Thursday, October 16, 2008

America's Perception of "Gourmet" Coffee

It's an enormous industry involving many players in the supply chain—the growers and farm workers, the processing mills, exporters and importers, small-batch roasters and huge commercial roasters, coffeehouses and cafes—all of who do their part to bring coffee to you, the final consumer. Coffee is the second most-highly traded commodity in the world next to oil.

Considering how large the coffee industry is, how much of what's marketed as gourmet could actually be considered truly gourmet coffee? Which, unfortunately, doesn't seem to apply to the coffee most Americans drink on a daily basis. By definition, it implies rare, expensive, high-quality, or at least sophisticated in some form of its preparation and service. You'll find one word dominates the label rhetoric: "Gourmet." Gourmet, it's such a over-used term. Take a walk down the coffee aisle of a grocery store and read the labels.

In fact, the reality is they're much likelier selling the exact opposite of high quality coffee beans. That being the case, it becomes hard to believe the ads and labels on store shelves claiming rich, delicious, gourmet coffee. Sad to say, it's estimated only 10 percent of coffee sold is considered poor to satisfactory in quality.

Dark roasting covers a multitude of sins, including any flavor flaws. It's precisely because of their low quality. While there are some specific coffees that taste wonderful as a dark roast, there's a reason most coffee today is roasted so dark. Not necessarily true. Somehow the influential marketing gurus at roasting companies have managed to convince the masses that dark roasted coffee equals gourmet coffee. For instance, consider the ever applauded Dark Roast.

Why use expensive, high-grade beans for flavored coffee, since the natural flavors themselves will never be detected over the added flavorings of Irish cream, French Vanilla, or Hazelnut. And then there's flavored coffee—a low-quality bean masquerading as gourmet coffee.

And for a true connoisseur of coffee, that's what you should be looking for. A lighter roast shows that the roaster has confidence in the quality of the beans. Of course the actual lightness of the roast will depend on your personal taste. Similar to grilling a steak, a great coffee will often taste great as rare to medium, or, in coffee terms, light to medium. Though the marketing says otherwise, coffee that is indeed gourmet should never require extensive roasting.


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