In the spectrum of coffee, the two poles are the crappy grounds your parents drink and the new-school roasters who're trekking through jungles to find the fairest of traded beans. But in between exists a middle ground: the second-wave roasters, who brought espresso drinks to the masses despite their inability to spell even the simplest names.
To judge how these titans of the industry stack up, we enlisted Lorenzo Perkins -- certified coffee instructor at Cuvée and executive council member of the Barista Guild of America -- to put five of these second-gen roasters to the test. And to keep him honest, we snuck in the champion of our last taste-test (Community) and a ringer: a bag of small-batch from the roaster ranked most favorably in our poll of coffee geeks, Counter Culture.
Community, Seattle's Best, Starbucks, Caribou, Peet's, Lavazza, and, the ringer, Counter Culture.
To keep things as honest as possible, we had another Cuvée employee brew the beans and didn't divulge to Lorenzo which brands he'd be tasting. When "cupping" coffee, tasters always brew pour-over style and make more than one cup to account for irregularities in a batch of beans... so that's what we did too.
First, we had our taster do a round of smells, getting his nose right up in there and breaking the seal of the grounds to unleash a torrent of aromas. Then the coffee went through several rounds of tastings to see how the flavors developed as they cooled. This is how they ranked:
7. SEATTLE'S BEST
Aromas: Really nasty, rubbery
First flavors: Carbon, lack of sweetness, smoke, tar
Second flavors: What flavor existed fell apart and turned into burnt caramel, according to Perkins.
6. COMMUNITY COFFEE
Aromas: Caramel, candy bar
First flavors: Neutral and blandish. A little gamey. Moderate acidity, but doesn't really taste like anything.
Second flavors: Falls apart and loses its structure and body. Perkins even calls it "leathery." And this was the champ of our mainstream coffee test!
Aromas: Cardboard, peanut shell... just generally weird
First flavors: It tastes like they're older beans; cardboard and papery. There's some acidity, but it's not very balanced.
Second flavors: The acidity becomes more pronounced, and a more rounded character emerges with hints of red cherry and overripe strawberry. The paper notes are still there, though, and it's a big turn-off.
4. PEET'S COFFEE
Aromas: Dark chocolate
First flavors: Cigar-like... and not a great cigar. More like a Philly. But there's some sweetness -- bittersweetness, but still sweetness -- despite tasting super dark.
Second flavors: The flavors hold up. The darkness would lend itself well to cream.
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