Silly me. I knew we were out of coffee at home yet I didn't get to a decent coffeehouse in time to buy a bag for this morning's cup.
And it was the second time this week we made that egregious error.
Which left the supermarket for this morning's coffee. Earlier this week it was Melanie doing the emergency coffee. She went to Market District (Giant Eagle) and bought a half pound of an organic Mexico. It was not good. It wasn't even Kiva Han quality, which is saying something. Baggy and old tasting, obvious defects in the beans. No significant tasting notes other than old and nastily herbaceous. Surprisingly no chocolate at all, perhaps the flavor one would most associate with Mexico. In other words, just a big cup of yecch. Part of that is the low quality of beans, their age and storage in transport/warehousing, part of that is the rapid air roasting combined with open bin storage.
I could've warned my wife against the in-store roasted stuff. I suppose if your taste is to french roast, you can find something you'll like at Market District/Giant Eagle because it almost doesn't matter what you use for beans when you're roasting to near-black and oily. Most of their in-store roasting offerings are quite dark and oily.
But we're not the kind who drinks that stuff. We don't want even the vaguest hint of carbon flavor in our coffee. Absolutely no french roast. No Peet's. No traditional Starbucks blends. No to anything that smells burnt (which we can usually test by squeezing a bag, which will expel some odor through the one-way valve).
Yesterday was my turn to go shopping. I look around the aisle. I see a lot of silly marketing on bags and labels ("antioxidants!" "extra strength!" "low acid!") targeted to those who are not drinking coffee for taste but for addiction (and really, coffee is pretty healthy on its own).
Our goal on this trip is to find a medium-roast whole bean coffee that's relatively fresh. We don't have high expectations and recognize we'd do much better at our local independent coffeehouse. But it's too late for that. We're already lost in the supermarket.
I see brightly colored bags suggestive of the tropics (Jim's) and bold simplistic designs (Joe) along with familiar brands like Eight O'Clock, Peets, Starbucks and Dunkin. There are bags with cute brand names, Italian brand names, British brand names (?!). Yellow bags, orange bags, black bags, green bags, red bags... even plaid bags.
I'm guessing there are about two dozen different brands of bagged arabica coffee (not counting the robusta-heavy cans and jars from the big four producers) with anywhere from two to 12 different offerings for each brand on the shelf. There are numerous espresso and "breakfast" blends, a whole lot of decaf, french roast and flavored stuff, a number of Colombia origin beans and a few Sumatrans. Not much for other origins (and next to nothing for specific farms).
The only medium roasts are offered by Eight O'Clock, Dunkin Donuts, Gevalia and Starbucks' new "Blonde" offering.
The selection is about 4:1 ground vs. whole bean, meaning 80% of what's available for purchase is already guaranteed to be stale. Of the remaining 20% that's whole bean, you can assume most of that is well on its way to staleness, since there are no roast dates, only "use by" dates which can be as far as a year out from roast date depending on brand.
I was willing to try to Starbucks Blonde. But it was only available as pre-ground. I looked at the Gevalia medium roast. Same thing, pre-ground only.
So of the dozens of brands and hundreds of offerings available, there were but two choices for someone like me who wanted whole bean and a medium roast: Eight O'Clock or Dunkin Donuts.
Before I became part of the Specialty Coffee universe I was an Eight O'Clock fan. In New England, it (along with Millstone) were often the only two whole bean coffees at most supermarkets in the 90s. Back then - before Dunkin was on the shelves - even someone with no coffee experience knew Eight O'Clock was by default the freshest coffee available.
But I'd never bought a bag of Dunkin. Having recently been in Connecticut for three months, I knew I could drink the brew bought at store nearest our office in Milford black. It wasn't the tastiest stuff, but it wasn't horrible, especially if you got a fresh pot. And there weren't many other options even in the winter of 2011/2012 in that part of Connecticut.
What the heck. Let's buy it.
(NB - from this point on, the post is less about supermarket "choice" which has already been proven as dismal, and more about how to brew the stuff. Geekery to pursue, proceed at your own risk).
