Coffee Common NYC: Cream & Sugar & Wonder

 
By 21 January 2012
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In an article recently published on this website, we took issue with this post on the Coffee Common website. In its entirety, the post describes one of the service stations at New York’s Coffee Common pop-up:

“At the ingredients bar folks can taste exactly how cream and sugar make bad coffee taste better by masking it, and delicious coffee taste worse by diluting it.”

Our beef was with the whole notion of “bad” coffee vs. “good” coffee, according to the opinion of those in the know. If you missed it, that editorial is available here. We stand by our original commentary as it pertains to the above post on Coffee Common’s website.

But sometimes writing – and editorializing – can be a poor substitute for experience. Sprudge had the pleasure of attending Coffee Common NYC on Friday, January 20th; you’ll be reading lots more thoughts on our visit in the coming days, but first things first, we want to offer our own take on the “ingredients bar” at Coffee Common.

The ingredients bar offers Coffee Commoners a simple conceit: two coffees, both presented black at first, and then offered with a touch of cream and sugar. The first coffee was referred to by our Coffee Common volunteer barista as “commodity grade” – not “bad”, not “beneath your palate”, but meant to be representative of what you might find for a $1 at your local gas station or airport. The second coffee came from CC’s cache of featured roasters – when we bellied up to the ingredients bar, it was a Guatemala Puerte Verde from Heart Coffee Roasters, of Portland, Oregon.

The focus here was not on “bad” coffee vs. “special” coffee; the focus was on the ways in which we modify our coffee to taste. Coffee is a wonderfully malliable culinary experience: if you want yours a bit sweeter, a bit juicier, a bit smoother, you need only to modify the grind setting or the coffee-to-water ratio. Coffee is not like wine or beer. Because we control how it is brewed, we have the ability to make it more to our liking with careful intentionality.

In our worst prediction of what this experiment might look like, we assumed it would be akin to some sort of nightmarish wine tasting, that which paired a lovely Wilammette Valley Pinot Noir with a box of red blend Franzia, the snarky sommelier shouting “see? see? Good wine is better!” This isn’t what the experience was like at Coffee Common, not one bit.

What we found was that the commodity grade coffee triggered some profound flavor memories for the assembled Commoners. Add some cream and sugar, and we’re instantly transported back to the smokey, divey Denny’s of our youth. It’s not even that adulteration made the coffee taste “better”; it’s that the conflux of cream, sugar, and cheap coffee has a place all its own. It has its merits. It’s what got many of us hooked on coffee in the first place. There’s a reason why people love this stuff; there’s a reason why you ordered that fifth warm-up at 2:30 in the morning, 345 pages into “Catch Twenty-Two”.

But if you take that same cream and sugar and apply it to something like Heart’s Coffee Common coffee, the experience is an exercise in subtraction. Gone is the juicyness; gone is the lovely acidity; gone is that jammy quality, that Guatemalan “De Gracejos” dance of flavors we search for and proselytize on behalf of. What you end up really tasting is…cream and sugar.

It’s a fascinating exercise, and for curious consumers from outside the specialty coffee cult, the market for whom Coffee Common is most certainly intended, it’s a powerful display of why not all coffee is the same.

Some people like their coffee a bit more sweet than others. We’re willing to bet that very few people who regularly read this website achieve that sweetness with sugar. Some people prefer coffee that tastes “smooth”, whatever the hell that means, which is a whole other conversation, but again – we’re willing to bet very few Sprudge readers want that smoothness to come from the addition of cream. Coffee is a bespoke beverage: we can make it taste however we want. That’s part of the fun. It’s fun to have it all laid out for you at an experience like the Coffee Common ingredients bar. It’s a joy to drink delicious coffees like the Heart Puerte Verde.

And in the same breath, to be transported back to that lousy, nicotine-stained diner, deep deep deep inside some perfect novel, adding sugar and individually pre-packaged cream cups to what even the waitress would admit is coffee in need of a re-brew, well…we’ve known the joy in that too, and that’s a joy we never want to forget, regardless of how cool our table is in the great coffee lunchroom.

 
  • Kevin Knox says:

    “Sixty-five percent of all coffee drinkers add milk or a milk substitute to their coffee; 48 percent some kind of sweetener, according to a 2010 survey by the National Coffee Association.”
    I think those are good numbers to remember, and I doubt the percentages are much different in the countries who have the highest per-capita consumption of high quality coffee (e.g. Norway, Finland). Lots of straight shots of espresso in Italy of course, but nearly never without a good dose of sugar. It’s good for those of us who appreciate exquisite unadulterated single origin coffee to be aware of just what outliers we are. I also think it’s unrealistic to expect more than a small percentage of even the most educated customers to follow suit, and wise to remember that it’s those correcting coffee’s inherent bitterness with additives who are actually paying the bills. 

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  • Anonymous says:

    Here in SE Idaho (not Portland), I’ve taken to using words like “Bold,” (Queen City Harrar) “Smooth,” (New Guinea Okopa) and “Funky” (Bali Kintamani) during my brief interactions with my customers. You know what? They respond every time with a preference. Maybe I’ll add “Sweet” to that new El Salvador Santa Adelaida we just got in from the roaster.

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