of Chef, knowing I would eat caramelized skunk intestines with a smile on my face, if he offered it.]
Every coffee roaster faces this dilemma. It’s the same dilemma of steak and steak sauce, of front yards and plastic flamingos, of nakedness and fig leaves–it’s the problem of covering up a good thing. And in the world of coffee, it’s not only done with cream and sugar but with roast styles, i.e., roasting every bean until it looks like pee-gravel made out of chunks of asphalt.
Here’s the short of it: Problem: As a certain gigantic “speciality” coffee company grew in its giganticness, they were unable to get coffee to customers within the optimal window within which coffee should be drunk (1-2 weeks max!). Solution: manipulate the demand by promoting a certain standardized roast style, which is only possible if you are not promoting pure product alone, but product+syrups, etc. [=new product altogether] and atmosphere/community. The roast style promoted: dark, very dark. How is this a solution to not being able to get coffee quickly enough to consumers? Quite simply, new burnt coffee doesn’t taste much different than old burnt coffee. Granted, some coffees do well at a dark roast, but most coffees lose their inherent complexity and goodness as they move into the darker roast where the sugars are caramelized(fn. 1) and eventually burnt, and the chemical compounds are continually degraded(fn. 2). So how did they get away with this? As I mentioned above: by marketing not simply coffee, but an atmosphere for community (which is great!) and by covering their coffees up with syrups and sugars and milks, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good coffee flavored frappe, but only because I like frappes, not because I like coffee. The bean, at that point, has fallen too far from the tree.
What is my point with all of this? My point is not to say that people should not like frappes or syrup filled drinks or coffee shops that roast and sell to a massive market, thereby making it impossible to provide fresh roasted coffee for their customers. My point is simply to say, gently and humbly, maybe your taste in coffee has been influenced in a way that inhibits you from enjoying coffee at its full potential. My point is to say, the customer is always right, but perhaps the customer has just always been taught to put steak sauce on her steak, flamingos in her yard, figs over her shame. Perhaps the customer has always been wrongfully taught to cover up a good thing. The customer, indeed, is never wrong, but is unfortunately just sometimes deprived.
So take a chance and try a light or medium roast coffee. You may just find yourself liking coffee for the first time!
Postscript: There are excellent dark roast coffees and I roast, drink, and enjoy dark[er] roast coffees on occasion, but I do so only with those coffees whose inherent qualities are optimized at a darker roast level, which, in my humble opinion, are few and far between.
1. Caramelized sugar is less sweet than noncaramelized sugar.
2. This is why, for example, most coffee distributers market a “French Roast” without indicating its origin. The origin is no longer relevant because the flavor has given way to that carbony ashiness we have all come to associate with “boldness” or a high caffeine content, which, by the way, is a myth. As the roast moves into the firey infernos of industrial roasters, caffeine is burnt out of the coffee along with the sugars and the other goods.