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Test of Nerves: House Blend Head to Head

A short time ago, we read Murray Carpenter's "In Defense of Terrible Coffee" (to which we've responded here: "Why Third Wave Coffee?" ). Carpenter does make some fair, and salient, points about coffee as a shared experience, and reminding his readers that most people just want a competent cup of coffee. With that in mind, we've decided to review a handful of mass-market coffees and coffee chains; think of this as the first in a series.

At any rate, here's what happened when I decided to see how much coffee I could pour down my gullet in one day. Our first house blend head-to-head, in the order visited:

The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf: The direct trade Mocha Java was a pleasant surprise. This coffee hints at fruit in its scent, and the flavor follows through with a top note that's reminiscent of just-picked raspberries (right down to the ever-so-slightly sour tang that suggests the berries aren't completely ripe yet). The finish is bitter with just a hint of sweet, not unlike an 80% dark chocolate. The only drawback to this coffee was its long, clingy finish that starts to overpower the more nuanced top notes halfway through the cup. If this coffee were a party guest, it'd be that one person who starts saying their goodbyes at 9:30 and is still hovering by the door chatting at 10:15.

McDonald's: The nose is... nondescript. Smells like coffee. The taste offers more of the same. If you're looking for surprising hints of hibiscus, or a soupçon of orange peel, you won't find it here. Tastes like coffee. I'm not sure whether to chalk it up to the beans, the roast, or the brew, but everything about this coffee seems "fast." There's something nearly fruity right off the top, but it's a tease, gone as quickly as it came. The finish is equally abrupt, rather like walking into a room, forgetting why you're there, pivoting on your heel and walking right back out again.

I hasten to add, it's not terrible. It's a far sight better than McDonald's coffee used to be. There's more body, and the coffee avoids the extremes of weakness or syrupy strength that tend to characterize a lot of fast food coffee. It's just workmanlike. If you want coffee, and nothing but the coffee, this'll do.

Starbucks: I ordered a Pike's Place medium roast and the Ethiopia Sidamo Reserve, drinking the latter first. The Reserve is an exercise in frustration. The scent and the taste hint at what might have been; there are notes of dried fruit and dark chocolate, but they're quite subdued. While Starbucks' coffee often earns the "Charbucks" name (more on that below), that's not the case here; the beans don't taste burnt, but they do taste decidedly overdone, as though a lot of the volatile compounds that would typically give a coffee its distinctive nose and flavor have largely been roasted out. It's one of the better coffees I've had at Starbucks, and the taste does improve further through the cup (it's markedly, but not stridently, fruit-forward). But it's missing the complexity and sweet acidity that have characterized other Ethiopian coffees I've tried.

For all its shortcomings, the Ethiopia Sidamo at least shows that Starbucks still takes its coffee seriously. I wish that I could say the same for the Pike Place Medium Roast. What's supposed to be a medium roast is decidedly dark, with the distinctly burnt scent and taste that characterizes so much Starbucks coffee and just might leave you wondering if there was a fire at the roaster. The nose is indifferent and nearly mildewy, while the taste features flat top notes, and a nondescript acidity in the middle that's shouted down by a long, very bitter finish. If you've ever wanted a coffee that tasted like an acrimonious divorce, this is it. By this point in my day, I'm starting to get a bit twitchy, but I press on. My next stop is

Aroma, whose house blend smelled a bit like an old library, with a hint of old books and patchouli. Maybe an aged hippie wandering the occult stacks? But I digress. The coffee is undistinguished, but not unpleasant. Low acidity, just bitter enough, with decent body and a clean finish. It's a competent, workmanlike medium roast.

Dunkin' Donuts: I used to order Dunkin' Donuts coffee with "a little" milk or cream, whereupon the person behind the counter invariably pulled off a feat of physics that'd do Einstein proud: they would, without fail, somehow squeeze 16 ounces of cream into a 12-ounce coffee. And if you order "light and sweet," forget about it. It tastes like someone waved no more than three (3) coffee beans in the general direction of a feverish, diabetic Holstein. So you can understand why I never could figure out what people saw in Dunkin' coffee. Have it black, on the other hand, and I begin to understand. Granted, it's served just slightly shy of boiling, but it's... well, it's not awful, anyway. There's a mild, rather meek, blackberry note in the scent, a furtive acidity, and a hurriedly nutty bitterness, with a quick finish that suggests that the coffee is afraid to wear out its welcome. It is, in other words, coffee for people who are afraid of coffee.

That'd explain why America's a bit logy lately...

That brings us to the Dunkacinno, a beverage (I refuse to call it coffee) that's best summed up in the immortal words of Dorothy Parker: "What fresh hell is this?" It's never a good sign when your order's delayed because they had to change a cartridge and clean the tanks.* It smells like one of the less offensive stretches of the Turnpike, and the taste...

Well, it's like this: Go to your pantry. Roundly spank the nearest bottle of imitation vanilla extract with five or six packets of artificial sweetener. Add hot water, a pile (metric) of powdered non-dairy creamer and just a hint of instant coffee -- a mumble thereof, the coffee equivalent of someone whispering to you that you've got poppy seeds in your teeth. Mix 'til a film of something resembling foam forms on the top. Consume.

I'm not a praying man, but by the time I gave up on my Dunkaccino, I felt as though I owed my tastebuds some kind of penance. While there was no wailing or gnashing of teeth, I wouldn't have been surprised if the ingredient list included sackcloth and/or ashes.

If your local java joint's coffee has you crying "uncle" (or just weeping openly), may we suggest our Liberty Lungo Dark Roast instead?

*How I wish I was making that part up.