In my five years at GMC, I've by no means become a coffee expert. But I'm getting better. My biggest learning is our odd obsession of roast at the expense of source. We Americans generally don't seem to care where our coffee comes from. At the same time, we'll claim to "love a super-dark roast", while drowning our brew with excessive cream and sugar. If you use three scoops of sugar and a long pour of cream, I'd argue that you like coffee-flavor, not coffee. And you probably don't enjoy a super-dark roast. Do you add anything to your favorite wine?
Vermont gourmet circles and our own coffee experts have taught me to relish terroir, a taste of place. The Buy Local campaign is extremely prevalent here in Vermont, encouraging support of local farmers and food traditions. It helps keep our lovely countrysides in tact while appreciating the beauty we have around us. It's the postive way of opposing uniformity, suggesting a better path instead of merely cursing another. Everything has its place.
Anthony Bourdain tackled this topic in reviewing Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park. I'll confess, I don't have the patience for Taylor's 432-page discourse, but I love a good Bourdain rant. Taylor argues the chef world is divided into fusion freaks (Crips), hell bent on merging incongruous worldy ingredients into creativity stew, and terroir tyrants (Bloods), dedicating their souls to preserving local traditions and ingredients. Bourdain seems to prefer a looser, middle ground, admitting he started in the terroir camp, but has all too often traveled into fusion festivals deserving of admiration. He later comments "I've since come to believe that any overriding philosophy or worldview is the enemy of good eating". Agreed.
Let's apply this thinking to coffee. Why do we always focus on roast, mindlessly add condiments, but ignore source? The flavor wheel spins much more vigorously when comparing a smooth Guatemalan brew to a lively animal-like Kenyan offering than when debating the pros and cons of light versus medium roast. I agree that a fantastic cut of steak should be quickly seared while a more modest cut should spend more time on the grill. But isn't it more exciting to debate the kind of meat than how to cook said meat? Choosing the source of your coffee is the equivalent of picking your meat.
I urge you to try (cup, if you will) a black cup of our Sumatran Reserve™ next to another black mug of Colombian Fair Trade Select. There are significant differences between the coffees from these two equatorial regions. But I won't describe those differences here -- please experience them for yourself. Then compare our Kenya Highland Cooperatives (my favorite) to that same Colombian or our Guatemalan Finca Dos Marias. Which cup is bright, which syrupy, which wild? You tell me.
With this appreciation, maybe some of you will switch from "blends" to single origin coffees. Blends certainly have their place, but by following the fusion / Bloods need of mixing unique offerings, something is lost. That something is local climate combined with tireless, but unique quality controls applied by various coffee farmers across the world. Their exhausting efforts should not always be blended away.
You'll see and taste what I'm talking about. Then the next time someone asks "how do you take your coffee?" you can reply with a well informed "Kenyan, please."