By Jeff Balke
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"Who drinks instantcoffee?" I ask.
A city's coffee-buying habits reflect its immigrants, de Aldecoa explains. Italians drink espresso to the exclusion of all other coffee. So on the East Coast and in Northern California, where you have a lot of Italian-Americans, people drink espresso.
In Mexico, where atole and chocolate were long the traditional breakfast drinks, the coffee culture was slow to take root. The vast majority of the coffee consumed in Mexico is instant. And as you might expect, at the Mi Tienda H-E-B in Pasadena, a store that caters to Mexican-Americans and recent immigrants, instant coffee is the largest seller.
I started drinking coffee with lots of milk and sugar when I was 12, but that's because my dad was a coffee salesman. We had a Bunn restaurant coffeemaker, and Dad was fanatical about brewing coffee. He ran some of the water through the grounds, then removed the grounds and added the rest of the water. He said over-extraction caused bitter flavors. And we only drank medium-roast coffees, never dark-roast.
At the Port of Houston's Coffee Symposium last month, I ran into William G. Quinn, the logistics manager for Kraft's coffee-buying operation. He worked for General Foods' coffee operations in New York 30-some years ago, when my father worked there. When I was in junior high, my dad sold his largest order ever — a million cases of coffee to Dobbs House.
When I asked Dad where the restaurant chain was going to put a million cases of coffee, he explained that the coffee was actually delivered a little at a time over a year. By buying it all at once, Dobbs House got a better price and kept its costs uniform so it could accurately predict profits. General Foods, in turn, bought coffee futures at the New York Board of Trade so they could insure delivery of the contract at a favorable price.
Makes sense, right? But the system isn't perfect. Just as gasoline prices were inflated by speculators last year, coffee prices have been subjected to wild swings over the years. In 1975, there was a run on the green coffee bean market. A freeze in Brazil destroyed much of the crop that year, and the cost of coffee skyrocketed in anticipation of shortages. The price of a one-pound can of coffee in a U.S. supermarket went from a national average of around 68 cents in 1975 to more than $3 in 1977.
The public accused the coffee companies of price gouging, and the House Agriculture subcommittee held hearings. At the time, most American supermarket coffee was blended from 100 percent arabica beans from Colombia, Brazil and Central America. In response to the pressure, coffee companies switched to cheap robusta blends. The quality of American supermarket coffee never recovered.
I asked another coffee industry veteran I met at the conference, Peter Doyle, how the coffee in Houston differs from coffee around the country. In Houston convenience stores, fast-food operations and diners, a half-gallon pot of coffee is brewed with 2.5 ounces of medium-roast coffee, Doyle said. New Yorkers, on the other hand, drink medium-roast coffee brewed strong — 3.5 ounces to the half-gallon pot. On the West Coast, dark-roast coffee is brewed to varying strengths.
"That 100 percent arabica coffee your dad was selling back before the prices went up would be considered gourmet coffee today," said Doyle.
I have always wondered if the specialty coffee market and expensive coffee shops like Starbucks would even exist if American supermarket coffee was as good as it used to be when I started drinking it.
I have never tasted Vietnamese coffee before, but there is some included in our cupping at Maximus Coffee. On the round table in front of us, there are seven coffee samples. We sit on wheeled stools so we can rotate around the table.
At each station, a little paper boat is filled with green coffee beans and another is filled with the same beans after roasting. Then there are three handle-less cups filled with freshly ground coffee from different parts of the shipment. First we examine the green coffee beans, then we sniff the roasted grounds, then we sniff the roasted grounds with hot water added. Finally, we slurp the coffee.
Two samples of Mexican beans both remind me of Community Coffee — I am guessing Community Coffee uses a lot of Mexican beans. There's also an example of very old beans and another of beans that have been improperly dried; they'll probably be used for instant coffee.
The best blended sample I try is actually McDonald's coffee; it's 100 percent arabica, but where the beans come from is a trade secret. I like the flavor of the tiny Brazilian beans we sample, but de Aldecoa points out that while they have excellent fruit sugars, they're naturally dried and lack the proper acid level. They are very nice beans, but they would taste much better blended with brighter, more acidic, fermented and washed arabica beans from Colombia, like the first coffee we sampled, he says. That's when I know I'm way out of my league.
When I get to the coffee from Vietnam, de Aldecoa giggles as I slurp up a mouthful and wince. "It tastes like dirt," I say in shock. "Or mud."