I’ve been as avid a coffee drinker as anyone since about 1999, early in my college days. I quickly transitioned to black coffee at some point around 1999-2000 and I’ve drank it that way since. If black coffee’s an acquired taste, I acquired it rather quickly.
In Vegas I hung out almost religiously at the infamous underground hub Cafe Espresso Roma, at least until it closed for good in 2002-2003 or so. This indirectly got me hooked on the habit of visiting and hanging out at coffeehouses. I got to know Seattle’s coffeehouses during my 10+ years there, and after moving to Chicago in 2014 I got to know a good deal of theirs as well.
After returning to Vegas, I had found a few decent coffee hangouts before Coronavirus struck and closed everything for several months.
When working, I typically drank whatever black coffee the office made available, though in my later Chicago years I bought and started using a French Press to prepare coffee at home. It certainly helped me during the extreme sub-zero days in January 2019 when we worked from home and couldn’t really go outside without risking death. The French Press followed me to Vegas, and once I resumed working I began bringing my French Pressed coffee to work in a sealed ceramic cup.
It’s worth noting that when I prepare my coffee, I technically water it down. I press with 3 scoops of coarse ground coffee, as that equals a 12 oz serving of most coffee. This means to fill a 17 oz ceramic cup I’m adding more water than is needed, effectively watering down my coffee.
When I briefly experimented last month with drinking a nootropic blend from Vitacup, I only used two scoops (equal to 8oz) to press because it had a higher caffeine content. This meant the coffee was even more watered down, though the coffee used was so strong I didn’t notice any negative difference.
In any case, Coronavirus lockdowns struck down all coffeehouse visits for several months, so I drank my French Pressed coffee at home every single morning. It certainly saved me a lot of money each month, as these coffeehouse visits (while inexpensive per visit) did add up over the months.
But when coffeehouses re-opened, and I started visiting these coffee places again… I found the coffee at my Vegas hangouts not just strong, but at most I found the taste surprisingly unpleasant. On Tuesday in fact I bought a cup of coffee while I was out since I couldn’t press a cup that morning. I ended up throwing out half of that 12oz cup. I couldn’t stand what was skunky taste to me, and this was a place whose coffee I previously liked.
Other than possibly the beans sitting for months (which honestly is not unusual), I couldn’t figure out why suddenly I didn’t like coffeeshop coffee anymore.
It has now occurred to me what changed: The months of drinking my watered down French Press coffee soured me on the taste of coffeehouse coffee for these reasons:
1) I use purified water from a closed source, and French Pressing always allows you to be selective with the water source. Coffeehouses will just use heated tap water to brew. Sometimes they might use an osmosis filter, but that’s basically tap. The tap water in Vegas is pretty bad quality, and because the water quality is bad, it diminishes my relative taste of the coffee brewed with it.
2) As mentioned, my French Press coffee is watered down. This thins and isolates the taste of the pressed coffee. Plus, again, I only use enough ground for myself to have one large cup. Regular drip meanwhile is brewed with a lot more coffee grounds, and they’re often more finely ground, which effectively gets more coffee into more of the water. This is going to thicken the taste of the coffee for me. When the coffee is good, this is great. When the coffee is not so great, the saturation exaggerates any badness of the coffee for me.
3) Since my coffee is French Pressed with hot water and carried in a sealed ceramic cup, it retains its heat and I always drink my coffee rather hot. Regular drip coffee is great when it’s brewed fresh and very hot. But drip coffee quickly loses quality once it has sat for more than an hour. This is actually why Starbucks as a policy dumps whatever drip coffee they have every two hours. Most coffeehouses don’t have a dump schedule, and often (as I did two days ago) if you get it later in the morning that coffee has been sitting for several hours. Skunked.
Because I’m now accustomed to drinking fresh, hot coffee out of a French Press, I now more than ever definitely notice the skunky taste of regular drip coffee that is not fresh.
It’s not that the quality of coffeehouse coffee has gone down or has always been bad. It’s that, unless it’s impeccably prepared (which outside of an expensive pour-over, Aeropress, French Press or other personally prepared cups, it’s not going to be impeccably prepared), I’m going to notice the badness in any cup of coffee.
It’s nothing against these places. It’s just the way my palate evolved as a result of drinking my own French Press coffee every day for months.
The only takeaway from this is not to never go drink coffee at coffeehouses again, but just to either spend extra for pour-over or similarly custom-made coffee when it’s available, or to go to these places first thing in the morning when I know the drip’s going to be freshly prepared.
(Or you could say “Just go to Starbucks” and sure that’s probably a better option after the early morning. But, as many know, their bean roasts are also over-burned and the taste while consistently palatable is always over-burned. Given the option, I’ll pass.)