Monday, November 18, 2013

The Great Coffee Experiment

Coffee. I don't like it. Never have, and doubt I ever will. Sure, the older members of my family all drank it. And like any good kid worth his curiosity badge, I took it upon myself to sneak in a taste or two when no one was looking. Yet, although the smell of coffee brewing in the morning was always a wonderful thing, unfortunately the taste of it on my tongue left a lot to be desired. It always tasted like burnt popcorn kernels, to be honest. Blech!

Also, unlike millions of other Americans it seems, I simply have no reaction to caffeine. Heck, when I was younger I used to down cans of Coke and then hit the sack immediately after with no ill effects. In fact, a nighttime cold soda was one of the things that used to cure me of the rare bout of insomnia. Go figure.

Ah, the good old days! They simply don't make wholesome
advertisements like they used to.

Fast forward to just recently. Out of curiosity, a little bit of boredom, and perhaps just a touch of sleepiness while at work, I decided to get down to the bottom of my coffee aversion once and for all. Over on Facebook for the past week or so, I've been chronicling my experiment into whether or not I could:

1) Get my body to react to the caffeine in coffee with a more noticeable boost to my system than what my daily 3-liters of water intake could provide; and

2) Whether I could become as hopelessly addicted to the stuff as everyone else I know seem to be.

Of particular interest to me was why people feel that they absolutely cannot have a good day unless they have one to three cups of coffee first. What does that feel like, I wondered? Having never been addicted to anything in my life, it was a sensation I had no prior experience with which to compare.

Unless, of course, you're counting my sweet tooth!

Still, I set about a straightforward course of action: to try one cup of coffee per day, and from a different establishment each time. I planned to sample the whole gamut of possible offerings--from the office break room to the high-fallutin', stuffy coffee houses where hipsters and artsy types congregate. I was going to try them all! And for this experiment to work, I felt I had to stick to the basics. To wit: a simple, regular coffee served "black." No sugar or cream/milk to get in the way of the core taste.

Not so sure about this . . .

Lastly, I wanted to chronicle the different price points of a simple cup of joe in New York City. For the sake of this experiment, all prices listed are with tax included. I was too lazy to research and find the basic price per cup at these places, and went instead with the real cash I had to pay out of my pocket at the cashier. Simple.

So, how did it go? Read my findings below:

The Great Coffee Experiment.

Caffeine overdose just begging to happen.

DAY 1 -- French Roast.

My office break room recently upgraded to a new coffee machine. This machine allows you to pick a specific flavor packet from a kiosk to the right, plop the packet into the slot, and then does all the rest of the work for you. You simply place your mug in the space beneath the drip spout, wait for the machine to brew your individual cup, pour it into your mug, and then discard the packet all by itself. All at the touch of a single button! As a neophyte to the coffee scene, I understand that this technology has been around for a while. But for me it might as well have been science fiction. So many bells and whistles for a beverage that's been around for hundreds of years? You java drinkers sure go to great lengths, I must say! I picked the most basic blend I could find--the French Roast. At least, I hoped it was basic. But when I took a sip of the results, I must admit I was very underwhelmed. Good lord, this stuff was horrible! Such a bitter taste that I almost gagged. So, sorry to say, but I immediately had to revise my experiment's parameters. Instead of the rule of no sugar, I added two packets to my cup and stirred it up with those skinny wooden stir thingies I think you're supposed to use for just such a purpose. It improved the taste only slightly, but I decided to continue adding exactly two packets of sugar to any future cup I had from now on. I would forego the milk, however. This first cup of mine was not a promising start. And worse yet, I experienced no caffeine kick at all. I might as well have been drinking hot water. I hoped my next sampling would yield better results than the French Roast.

Total Cost:  Free.

Grade:  D+  (disappointing)

DAY 2 -- Barista's Blend.

Day 2 of the experiment was a drab and cold one. So rather than venture out to a café or store known for coffee, I decided to give the office break room one more try. This time I picked the "Barista's Blend" from the selection on hand. According to the packet, this was supposed to be "Dark and Intense" just like the French Roast. But with a name like "Barista's Blend" I expected something richer and more complex. Wrong! I could detect no discernible difference between the two blends. Like the previous day's sampling, this brew left a bitterly harsh aftertaste of something like burnt coffee grounds. And to add insult to injury, it had hardly any kick to it at all! Rather than picking up my mood that day, I was left feeling groggy and in dire need of a nap. Worst yet, I could not for the life of me understand why other people in the office were always making cups of this sludge as if it they actually enjoyed the taste! Was my palate just not developed enough to appreciate some missing virtue of these flavor packets? I vowed to try a more upscale cup of coffee the next day, at an established venue outside the office this time.

Total Cost:  Free.

