In Defense Of Cheap, Crappy Coffee


Coffee culture is taking over, and the cult of fine coffee is now a mass obsession. So why do I only like the bad kind?

Time was, coffee was considered lacking here in NYC. Pacific North-Westerners and Europeans were always complaining on Chowhound about the poor quality of the java. Now, however, the arguments have a different tone, comparing the crema at Joe the Art of Coffee with that at 9th Street Espresso, or the knowledge of the baristas at Grumpy or Gimme, analyzing the mechanism at Roasting Plant and Oslo, checking the progress of Blue Bottle’s new location, or evaluating the different roasts from Intelligentsia, Stumptown and Counter-Culture. Whether it was inevitable or some low-overhead by-product of the recession (and the fact that a whole new segment of the creative underclass found itself with no offices to go to), suddenly everything changed. Every bean had a name and a hometown, every brown bag of beans a beautiful logo, every table an individual French press. It was, of course, a logical outgrowth of the national emphasis on all things locavore, sustainable and, well, boutique. I, like the rest of CSA-loving urbanites, was ready for the revolution.

Initially, I was excited. I am all for Fair-Trade (though also aware of the concerns some harbor over its impact on the market), sustainability and, um, deliciousness. I was ready to preach the gospel of the Clover machine, the impeccably-sourced bean, the single-origin micro-brewed Americano, the expertly-pulled espresso, the little steamed-milk heart on my cafe au lait. (I also knew that with fancy coffees come good pastries, my primary concern.) And so I drank. I made my way to the city’s new coffee meccas as they opened and dutifully talked roasts and methods. I wanted to learn.

From the start, I wasn’t as enthusiastic as I knew I should be. I tended to find most of these cups too tannic and unfamiliar, and I found I needed a ton of milk to make them palatable, or keep my stomach from angrily stating its displeasure. I happened to live near a place that was regarded as part of the vanguard, and I tried to train myself: I drank cup after ceremoniously-prepared amber cup, even though I hated it. I knew it was me; as I winced at my first sip one day I heard a woman rhapsodize, “it’s a crime to even taint this with milk!” I was obviously a Philistine. So I signed up for a coffee seminar. We sipped different roasts, wine-tasting-style, and learned about origin and roast. I still didn’t get it.

I don’t mean to suggest I’m thrilled with any day-old bodega cup (although there’s not much I won’t drink, and this one bodega that mixes strong Bustela with hot milk is one of my favorite coffee destinations in town) but I think my tastes are simple. Apricot notes and fIoral undertones are wasted on me and, much as I might enjoy the sweets and ambiance of the new generation, I still find my favorite coffee comes from an ancient Brooklyn roaster that’s impossibly hot in summer and heady with the smell of oily roasting beans. They mail me a pound of my favorite dark roast every week and I grind and brew it throughout the day. That said, I am a little embarrassed about this, the same way I am about preferring milk to dark chocolate. But just as some cars need expensive gas, my body seems to need cheap coffee – it doesn’t seem to appreciate that it’s out of step.

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