America's Perception of "Gourmet" Coffee


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Coffee is the second most-highly traded commodity in the world next to oil. 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.

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

Sad to say, it’s estimated only 10 percent of coffee sold on the global market is of excellent quality. Meaning, 90 percent of coffee sold is considered poor to satisfactory in quality. That being the case, it becomes hard to believe the ads and labels on store shelves claiming rich, delicious, gourmet coffee. In fact, the reality is they’re much likelier selling the exact opposite of high quality coffee beans.

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

And then there’s flavored coffee—a low-quality bean masquerading as gourmet coffee. 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.

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

- Denver Wilkinson is founder, and currently head roaster of Cafe Avion , a roasting company based in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, that specializes in small-batch roasting of exclusively organic and fair trade coffees. “There’s a whole world of coffee out there (quite literally) and so many natural flavors to experience, don’t settle for the mediocre stuff. The darker the roast, the less likely you’ll experience the subtle apricot flavors in a great Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, or the blueberry notes in a wonderful Harrar, or the earthy, ripened notes of a great Sumatran Mandheling. " Adds Wilkinson: “I’m on a personal mission to undo the myth of the dark roast. "


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