Rob Zombie's a freaky guy. Darth Vader's a frightening one. David Lynch is just plain strange. As diverse as these three figures are, they have one venture in common: They have each lent their name to a brand of coffee. Having recently discovered these celebrity roasts, we wondered: How special are their "specialty" coffees? We held a taste-test, known in the upper echelons of coffee culture as a "cupping," to find out...
Attack of the Clones
Our "brewmaster" (officially a "moderator," but that sounds so... official) and generous host was Kyle Glanville, Intelligentsia's director of innovation and espresso R&D. At the company's Glassell Park headquarters, he set up a formal cupping, a method used to judge coffee in competitions as well as at Intelligentsia's roastery at least twice daily.
Coffee is judged on a 100-point scale for sweetness, acidity, body, flavor, finish, cleanliness and balance. Scores begin at 80 points. A spectacular coffee might earn 90 points; a flawless coffee, 95. Glanville, who says he's extra tough on his own company, says Intelligentsia's coffees often come in around the 85 point range.
This was to be a blind tasting. The tasters wouldn't know it would be four celebrity roasts and one Intelligentsia blend, which Glanville threw in as a "control coffee." (This would seem an unfair matchup, like pitting Muhammad Ali against Jim Robinson.) The judges were a mix of amateur coffee enthusiasts (one of whom works at Starbucks) and professional connoisseurs including Glanville, his Intelligentsia compatriots Nick Griffith and Christian Rotsko, and Yeekai Lim, who brews Four Barrel coffee under the Cognoscenti banner at Proof Bakery.
The rigorous methodology of cupping begins with the brewing method. The coffee is ground roughly to a pourover filter consistency and precisely measured to 12 grams per 7-ounce cup of water. All the cups for the five different coffees were laid out in neat rows along the table as Rotsko artfully poured 206 °F water brewed in a cheap kettle procured in Chinatown. There's an art to the pouring, we realize, as he fills each cup to the exactly to the brim, letting the grinds rise to the top.
The actual tasting starts with a "dry sniff." Agitate the cup, then "tent" it with your hands as you quickly inhale short, explosive breaths through your nose. After four minutes of steeping, break the shield of waterlogged coffee grinds with a spoon, lightly stir the coffee and sniff. Skim off the scum and let the coffee cool until it reaches 120-130 °F. It's still hot but drinkable. (From the moment the water is poured over the ground coffee, allow it to cool for about 15 minutes.)
With all five coffees laid out in long symmetrical rows, each taster makes three passes down the table, tasting each coffee three times at three different temperatures (15-20 min.; 20-25 min.; 25.-30 min.). It's recommended to taste the same blend from multiple cups during each pass to check for cup-to-cup variation.
[NOTE: If you want to try this at home, the Intelligentsia iPhone app has instructions that will guide you through a cupping.]
The Sinister Urge
Before the cupping, drinking coffee was a simple matter. Formal tasting requires skill and precision. For example, one might never realize that sipping coffee from a spoon was such a nuanced act. It's a short, whistling kind of suck; the lips barely graze the spoon. Do it wrong, and you choke and splutter like an idiot. Do it right and you sound like a high-speed vacuum cleaner. When you aspirate the coffee, coat your whole palate so the coffee hits all your taste receptors. Like a wine tasting, you are not meant to swallow every mouthful. (Each taster has their own spit bucket.) As Glanville points out, the human body will reject the excess caffeine as poison. At the very least, you'll get the "coffee shakes."
To avoid influencing other tasters, one can't talk, gesture or make faces . Save all comments for the scoring sheet. Even a seasoned coffee drinker can feel intimidated by the judging process. How did Coffee C taste? According to us amateurs, it was, "tart," "citrusy," "sour," "fruity"... you know, like coffee. The pros, meanwhile, tasted hints of "maple," "orange," "cinnamon," "cherry," "lime," "cranberry," "sage" and "cranapple." Our descriptors were broad, our tongues unschooled. They parsed out the coffee's subtler effects, pinpointing flavors we hadn't even noticed.
The Straight Story
Coffee A was judged to be weak, dull, flat, dusty and astringent. Inoffensive but without any distinctive character.
Coffee B was also undistinguished. The pros described it as "flat," "peanuty," "metallic" and "stale," but Rotsko would be "happy to drink this in a restaurant." Even at most expensive restaurants, this coffee maven says, the coffee tends to be awful.
Coffee C, described above, had a distinct flavor profile with subtleties not found in any of the other coffees.
Coffee D was universally loathed with a variety of descriptors that included "cleanser," "cigarette ash," "pencil shavings," "burned leather," "darkest roast I've ever had in my life" and "dangerous to drink." Can we score it below 80, one taster asked. What was the lowest score, I thought to myself, one could possibly give to a coffee?
Coffee E didn't fare so well. A combo of pros and amateurs described it as "dead," "astringent," "woodsy," "moldy," "charred" and "like wet socks."
Coffee A = Star Wars Dark Side Coffee Roast
Coffee B = David Lynch House Roast
Coffee C = Intelligentsia Kenya Thiriku
Coffee D = Rob Zombie Hellbilly Brew Organic French Roast
Coffee E = David Lynch Espresso Roast
Among the pros, the hands-down favorite was Kenya Thiriku. With its complex flavor profile and floral notes, it was easy to pick it out amid the other four.
As for the rest of the coffees, bland and boring was the Vader. Indeed, the force is weak in this one. So much for the Dark Side.
Both David Lynch coffees were roasted by Allegro, but only one was deemed drinkable. The espresso was nasty and over-roasted, a technique sometimes used to impart robustness or mask a defect in the beans. The House Roast, flat and inoffensive, was, for all its mediocrity, a cut above most restaurant coffee.
Rob Zombie's coffee was not simply the worst coffee on the table but one of the worst coffees ever to assault our palates. Looking at the beans, splayed on the table afterward, they were black as tar, covered in an oil-spill sheen and clumped together in the bag like refugees. The coffee had a slimy mouthfeel and a chemical flavor, despite a label trumpeting its organic status. Rotsko speculated it had a "core defect." That's putting it mildly.
Celebs shilling for products is hardly new, but there's a phrase marketing people like to use: "brand integrity." George Lucas would probably approve a Darth Vader-themed petting zoo if it kept money flowing into Lucasfilm's coffers. Even Rob Zombie's goofy website, which sells everything from knee-high socks and keychains to lunchboxes and bobblehead dolls, doesn't diminish his brand. (What, no Rob Zombie snuggie? We would buy that.)
It's the David Lynch coffee that's the strangest. Here's a guy who seems like he actually cares about a good cup of joe. Allegro is a respectable company, and some effort has been made, especially with his house blend. It had little character and wasn't terribly fresh, but it was totally drinkable. With all the terrific specialty coffee roasters on the West Coast -- Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Four Barrel, Flying Goat, etc. -- why not produce a good coffee? A question as impenetrable as the ending of "Lost Highway."