Grade:  D+  (disappointing)

DAY 3 -- Starbucks.

It was inevitable that I should end up here during the course of this experiment. Starbucks: that oft maligned, but indispensable, last bastion of coffaholics everywhere! There's one on every corner it seems, and sometimes two! That's certainly true here in New York City--especially downtown Manhattan where I work. Problem was: I had never been in a Starbucks before, except one time to order a hot cocoa on a particularly blistery New Year's Day. I knew nothing of the different brews on offer, let alone the bizarre ordering lingo that's in effect here. Venti? With room? WTF did these things even mean? But, as the rules of the experiment exacted, I only had to keep things simple. A black basic coffee, in the smallest or "regular" size they had available. After making a detailed study of the menu as I waited an ungodly amount of time on line behind a group of tourists and this one gay couple constantly pausing to make out in front of me, I knew what I was going to order: a "tall" dark roast, black. I figured the dark roast to be the strongest of their daily, non-espresso, brews. And it seems I was right! This was a very noticeable step up from the office dreck I had partaken of the previous two days. Starbucks, it seemed, deserved every bit of its reputation! My drink was robust and full of flavor. I could actually feel how strong it was as I was taking my first sip. My body seemed to react a little, too; though it was still too early to know for sure whether that was the caffeine, or just the boldness of the roast itself waking me up. It turned out to be the latter, as merely a half hour after consuming this steaming cup I was already feeling the vestiges of my morning sleepiness coming back. Still, I had to begrudgingly admit to being impressed with my first Starbucks coffee ever.

Addendum:  Later that afternoon, on the insistence of some Facebook friends, I went back to Starbucks and tried their "medium" roast. Apparently it's called "Pike Place," and is supposed to be a lighter blend than the dark roast I had earlier that morning. But because the beans are not roasted for as long, the caffeine content is actually higher. I can't say that I noticed any special kick from the caffeine this time, either. It seemed that particular ship was never coming for me. But I did find the Pike Place blend to be a bit smoother and more palatable than the dark roast. I thought to myself: if I end up drinking coffee on a regular basis after this experiment is done, then this will most likely be my cup of choice. Hey, that's saying a lot!

Total Cost:  $2.02

Grade:  Dark Roast:  B-   (pretty good)
             Pike Place:   B+  (impressive!)

DAY 4 -- McDonald's.

I had intended to try Dunkin Donuts next on this day. However, when speaking to my boss--a long time coffee drinker--she informed me that Dunkin's coffee was trash, and that the famous golden arches, McD's itself, had a pretty decent cup. As the DD closest to my office was mysteriously shut down on this morning, I decided to walk the two blocks over to our local McDonald's franchise. As usual, I ordered a small cup, black, and added my now standard two packets of sugar. Upon returning to my office and removing the lid, the stench which assailed my nostrils was shocking. It smelled like death in a cup! Yes, I know I have a tendency for hyperbole, but you have to just take my word for it: this stuff smelled horrible! Like burnt trash! Or maybe something that crept up from the sewer. Oddly enough, though, the smell was fleeting. It only lasted maybe 2 or 3 seconds, tops, before retreating to a neutral state of nothingness, smell-wise. Very odd, I thought. But, being the budding caffeine researcher that I was for the week, I did my due diligence and drank the dang thing! Blech! I've never tasted something so terrible before (see what I mean--hyperbole?). It had that customary harsh aftertaste of bad coffee, sure. But to make matters worse, this brew had very little taste at all. In fact, in tasted like boiled water! Flavored only by the paper cup it had been poured into. Yuck! Once again, I had to question the taste buds of those customers who regularly consume McDonald's coffee on a daily basis. It is possible that I just happened to get a particularly bad pot that morning. But I wouldn't know, as I had no intention of ever going back to find out. Sorry, Ronald the Clown. You lost major points with me on this one.

Total Cost:  $1.09

Grade:  F  (hide your wife, hide your kids!)

DAY 5 -- Dunkin Donuts.

On this day, I located another Dunkin Donuts not far from where I worked. But after that McD's fiasco the day before, I went there with a lot of trepidation. After all, everyone was telling me that DD's coffee was even worse! Still, I had to cross it off my list. All in the name of science, you know? I will say this much: I like the cups Dunkin's coffee comes in. It's understated, yet festive. Which is actually hard to pull off. And that, my friends, is about all the kindness I can muster up for this dredge they call coffee there. The rumors were all true. This was the worst cup of coffee I've ever had. True, I'd only been drinking coffee for 5 days so far, but by now even I was developing a taste for the stuff. And whatever was in this understated yet festive cardboard cup, it was anything but tasteful. Unlike McD's, at least this one didn't have the stench of death preceding it. But just like that place, DD's coffee had virtually no taste at all. In fact, it had what I can only describe as an anti-taste. A flavor that defies your taste buds with the malice of a thousand tiny grim reapers slicing away at your tongue! This dreck was not fit to be classified as liquid, let alone called coffee. I was truly horrified. So much so that I wasn't sure I could continue on with this experiment. What was a good researcher supposed to do?

