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How Do You Take It?

Our intrepid driving diner discovers the Bright & Early Coffee stand and why Houstonians like their brew weak

My dark-roast years ended in my early thirties. When I lived in San Francisco, I used to drink a double latte from a little espresso bar on Columbus Avenue every morning, until it started to bother my stomach. I still drink dark-roast coffee every now and then just to remind myself what a sour stomach feels like. But most of the time, I drink medium-roast coffee, or tea.

At one point in this taste testing, I drank four cups of Duncan's coffee and had no stomach problems whatsoever. Although I find the coffee from Bright & Early a little weak, I really like the Duncan Coffee Costa Rican blend when I brew it at my usual tablespoon-per-cup strength at home. But such strong coffee is not the norm in Texas.

"Restaurant customers in Texas, and most of the South, like coffee so weak you can see through it," says my brother Dave, who works for restaurant purveyor Ben E. Keith. "Three to four ounces of coffee per [12-cup] pot is standard in restaurants across most of the United States, but the typical Southern pot of coffee uses only one and a half ounces of grounds," he says. "It tastes watery -- almost like tea -- to coffee drinkers from other parts of the country."

Manager Francisco Calza serves up coffee brewed the way Texans like it.
Monica Fuentes
Manager Francisco Calza serves up coffee brewed the way Texans like it.

Location Info

Map

Bright and Early Coffee

4825 Washington Ave.
Houston, TX 77007

Category: Coffee Shops

Region: Heights

Details

713-861-9588. Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.

Medium coffee of the day: $1.75
Medium latte: $2.75
Medium mocha : $3.25
Medium frappe mocha: $3.75
Krispy Kreme doughnuts (dozen): $6.75
Omelette in a cup: $2
Poor boy: $4.50
Duncan Coffee beans: $8.50

4825 Washington Avenue

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Bright & Early is using three ounces of coffee for a 16-cup airpot (the equivalent of 2.25 ounces per standard 12-cup pot). It's a little stronger than average Texas restaurant coffee, but only a little. "I like it stronger than we brew it over there," confesses Duncan IV. "But we're catering to the market. Houston likes it that way."

In fact, Duncan Coffee regularly puts its brews up against Starbucks' in taste tests. And while the coffee fares poorly among California tasters, it does well in Texas. "The board of directors of River Oaks Country Club compared the two and changed the next day," says Duncan IV. "Texas A&M used to serve Starbucks at their nine coffee bars, until they did a taste test. They switched, too. Now their coffee sales are up by 30 percent and their milk use is down. Starbucks sells more milk than coffee."

Duncan speculates that Texans have to temper Starbucks' dark roasts and strong brews with lots and lots of milk. Duncan Coffee's lighter roasts are easier to drink black. "All our coffees are medium-roast," says Duncan. "People in Texas like to taste the flavor of the coffee. With a dark roast, you don't taste the coffee itself -- you lose the chocolate, fruit and winey notes." Duncan Coffee is also fresher than coffee shipped in from elsewhere, he points out. "When we sell coffee to Cafe Annie and Carrabba's, we roast it to order and ship it within hours," he says.

If your taste in coffee (or your concern for your stomach) leads you toward lighter roasts and less corrosive brewing strengths than Starbucks can provide, I highly recommend Bright & Early Coffee on Washington. If you like it a little stronger, pick up a bag of Duncan Coffee and try some of the local brew at home. Since it's packaged here in Houston, chances are the beans were roasted within the last few days, and that can make a difference. According to our local coffee heir, "Coffee is like bread: It tastes best when it comes fresh out of the oven."

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