Working on the front lines of coffee journalism, one gets a fair amount of strange emails from publicists. Do I want to try bouillion-style cubes of coffee? Not really. Do I want to sample some “naturally caffeinated” fruit juice? Might take a pass on that. Do I want the Thermos corporation to, in a fit of truly inspired stunt-istry, overnight me a hot Thermos Brand Bottle of Ritual Coffee from San Francisco to New York to prove how awesome their Thermoses are at keeping drinks hot? Hell yeah.
The promotion is part of a larger contest. From the official Thermos Overnight Coffee Challenge press release:
To show the remarkable heat retention capabilities of Thermos brand vacuum insulated bottles, skilled baristas at Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, California, will grind and brew up fresh, hot coffee, pour it into a 40 oz. Stainless King™ Beverage Bottle, package it in a delivery box, and overnight it by plane across the country, where it will be delivered to 25 contest winners’ doorsteps, ready to be enjoyed in all its steamy, hot glory up to 24 hours later.
Throughout this year, Genuine Thermos Brand will continue the Overnight Coffee Challenge by partnering with more of the best coffee shops throughout the country. Fans are invited to nominate their favorite coffee shops to be featured in the program. Both fans and coffeehouses can nominate themselves by sharing feedback on the Thermos Facebook page or tweeting @Thermos #OvernightCoffee.
And so it became thus that my Wednesday morning coffee was prepared in San Francisco on Tuesday afternoon. 40 travel-ready ounces of Guatemalan Hacienda Carmona coffee, decanted from a Fetco brewer, brewed at 205 degrees Fahrenheit, into an airpot, and into my soon-to-be-Thermos at 179 degrees F. Pictures of the coffee’s birth arrived auspiciously on my phone as I headed out to that night’s Mets game. I was already ready for this Thermos to arrive. Locked and loaded, I boarded the 7 train, while my coffee boarded a plane for New York.
But what would happen to my hot delicious Ritual coffee en route?
I called Scott Rao, author of Everything but Espresso and other hit coffee titles, to ask what his predictions might be in terms of the impact of long-term storage on the coffee’s flavor.
“You’re familiar with ‘airpot flavor’?” said Mr. Rao, who noted that chlorogenic acids in coffee begin to break down into quinic and caffeic acids at temperatures falling below 175F–which can result in decreased acidity, and increased bitter and astringent flavors. That said, Mr. Rao was optimistic, observing that “most coffee pros have no idea how stable coffee can be in the right environment.”
And indeed, would the right environment be an Incredible Journey from the Bay to Brooklyn over 14 hours, at least six of which would be airborne?
When my morning coffee arrived just shy of 8:30am EST, I was more than ready for it. I received the Thermos Challenge box–significantly more the worse for wear than in its initial photos back at Ritual–and took it gleefully inside. (It should be noted that successfully receiving a package AT ALL at a residence in Brooklyn is a feat almost as extreme as receiving your coffee via airplane.)
Inside, what I found was impressive: no extra attempts were made to thermally package the Thermos Brand Bottle, just a bit of bubble wrap, a bag of Hacienda Carmona beans, and a few notecards. The first, a handwritten note from the folks at Ritual themselves, saying the coffee started in the Thermos at 179F. The second, a printed card from Thermos, with confusing guidelines overlapping the concepts of “best” and “optimal”:
It’s just as well that they covered all the bases: this coffee would arrive well within the “optimal drinking temperature” range” but just outside of the “best served” range. On decanting, I measured temperatures of 150F (and rapidly cooling down to the 140s when poured into either a mug or the Thermos lid cup), making a total drop in temperature of nearly 30 degrees from the original fill temp.
And the effect on flavor? Not catastrophic, but not great. What was otherwise a balanced, chocolate-forward coffee with reasonable fruit acidity became a flatter, duller expression of same. Bitter and astringent notes hadn’t crept in, but the accurate, on-the-sticker tasting note of honeydew melon had definitely gravitated toward the less delectable, underripe, rindy side of the spectrum. Dimension and body decreased, and any sense of delicacy was muddled. It had that airpot flavor, there was no doubt about it. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it had airplane-shipped Thermos flavor.
That said–we’re told that Ritual play-tested some killer 8-shot Americanos that didn’t lose any temperature at all in the Thermos, so we’ll cross our fingers and keep the faith while dreaming of that day when putting your pants on to get to the cafe are so over, and all our quad lattes are air-dropped by drone.
Find out how to take the Thermos Challenge yourself on the Thermos Facebook page. This is *not* a sponsored post, we promise.
Liz Clayton is the author of “Nice Coffee Time“, a regular columnist for Serious Eats: Drinks, and New York City chief at Sprudge.com. She writes about music for the New York Observer, and lives in Brooklyn. Read more Liz Clayton here.