Total Cost:  $1.73

Grade:  F-  (crime against humanity)

DAY 6 -- Aroma Espresso Bar.

Hoping to put the two-day, double whammy fiasco of terrible coffee behind me, I decided to try the first of three so-called "high end" java houses in the near vicinity to my workplace. This particular place--Aroma Espresso Bar--is a chain that's apparently very popular in Israel, and only recently imported to the United States with branches opening up along the East coast. 4 stores are already in Manhattan alone, and it was to one of these branches I visited early on a very cold and blustery Day 6 of the experiment. Straight off the bat I enjoyed the menu this place displayed. For in addition to standard coffee, espresso, and lattes, they also offered café-au-laits and Turkish coffees. As coincidence would have it, I've actually tried a café-au-lait while in Paris once, and had a Turkish coffee while in Istanbul back in 2010. Both were spontaneous decisions at the time; call it travel giddiness if you will. And both were delicious! These variations always stuck in my head as a possible compromise to my lifelong distaste of standard coffee. So although I had to stick to the plan of ordering a regular black coffee from this place, I tucked the knowledge away that I would be returning here for one of the two beverages at a later date. As for the coffee itself: it was a strong, dark roast very comparable to the same offered at Starbucks. In fact, the two brews were almost exactly alike in taste and strength. I have to give the slight edge to Aroma, however, as their cup tasted just a tad smoother. And also unlike Starbucks, Aroma places a small, individually wrapped piece of chocolate on your cup before handing it to you. Now that's class! Plus--and this was a first for me this week--I actually felt the caffeine hit this time. Can you believe it? It was just a small jolt, mind you. I still felt the urge to take my afternoon nap by the time 2 o'clock rolled around later in the day. But for the morning at least, my body was alert and fully functional. And that never happened with Starbucks, even after a morning and afternoon cup from them. I was impressed!

Total Cost:  $2.00

Grade:  A-  (damn good!)

DAY 7 -- Kaffe 1668.

High off the great tasting coffee of the day before, I was pretty excited to try the next chic local coffee house on my list--an establishment called Kaffe 1668. I never did find out just what the number stood for. Was it some significant year, perhaps? Like when Europeans discovered coffee or something (my best guess)? I don't know, and I didn't feel like doing the research. But of all the places I would visit during this experiment, Kaffe 1668 was the most varied and impressive. They offered brews made from beans flown in from all over the world. Primarily Latin America and Africa, but with some Far East blends as well. I of course had to stick to the standard brew--their "daily cup" it's called--and wait off to the side as it was carefully prepared. I've never seen a more elaborate behind-the-counter setup for coffee making as what I saw here. I don't know what it was I was seeing exactly, but the baristas were moving around energetically like little elves at work. Lots of steam and milk flying everywhere! The place also had a very comfortable seating area, with the neighborhood's resident hipsters holding court around their various laptops and other mobile devices of choice. One person was even reading an old-fashioned newspaper, if you can believe it! When I brought my coffee back to the office, I was taken aback by how rich and smooth it was. This had to be the best coffee in existence, I thought. Of all the cups I've had so far, this was the only one with just the slightest hint of bitterness. Yet it was dark and quite strong. An amazing combo! I wondered what it would taste like with the proper blend of milk and sugar. I think for certain I will be visiting this place again in the near future. Even if the price per cup is rather steep. I guess you really do pay for top quality.

Total Cost: $2.43

Grade:  A  (outstanding!)

DAY 8 -- La Colombe.

At long last, the final day of this week-long experiment was here. Oh, how I suffer for science! But why an extra day, you ask? Well, it's just because I really wanted to try this one last place. I had heard that La Colombe in SoHo serves arguably the best cup of joe in the city, and so naturally I had to give it a shot. If anything just to judge it in comparison to all the other types I've had now. And what did I discover? Well .... uh, not bad really. To be honest, I thought it to be on par with Kaffe 1668. What I did like about La Cololmbe, though, is that it's very down to business with its doling out of the hot stuff. No elaborate machinery on show, no atmospheric lighting, or wide open lounges for WiFi embezzling hipsters to plop down and take root on. Really, it's just a no-frills hole in the wall on Lafayette Street with a long line leading out the door. You step up to the single long counter, place your order, pay, and step aside. It's very Soup Nazi'ish, in fact! There are a few stools and one long bench along the wall, but clearly you are meant to take your cup and get the hell out of there. Like the previous two establishments, La Colombe offers every variation of coffee you can think of, with blends from all over the world. But its basic cup is strong and flavorful all the same, if perhaps just a slight step down from Kaffe 1668's brand. And like that place, I actually did feel a caffeine kick which lasted for most of the morning. I still fell asleep on the subway ride home around noon (it was my day off), but I've already come to the conclusion that I won't ever be able to rely on coffee to change the fact that I'm not a morning person. It's just not happening. *sigh*

Total Cost:  $2.50

Grade:  A- (damn good!)