I'm not sure how people brew this stuff at home, but I do know that i they're following the directions on the bag there's a good chance they're doing it wrong. To wit:
"This bag makes up to 40 cups (6 fl oz each) of that great Dunkin Donuts taste."
"Measure one heaping tablespoon* of ground coffee per 6 fl. oz. of water (adjust to taste)"
"* This coffee is specially blended and roasted to acheive the signature Dunkin Donuts taste of home. We recommend using 1.5 tablespoons of ground cofee per 6 fl. oz. of water.
I don't know why they'd give two conflicting sets of directions on how to brew a cup of Dunkin (a "heaping tablespoon" vs. "1.5 tablespoons"). Pick one and commit to it. It's confusing.
There are 340.2 grams of coffee in this 12 ounce bag. A six ounce cup should normally require about 10-11 grams of ground coffee (about a 16:1 water/grounds ratio). That would imply 34 cups or less, not 40. The instructions are telling people to brew overextracted (weak) coffee. In addition to being watered down, this overextraction would produce more notes on the bitter end of the taste spectrum. I'm not sure why they recommend this.
Pehaps this is your taste, and if so, go for it. But if you've tried Dunkin in the past and find it somewhat bitter (or maybe you're intpreting the taste as sour) try adding more grounds to your coffee filter.
Brewed to SCAA standards (let's assume no scales used, we're talking roughly two tablespoons for a six ounce yield) the cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee is actually not bad. It's even slightly better using a little less than two tablespoons (which is about a half ounce.)
In fact, using SCAA guidelines, you'd only get about 24-25 six-ounce cups from a 12 ounce bag. So Dunkin's second (asterisked) brew formula for 1.5 tablespoons isn't far off. Assuming you're not grinding too finely, your average tablespoon of coffee is around 7.25g. So 1.5 tablespoons gets you to 10.875g. I'm using 12, which is in between the SCAA guidelines (two tablespoons being 14.5g) and what Dunkin itself recommends with their asterisk. YMMV.
If you are using scales, it's much easier to be exact. A good place to start with the math formulas needed to brew a proper cup is here. I don't usually weigh water for our home Technivorm. I use a formula that I need twice the grams of ground coffee to the number of ounces of water I'm pouring in (e.g. if I'm putting 24 ounces of water into the brewer, I need 48 grams of coffee). This will invariably produce a cup with an extraction in the 18% extraction range (+/- 1). And yes, I've measured it with a refractometer and software designed for this purpose. If I wanted to be more accurate it would be easy to do, but I find that overkill for our morning pot.
(Note that temperature also plays a key role and you really want one of these to brew with.)
Sorry to get sidetracked with that bit of geekiness. The main point is that the Dunkin cup, brewed to Trier Coffee standards in our house, offers up quite a bit of pleasant cherry notes and some baker's chocolate in the hot cup, along with an underlying (and not pleasant) taste of old licorice. No sign of baggy flavors or age. Unfortunately the cup breaks down a bit as it cools, becoming noticeably flatter as much of the fruit disappears.
I've had a handful of coffees from "third wave" roasters that I enjoyed less. And which cost much more.
It's worth noting that Dunkin coffee is scrupulously tested in what's probably the best coffee lab in the country (Coffee Labs in Burlington, VT). I've been to the lab and seen dozens of 5 lb bags of Dunkin waiting to be tested for just about everything a coffee could be tested for. Leaving taste preference aside, with that knowledge you can be relatively assured that Dunkin will at least be fairly reliably consistent bag to bag.
I'm not suggesting Dunkin is good enough to become the defacto coffee in our house. Far from it. We'll always opt for fresher roasts of a myriad of single origin coffees that allow us to continue to expand our tasting experiences and broaden our knowledge of taste profiles for coffee-growing regions and microclimates and what 'signatures' a given roaster might impart to those coffees.
Unfortunately I'm not going to find those options in a supermarket. Not Giant Eagle. Not Trader Joe's. Not even Whole Foods (which surprisingly offers very few medium-roast single origins despite featuring more local roasters at its stores).
So when we're dissing "supermarket coffee" it's often not just the blue cans and the red cans of really stale robusta blends. It's pretty much everything in the aisle.
At least we now know we can live with Dunkin Donuts in a pinch.