There's an awful lot of cellophane wrapped around the banana nut muffin I just bought at the Bright & Early Coffee drive-through stand at the corner of Washington and Durham. I flip the package over on the passenger seat and search for a seam with my right hand while sipping coffee from the foam-coated paper cup in my left. That leaves both knees free to steer the car as I hurtle down the freeway.
Once I get the muffin unwrapped, I leave it on the passenger seat and break off chunks to stuff into my mouth at regular intervals. The sweet banana flavor harmonizes perfectly with the scrambled eggs, which are sitting in one of the drink holders just above my stick shift. Bright & Early's "Drive-Thru Omelet in a Cup" is a mixture of eggs, ham, orange cheese and big flecks of black pepper scrambled together and microwaved in a coffee cup. The odd cylindrical omelette has taken the shape of the vessel. Bright & Early has the cooking time down perfectly -- the eggs are creamy and wet, just the way I like them. A spork is thoughtfully tucked in so you don't have to tear apart any plastic wrappers to begin eating. But while most of this automotive dining experience is quite delightful, I must say the coffee, which I expected to be the centerpiece of a Bright & Early Coffee drive-through breakfast, actually tastes watery.
Why is their coffee so weak?
This simple question takes up the next few days of my life and leads to several epiphanies about Houston coffee.
The logo of the Bright & Early Coffee stand on Washington, with its crowing rooster silhouetted by a stylized morning sun, looks like it came off an old-time coffee package -- which it did. It turns out that Bright & Early was one of the first brands of the Duncan Coffee Company that Herschel Mills Duncan opened in Houston in 1918. Duncan was related to one of the owners of the Maxwell House Coffee Company, where he worked before going out on his own.
Duncan's quality coffees soon became a big hit in Houston restaurants, hotels and railroad dining cars. The most famous brand, Maryland Club, was marketed under a licensing agreement with a famous restaurant in Baltimore, just as Maxwell House was named for a famous Nashville hotel. Bright & Early was a less expensive blend popular in rural Texas, where Maryland Club was considered "big city" coffee. Eventually, the Duncan Coffee Company would become the sixth-largest coffee business in the United States. After the death of its founder, the company was sold and went through several owners, including Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble.
In 1997, Herschel Mills Duncan IV, the great-grandson and namesake of Duncan Coffee's founder, revived the family coffee business in Houston.
"Weren't there any legal problems using the Duncan name since several corporations, including Coca-Cola, had bought the company?" I asked him.
"No, not really," he said. "My cousin Charles Duncan was the president of Coca-Cola worldwide at the time. So I went and talked to him about it. He said it was okay."
It was good timing. People all over the country were showing a growing willingness to pay more for premium coffee. All Duncan IV really had to do to launch the Duncan Coffee Company into the specialty coffee market of the '90s was go back to the company's original quality standards of 1918. Duncan IV couldn't use such famous brands as Maryland Club, but he could use brands Coca-Cola had abandoned, like Bright & Early. He also came up with some modern brands like the Houstonian Blend, which uses a drawing of our skyline as its logo. Now he sells these brands to upscale Houston restaurants and to coffee lovers at the Bright & Early Coffee stand and www.duncancoffee.com.
Duncan IV is the general partner of the Bright & Early stand on Washington, a business he co-owns with chef Ben Berryhill of Cafe Annie. The stand sells only Duncan coffees, with the coffee of the day rotating among the company's various blends. They also sell Krispy Kreme doughnuts, cookies, muffins, juices, smoothies, granola, yogurt and other breakfast items, and they'll pack you a poor-boy lunch to take to the office. The Duncan Coffee company also sells brewed coffee at two other kiosks, one in the Williams Tower crosswalk and the other in the tunnels under Chase Tower.
The first time I went to Bright & Early, I had a frozen mocha, which I thought had an exceptionally toasty coffee flavor, and a lunch-bag poor boy. I ate at one of the little tables in the parking lot facing Washington. In my three visits, I never saw anyone else sit out there. Since the sandwich is designed to be purchased at breakfast time and consumed at lunch, there's no lettuce or tomato on it. But the fresh baguette does hold generous portions of turkey, ham and salami, along with some provolone and a nice dressing of mayo, pickles and chowchow. I also bought a bag of Duncan Coffee's Costa Rican blend to try at home.
On a subsequent early-morning visit, I bought a coffee of the day, a mocha and a cafe latte -- as well as an excellent everything bagel, an unremarkable sausage-cheese kolache and a Krispy Kreme apple fritter that was too sugary to eat. Then I asked a friend who is an avid coffee drinker to sample the brews and tell me what she thought. "Tastes watery," she said about the regular coffee. "This tastes watery, too," she said about the latte. "Oh, and you got a hot chocolate, how cute," she said of the mocha. I told her the mocha actually contained espresso, but she didn't believe me. I decided Bright & Early coffee is the opposite of Starbucks', which tastes so wonderfully strong it gives me a stomachache.
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."
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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."