As much fun as I had introducing myself to coffee and going to all the various places that serve it here in the city these past 8 days, I must regretfully conclude that this experiment was a whopping failure. Aside from the very small and rather short-lived caffeine boost I did feel from the last three coffee spots, overall I noticed no worthwhile increase in my energy levels throughout the day. Since this was a very big impetus for starting the experiment in the first place, I have to say I'm a bit disappointed. Without that caffeine boost in the morning, why exactly would I want to waste money on expensive coffee every day? Because, let's face it, the only coffee which tastes good enough to drink every day also happens to cost over $2.00 a cup here in New York. And that's only for basic daily brews. If you want a latte or espresso, you're paying somewhere closer to $4.00 per cup! I'm convinced now that the only people who drink the cheaper dreck from Dunkin Donuts and McDonald's are those who are either: 1) cheap and delusional; 2) can only afford these drinks and these drinks only if they're going to consume it daily; or 3) so addicted to caffeine that they no longer care about taste. Or all of the above, really.

And to be honest, I'm not particularly enamored by the taste of coffee from even the high-end places. Sure, it tastes better from these establishments than at, say, your local McD's, but my palate never did acclimate to that bitter, acrid aftertaste coffee still has for me. It's clear that you probably need to be even just slightly addicted to caffeine for the taste to be acceptable. And it seems that will never be me.

So, with those two points against it, the inevitable deduction I am forced to accept is that coffee is still not, and never will be, for me.

However, what I did learn is this: if for some reason in the future I absolutely have to have a cup of coffee (say, because it's bone-chilling cold outside and I just walked 2 miles; or because I'm in a social situation where the brew is being had all around), then I will definitely visit either Starbucks or Aroma for my cup of choice. And if I have to choose between those two establishment, the edge would have to go to Aroma Espresso Bar.

It really is everything short of extraordinary, that place. To be fair, it's probably only so well run and managed by virtue of not being as popular (read: populous!) as Starbucks, and therefore does not have to contend with the throngs and throngs of crazy caffeine addicts rushing into its branches demanding their daily fix. The clientele at Aroma seem far more relaxed and refined; business professional types who flock to it to escape the zombie hordes which fill up at that other place across the street or around the corner.

Plus, unlike that other place, Aroma serves Turkish coffee. Now that I would go back for and try! And perhaps revisit on special occasions whenever that travel wanderlust in me arises and I'm unable to appease it.

So, there's always that.

And to all you coffee drinkers out there who might be disappointed that I won't be joining your ranks after all: tell me, what is your favorite coffee? Or, rather, your favorite caffeinated beverage, since I know some of you prefer your fix to come in the form of tea leaves or carbonated sugar water. It's all good, though! Simply let me know in the comments section below.


Botanist said...

A most worthy scientific expeditionary tale!

I've never understood the hype about the effects of coffee, I reckon it's really an ongoing mass hallucination this side of the Atlantic. I enjoy coffee but it's never made me or anyone I ever knew back in Britain hyper.

Of course, the vendor of choice up here in Canada is Tim Hortons :)

David Batista said...

Ian -- I just knew you were going to mention Tim Hortons. I haven't met a Canadian yet who doesn't rave about the place! :) Is it really that good? I must admit, I'm particularly curious about the donuts, which I hear are amazing there. And, who knows? If I ever find myself north of the border one of these days, maybe I'll even try a Tim Hortons coffee! I'm sure it's far superior to our Dunkin Donuts brand.

Kim Kasch said...

David: Coffee is not "good" for you. So, "good" for you not to be enamored by the liquid gold (amber) fetish like so many of us.

Yvonne said...

I don't like/drink coffee but I love the way it smells. Weird, I know. Interesting experiment of yours,good job! Confession: When you posted this on FB, I kinda had a feeling your conclusion was going to be one of a letdown. -Great minds and all... :)

David Batista said...

Kim -- Is this some form of subliminal conditioning you're attempting? Because I can already tell you it's going to take more than this to convince me coffee is really that "good." :)

Yvonne -- OMG, another one! I'm glad to see I'm not the only person who loves the way coffee smells far more than how it tastes. Are you the odd one out in your family, too, like me? I bet you are! :)

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