Fall is here, and while I may want to pound the table with my head demanding that Seattle give me more summer (the second of its two seasons), I have resigned myself to lying down on my desk and repeatedly pumping the nearby Zojirushi SR-AG30 until all 101 ounces of coffee are in me, and then sloshing back down into my seat.
I’m not alone in this. Make no mistake – fall is the official beginning of coffee season. The shops and corporations that have survived the air conditioning bills and low-brow-latte scofflaws during the summer months are desperate to get your attention and to assure you they will be the key to keeping your tongue warm and your eyes open during the short days and long meetings in the months ahead.
All coffee shops will be rolling out their latest coffees; a fair amount of these will be Central and South American coffees that are in season. Alongside these will be a raft of flavorings to add to your coffee and even, gasp, flavored coffees.
What’s wrong with flavoring coffee, you ask?
Besides giving Dennis Leary a conniption, the short answer is “lots”. Different coffee species and cultivars are grown in different conditions (sun, soil makeup, adjacent crops, native animals, no not THAT one) around the world, employing different processing methods, and it’s these factors that influence the flavors inherent in a coffee. Roasting and brewing the coffee can only magnify what’s already there. While the result of the growing, processing, roasting and brewing will almost always be described as coffee, the flavors present can range everywhere from “toffee and earth” to “candy-lemon”.
The inimitable Dan Telfer will be the first to admit his pumpkin spice latte bathing habits, but if you’re buying a cup of quality-roasted, properly-prepared, well-grown coffee, there should be no need to add vanilla and chocolate sprinkles to the point that you need an electric mixer to keep your coffee in liquid form. Each different coffee has its own tasty flavors already baked in. Adding creamers and flavorings can only mask the good flavors and turn your tasty coffee into a hazelnut caffeine delivery system. To borrow from the wine analogy, do you routinely plunk pretzel-bites into your cabernet? Let’s hope not. Similarly, flavoring coffee beans directly has much the same effect. Towards the end of the roasting process, chemical flavoring is added and adheres to the outside of each bean. It tends to gum up coffee grinders, so often flavored coffees are sold pre-ground. Even with Starbucks recent addition of more naturalish coffee flavorings, it’s an admission of defeat: “this coffee’s not so great, so can I cover it up with some cinnamon instead?”
Having said that, until Starbucks initiates phase 2, there will always be times where you need to make do with the tools at hand, but I encourage you to at least try your coffee unadulterated. Your eyes will be opened to all the great (and terrible) coffees out there and you might just learn something. A fantastic way to try new coffees is to hit up your favorite cafes and ask when they’re holding tastings, cuppings, or even informational sessions. You’ll get free coffee out of it and if they play their cards right, the cafe will get a new customer.
If you have burning coffee questions that would make interesting Nerdist Coffee fodder, please @me or add a comment below .
Images: Terroir, Stumptown