Weak Coffee, Part One

Weak Coffee

I do not understand weak coffee and never have…

I used to think, when I first got in the coffee business, that this had something to do with the cost of coffee; that coffee drinkers were being stingy, maybe it was a carry-over from World War rationing and/or the Great Depression. Or maybe restaurants and cafeterias and coffee service in institutions and the military got everyone used to weak coffee while these entities tried to save money by using less and less coffee per pot.

Then I thought, well, REALIZED, that over the years, it’s also the roasters: they started competing on the basis of THEIR coffee costing less because you could use less of theirs and still get the same taste in the cup. This strategy was one of the most flawed and poorly conceived (suicidal, really) marketing efforts ever executed. I believe it DID get people used to weak coffee, coffee that folks just barely liked and that they could easily give up for almost any other caffeinated beverage: tea, soda pop and these days drinks like “Red Bull.”

Another key historical marker in the history of the weak coffee movement came, I have been told (and also believe to be true), in the early sixties when the large US roasters started using a lot of robusta in their blends. (This coffee, for the reader that does not know, is another species of the more tasty Arabica species. For purposes of THIS discussion/post suffice it to say that it tastes horrible.) So, when roasters started using more and more robusta their coffee started tasting worse and worse. One way to mitigate this, they decided was to recommend that people use less so that, per cup, there would be less awful taste. This provided further force to the argument that such coffee was more economical because not only COULD less coffee be used, but, given the bad taste, less coffee SHOULD be used. And thus, the stupidity of this strategy came into full flower: the optimal amount of this coffee to use, both in terms of taste AND cost savings was none at all. American consumers began to oblige and since the early sixties and up until only a few years ago, per capita consumption in the US decreased. It was only the efforts of specialty coffee roasters (and I would include Starbucks in this category, again, for purposes of this discussion) that the trend started to reverse, or at least stall.

Ironically, though, the Chairman of one famous, long-established West Coast specialty roaster did tell me, though, years ago, that the secret of their success — and this roaster sells a LOT of beans in their stores — was that they DO tell their customers to make their coffee strong, and this, for some strange reason, makes them really LIKE their coffee and get addicted to it and use it up quickly, and come back from more, and they buy and use up their coffee more often, and thus get used to strong coffee made from freshly bought (and therefore freshly roasted) beans. (The same roaster I am referring to also exhorts their customers to grind their coffee at home, immediately before brewing. As a result, these folks, people making strong coffee from freshly roasted, freshly ground beans start noticing it when they drink coffee that’s not freshly roasted and ground, and not strong, and they then start appreciating the roaster that recommends strong coffee more and instead of burning out on spending too much on coffee they start getting even MORE addicted to this particular roaster’s coffee.  Yikes, I AM running on here…but I don’t know how better to ELUCIDATE this dynamic!

Thus, by brewing strong coffee, a juggernaut of coffee appreciation and consumption can be set into motion. But, obviously, there is a caveat…the base coffee has to be good, really good. Just as you want to use less and less coffee per pot if the stuff tastes wretched, you only want to use more and more if the coffee is really good, really tasty to begin with.

But, lately, there has been an ironical turn of events; one for which I don’t have an explanation…but I will try. Lately I have noticed that some of the “cutting edge” roasters that have established themselves over the last two decades or so, ALSO seem to be recommending that brew strength be weak. They serve coffee in their shops that is brewed from great beans in many cases but they are brewing it the color of tea (almost) and it tastes, at best, like an intellectual whisper of what the coffee COULD taste like were it brewed at a reasonable strength. One reason for this is that folks in the coffee trade evaluate coffee using a codified method called cupping and the strength of the coffee in that case IS rather weak. We taste coffee that way so that we’re all tasting and comparing a coffee at the same concentration, because it’s a tradition over a hundred years old, and because the conventional wisdom is that it’s easier to parse the different flavor components and detect defects if the coffee is tasted in lower concentration.  If there ARE defects in a coffee this theory of tasting coffee at weak strength to detect defects MIGHT hold water (lame pun not intended but left there, because it happened). So, if the defect in question is one that is occurring only in a few beans per pound then if one of those beans is present in the relatively small cups we use to taste coffee then it will definitely be detectable if there aren’t that many other beans that have been ground into that cup.  But if that coffee were brewed at a higher concentration then that defect might not  be detectable because it’s defective taste might get crowded out by all the other beans ground into that cup.

But we don’t buy and brew really nice coffee in order to perform forensic analysis upon it. Nor should we have to anticipate that the fine coffees we’re buying from our beloved micro-roasters are in anyway defective. Finally, if there are a few defects in a coffee (and with certain coffees a defect here and there is inevitable, no matter how good or expensive it is – almost ANY coffee, in fact) we don’t want to detect that defect anyway, do we! We just want to enjoy the coffee. To do that, I assert, posit and argue, you need to brew it strong!

Some coffee “experts” opine that making coffee too strong crowds out certain flavors and lets other taste experiences dominate.  I don’t agree. As a general rule, if I want to truly enjoy an excellent coffee I like to do so at full throttle. In savoring a fine coffee at a strong concentration, the flavors slowly unfold on the palate, one at a time as you savor them.; but in the meantime there’s a continuous flow of flavor music yielding up aromas, textures, highlights and undertones. Again, if you want mass spectroscopy or forensic science; then FINE, brew the stuff weak enough so that you can spot every flavor molecule going by at the rate of one a minute…but I wouldn’t want that to be MY last cup of coffee before shuffling off this mortal coil!

Next….so, how strong is strong?

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One Response to Weak Coffee, Part One

  1. Karl Seidel says:

    I recently had the experience of visiting a well-known micro-roaster in the midwest. I ordered a Kenyan coffee and they were using the pour-over method of extraction. After too much water was used for 1 cup of coffee I stepped up to the counter and asked the barista to stop pouring the water. He deliberately ignored me, so I asked him to stop again, basically because I use the pour-over method daily and I could plainly see this was becoming “a sensory experience” and not the cup of strong coffee I was there for. The barista looked visibly nervous as he tried to sell me a cup of coffee he insisted he was brewing for 2 customers using the pour-over method. Both of us knew this wasn’t the case as he wriggled wormlike (this is NOT easy when you’re over 6 feet tall!) over to the manager to let him know what my request was. He came back to his station and with shaking hands hastily removed the filter & poured me my cup of coffee. Coffee wasted over the outer edge of the paper cup and I was forced to ask him to give me a second cup since now the coffee was all over the outside of the cup and would have made for a very sloppy unpleasant drinking experience! All this over a cup of coffee that cost me at least $3-4. To get into this place, big city and all, I had to park in a lot on the 6th floor and pay at least the absolute minimum of $5 for parking – if I could get in and out of the joint fast enough for the minimum charge. All of this – the parking, the city, the cost, the lack of respect for me as a customer making a simple request made me more jittery than the coffee ever could have!

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