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Supermarket Coffee vs. Specialty Store Coffee: Are They Really So Different?

by Rosemary Furfaro

Among the many modern "conveniences" of the technology revolution was ground coffee in vacuum packed cans. This type of coffee, available on supermarket shelves, has become the largest percentage of coffee sold in America, making up over 90% of all coffee consumed in the United States. Until the recent culinary explosion in this country, grinding your own coffee beans to make your cup of "joe" was an uncommon practice for most people.

The beans used for these canned (and instant) coffees are called Coffea Robusta. They grow on a species of coffee tree that was first discovered growing wild at low altitudes in Uganda in the late 19th century. By the way, I did say coffee tree. Many people think coffee grows on conveniently sized 4 foot high bushes because of Juan Valdez and his televised coffee adventures. On the contrary, coffee trees, if left unpruned, can reach up to approximately thirty feet. Coffea Robusta tend to be a hardier, more disease-resistant bean which are less expensive to maintain and produce a higher yield than other commercial beans. Harvesting and drying of the beans is often less careful resulting in off flavors at times due to irregularities in the bean. Consequently these are used for the less expensive supermarket canned and instant coffees.

But does all this mean pre-ground canned coffee tastes any worse or any better than fresh ground whole bean coffees? Certainly, if nothing else, freshness would be a concern when buying supermarket coffees.

Canned supermarket coffee tends to taste thin and lifeless to me if I follow the recommended brewing instructions. Upon opening, the coffee can have either a flat bouquet or sometimes a faintly pleasant, sweet-spicy aroma. Unfortunately, I find this light fragrance falls short in the end product, which is a great disappointment. I've tried to vary the coffee to water ratio in hopes of improving the flavor but only find the coffee tastes unpleasantly stronger and bitter or sour, not richer as one hopes. So, apart from the physiological effects that manifest with that first cup, I find it difficult to support the majority of the American public in their enjoyment of drinking canned pre-ground coffee.

The other bean that makes up the small difference (about 8%) in this country's coffee consumption is called Coffea Arabica. It is the variety sold as whole beans in all specialty coffee stores and is the bean of choice for coffee connoisseurs as well as beginning coffee lovers.

Arabicas generally grow at higher altitudes and cooler temperatures than their grocery store cousins. These were discovered in West Africa and introduced to England in the late 1800's. They are higher quality, lower yielding estate grown beans which are hand picked, resulting in higher priced beans.

Before I was an arabica whole bean convert, I once considered if these beans were worth the vast difference in price, which is as much as $3.00 to $7.00 more per pound than canned supermarket varieties. Surely the cost difference alone is enough to make one seriously reconsider any compelling reasons to switch to whole bean coffee. If you are a coffee lover, as I am, who savours the whole coffee making and drinking experience, then the answer is a resounding yes!

First, let's dispel any question about the cost of coffee. One pound of whole beans will make 40 six-ounce cups. If you bought the most expensive specialty coffee at $12 a pound, you would be paying 30 cents for a cup of coffee. Coffee harvesting is labor intensive requiring approximately 2,000 hand picked and hand sorted beans for every pound of coffee so you are actually getting a bargain in every cup.

Second, from the moment you open your bag of freshly roasted beans you will begin a multi-sensual coffee experience. Your eyes will first see the rich-looking, oily beans. Your nose will draw in the fragrances which can range from sweet florals, berries or citrus to sweet spiciness. Once brewed, the aromas intensify and, if you are like me or any other nouveau coffee aficionado, your mouth will start to salivate as your palate anticipates the flavor of the first sip. What a rollercoaster ride of experiences that first sip is! If it's a high quality coffee and has been brewed properly, you should taste a pleasant amount of acidity and experience various sensations in your mouth such as a strong, full-bodied taste or a mellow roundness. Lastly, but certainly not the least important, are the flavors and subtle nuances that you will experience with that first and second sip such as toasted nuts, spices, chocolate or red wine.

One more thing to remember: once extracted, fine coffees are short-lived and deteriorate within 15 minutes. Those aromatic oils that give you those flavors at their peak start to dissipate and the coffee becomes flat. Now don't gulp your coffee down because of this -- it's bad manners and you'll be missing the best part of the coffee-making process. Do enjoy every sip of your coffee while it is still hot and fresh.

You should look for different flavor characteristics on different areas of your tongue much like wine and food. To be a true coffee taster, you should really suck (or slurp as coffee tasters say) your coffee through your mouth simultaneously drawing in air. I wouldn't do this ungracious demonstration if you are out dining with people you want to impress. But do seize the opportunity whenever it presents itself to spray the coffee over your tongue and allow your nasal passages to become exposed to the full effects of the coffee flavors and aromas.

Unfortunately, coffee tasting and drinking has been raised to a level of sophistication that tends to intimidate and turn off many. Don't let this happen to you. You'll find the rewards are worth the effort.

So, take heart and go out and buy a pound of freshly roasted coffee and start your own tasting experience in the privacy of your own home. Begin with a mild flavored Central American roast such as a spicy, smokey Guatemalan Antigua or a sweet, nutty Mexican Altura. Be sure to use 6 ounces of cold fresh water and 2 tablespoons of whole beans for each cup of coffee.

Just don't forget to buy a coffee grinder first.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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