Theres an awful lot of coffee
and a lot of it isnt
City saves 3 cents a pot buying out-of-state brew instead of Lansings
Paramount; drinkers cant tell difference
By DANIEL STURM
What would the world be like without coffee? This question came to mind
when I read that City Hall spent $20,000 each year on this caffeinated
drink. Without tasting those black beans in the morning, would city
employees be able to wake up? Would they finally switch to drinking
black tea? I thought of Gustav III, the 18th century King of Sweden
who believed coffee was poisonous. During his regency he enforced what
he believed to be a death penalty forcing convicted murderers to drink
one cup of coffee a day until it eventually destroyed their health.
King Gustav decided to perform an experiment, forcing a second murderer
to drink a cup of tea each day thus proving, he thought, that
coffee was poisonous. Unfortunately the tea drinker died first.
no doubt about that coffee can be an engine strong enough to run an
entire system, whether of an individual or collective. Take the citys
decision to buy coffee out-of-state: In March 2001 Mayor David Hollister
signed the Finance Departments recommendation to buy most of the
citys coffee from Interstate Gourmet Coffee Roasters in South
Easton, Mass. Since then, many city employees are no longer sipping
a bottomless cup of homebrew java, roasted by Paramount, on Larch Street
across from Oldsmobile Park, but one of Bostons Best.
Why? Its because of a better price, a Purchasing Department
employee said. Via the Freedom of Information Act, City Pulse found
out that the difference is a mere 3 cents per package. Bostons
Best costs 40 cents for 1.3 ounces, whereas Paramount offered the city
a rate of 43¢ per package. Presuming an annual budget of $20,000
City Hall will safe $1,500 per year by purchasing its coffee in Massachusetts.
this money it seems hard to understand why City Hall would ignore a
local coffee roaster, which has been in business since 1935. A city
ordinance states a preference for local bidders if offers
are equal, and this has become the mantra of politicians wishing to
support regional businesses. When I asked city officials why they worked
to attract local businesses, but disfavored those already in Lansing,
Senior Buyer Stephanie Boggs said the decision to switch to Bostons
Best wasnt based only on better pricing, but also on a better
This brought City Pulse to the idea of hosting a blind coffee taste
test. Do beans from Boston really taste better than those roasted in
Lansing? That would be the question. To my surprise it wasnt easy
to find test judges. City of Lansing employees kindly declined, the
whole thing having supposedly become too political after City Pulse
reported that the city bought twice as much Bostons Best as Paramount
in the last fiscal year, whereas in the previous two years it bought
virtually all its coffee from Paramount. Looking for community leaders
to participate, I asked MSU Trustee Dorothy Gonzales and community gay
activist Bob Egan, but both admitted to being tea drinkers. In the end
our six committed judges were: Internet analyst Bonnie Bucqueroux, MSU
hospitality professor Jeff Elsworth, chemistry doctoral student Fadi
Asfour, City Pulse publisher Berl Schwartz, distribution manager Paul
Shore and arts editor Elaine Yaw. The local coffee house king Bob Fish,
co-founder of Beaners, served as the master of ceremonies.
Theres never a right or wrong, Fish advised, because
were all different in our makeup. Fish had prepared five
sorts of office coffee, freshly brewed in air pots never before used.
Bostons Best and Paramount were among the sorts. Judges were to
go through a procedure of five testing rounds, and to evaluate the different
java sorts marked as A, B, C, D and E on a sheet of paper.
This wheel helped the taste testers decide how the coffee tasted
to them fruity, nutty, earthy, acidic. Bob Fish, right, introduced
everybody to the technique of coffee tasting, which included judging
aroma, body, flavor, and initial and finish taste. There is no right
or wrong, he said, because all coffee drinkers arent the same.
introduced everybody to the technique of coffee tasting, which included
judging aroma, body, flavor, and initial and finish taste. He stressed
the importance of measuring identical weights of coffee in order to
get comparable test results (we used 1.55 ounces per pot, the amount
typically used in office coffee pots and roughly one ounce less than
the dose for premium coffee sorts). Impressed enough, hospitality professor
Jeff Elsworth asked Bob Fish: Would you like to give a lecture
in my beverage class? The last time, this author experienced such
a grand event was at a wine-testing ceremony along the French Loire
Two vineyard owners had rosy cheeks and were acting funny, due to the
red wine theyd sipped all day. That would be no danger here, but
I did worry a little about caffeine shock.
When you sip the coffee you need to first suck it into your lip,
then you have to soak it in, let it go to the back of your mouth, and
let it sit there for a while, Fish explained. After a meditative
pause during which most judges practiced the suggested techniques, Bonnie
Bucqueroux replied, I guess Ill slurp it down.
Unfortunately, the judges were receiving just a short crash course,
Fish said. He presented a flavor wheel to advise them in
grading the coffee sorts. Fish explained some of the possible descriptions,
which were similar to those in wine tasting fruity, nutty, earthy,
winy, acidic, tannin, dark and light. On the flavor wheel, coffee could
even be described to taste like kerosene, because it had
sat next to a diesel engine while being shipped to the vendor. Fish
pointed out that there could be no absolute objectivity, as judges were
influenced by variables such as that weve smelled coffee
brewing for 20 minutes and the test room itself. In an industrial
setting, he said, we test coffee in a white room totally free
of any chemicals.
After an hour of sipping and grading, judges turned in their grades.
Chemistry doctoral student Fadi Asfour wanted to go through another
three rounds (natural sciences require an experiment to be repeated
at least three times). Perhaps this might not have been a bad idea,
considering that the results didnt show significant differences
between the five competing coffee sorts. We have five different
judges and five different opinions so what is good coffee?
Fish summarized the ambiguous picture: Mocha Java, the worlds
oldest coffee ground, received 96 out of 150 possible points, followed
by the mainstream Java Maxwell House (90). Bostons Best, Paramount
and Beaners were tied with 86 points each. Aroma was the only
category where differences varied significantly. Here Mocha scored best
again with 22 out of 30 possible points, followed by Paramount (19),
Maxwell House and Beaners Best (both 17), and Bostons Best
This surprising result led to an inspiring debate about intercultural
coffee drinking habits. How is it possible to dislike the aroma of coffee
(smell), but at the same time praise its flavor (taste)? Bucqueroux
presented a plausible solution of this supposed paradox. A coffee
might taste awkward and unbalanced, but you could still like it!
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