Friday, April 08, 2005

ted lingle's right again, or the day i feel sorry for oren's & folgers

once a long, long time ago, scaa chief ted lingle said to me "people prefer what they remember." and i saw this so clearly today at the abc news 20/20 coffee "taste test" at the steinhardt center on w. 67th.

this is to appear on the 22nd with john stossel. i have no idea how the event will be edited, so the "reality i blog" may not appear as the "reality they air." and i further have to say that i couldn't really take notes, so i hope i remember everything correctly. . . .

i first heard of this event from r. badgett, and then i received an email from mike ferguson of scaa. 20/20 was going to disprove the food "myth" that more "expensive coffee tastes better than cheap coffee," as it was billed.

needless to say, we were all afraid that they were going to stack the cards against specialty and in favor of supermarket coffee. so i applied to go and be a tester.

out i sailed on my lunch hour to check it out. the steinhardt center i was familiar with from my former life on riverside drive, so i quickly settled in on the posh and comfy patterned sofas with one of the forwards waiting on the coffee table.

the first person who caught my eye was a tall, elegant man who looked immediately to me like a coffee pro, maybe a taster -- he had that air. and i was completely correct, as he turned out to be richard bertagna, who described himself as the roastmaster for millstone.

the other average "coffee lovers" there were mostly women, some from staten island; only 2 men put in an appearance. however, coffee being a small, small world, i also saw the prize-winning paul perry from long-time bccy pals bunn -- there to set up the brewing equipment and the bunn ts airpots (made by zojirushi) -- and one of my favorite people ever, genevieve felix from oren's.

also present as the consulting coffee expert was one kevin sinnott, who i'd never met in person before. ok, so after some waiting we were herded into a black room with 2 tables, each of which had 3 airpots, numbered 1 to 6.

the sound guy wandered around with his boom. we had no idea what the coffees were; it was a truly blind tasting.

we were given a simple "cupping form" with check boxes -- bad, average, great -- and also a box to choose our favorite of the 6. the cups were waxy paper, and really smelled like plastic. . .

so the 12 or so of us start milling about. because the cups smelled so bad -- like when you tear open those plastic dry-cleaning bags, you know? -- i actually used my scaa silver cupping spoon to sample from them.

the first coffee was moderately bright, with some caramel and vanilla. but it was, to my lights, brewed quite weak. without a doubt, no 55-60g per liter here!

and others in the room also commented on how weak the coffees all looked just from seeing it in the column of the airpots. anyway, i thought number one had to oren's immediately, because it was the only one with any spectrum of flavors.

but i am of course familiar with his coffees!

the second coffee was bright and had a harsh aftertaste, also weak. it tasted like millstone to me -- it had the not-quite-fresh, central-y taste that always says, well, millstone. i found the third coffee a massively, displeasingly bright brew, a little ashy, and weak.

coffee number 4 immediately smelled like dead skunk mixed with hot tar: it was obviously instant, probably nescafe. it was so gross i couldn't even drink it; both genevieve and i tossed it in the trash.

coffee number 5 was also obviously starbucks. it had that flat, burnt, turpeny taste that's just the mermaid all over. i was stunned that this character carried through even when brewed weakly.

number 6 was a stale, bland, commercial coffee with a short aftertaste; or maybe i was just tasting the paper cup. i had no idea what it was.

half-n-half and sugar were provided and a fair number of "tasters" sampled the coffees that way.

so the producers took the ballots, i talked to kevin s. some, and then we were all led upstairs to a little studio where stossel did his little thing. what struck me was that there were people in the audience who i didn't see doing tasting.

some of these appeared to be news interns, shipped in to boost the numbers for the camera. a couple of these appeared to be ringers -- they described themselves as "not really coffee drinkers." one insisted he drank street coffee from the quilted metal carts, because he liked it weak like tea.

this was immediately suspicious, as i didn't see this guy actually tasting, and further, the street coffee from the classic nyc metal cart isn't usually overly weak. it is many bad things, but not usually really weak. . .

ok, so the results were read: starbucks was the most popular. not surprising, given ted's statement above: the mermaid has the most memorable taste.

after that came sam's club (coffee number 6, with that bland taste that goes so well when drowned in cream), then oren's, then ironically nescafe, then millstone, and in last place, the neon-bright coffee number 3, dean & deluca.

one woman unknowingly chose nescafe as her number one coffee. when this was pointed out to her, she said that she was from the town in which it was made: ted's rule in action! nescafe is obviously her "base" childhood coffee memory.

please note that richard from millstone didn't taste.

he cited my hair perfume/body lotion as the reason why -- i always wear as little plain vanilla as possible when dealing with coffee because even many "unscented" products are actually scented with a masking aroma, as oren once informed me when my unscented hand lotion bothered him -- but it was a wise move, in retrospect. clearly richard had been down this road before and was wise to the set-up.

stossel immediately started in with the slant: he read the prices of the different coffees and encouraged audience reaction at the "high" prices. "US$12 a pound!" he exclaimed. "can you believe it? that's what the dean & deluca costs!"

i managed not to interject that i would happily pay much more for a beautiful cup of excellence or kona coffee.

after taking a quick inventory of how we each felt about coffee -- i said only "it is the most passionate and romantic beverage" -- stossel immediately went to town on poor genevieve.

"why does your coffee cost so much?" he demanded of genevieve. she attempted to explain that she and oren buy only on quality, and that top quality costs top dollar. but the colombia from oren we "tasted" there retails for only US$8.99 -- a far cry from the dean & deluca, or even oren's more expensive coffees.

that's when it became clear that stossel had it in for the coffee pros. i suddenly understood why the mermaid and the other firms didn't send anyone to represent them.

he hounded genevieve with what seemed to me a rather sarcastic tone: "so why does your coffee cost so much when it only came in third in the test?"

i would have broken into tears, personally. but spunky french genevieve fought back. "hey, these coffees were pretty weak," she said. "at oren's we brew them correctly, more richly, and the full flavor comes out."

stossel turned to richard: "and your coffee, it came in second to last. yet it costs nearly US$6 a pound. how do you explain that?" richard had a good answer, probably from a p.r. firm: "folgers is the number one coffee in america, based on taste and value. americans vote with their cups at home every day."

and no matter how hard stossel poked at him, richard didn't budge from that reply. but of course his dark-roasted french coffee wasn't going to be popular among a bunch of light-roast lovin' new yorkers, now was it? not to mention, that it is, after all, folgers.

this was the first moment i have ever felt sorry for a "big four" firm. write it down. . .

one fellow taster mentioned that he liked scaa roasters guild member raven's brew, and another woman, long-time bccy pal green mountain. but she was ignored by stossel because the raven's brew guy was pretty loud, a "live wire," as stossel said.

the last segment they taped was poor genevieve discussing the brew strength with kevin s. he claims he brewed it with 3.25 oz. ground coffee to 64 oz. water.

but i doubt it. i really really doubt it, altho' i did see him carrying around a flat black object that looked like a salter kitchen scale.

if so, then the brewing water was definitely too cold, or the grind off, because that, my friends, was weak, underextracted coffee. paul perry told me later he didn't bring a tds meter with him, so we couldn't prove anything.

depending on how they edit this piece of bad faith, it could be really harsh on poor genevieve. i immediately called oren as soon as it was over.

genevieve was in good spirits, however, and went back to work. she's definitely a "better man than i, gunga din!"

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