Last time we hosted a Celeb Coffee Showdown, we threw Darth Vader, David Lynch and Rob Zombie into the same metaphorical octagon. What did we learn? Everyone's a product whore, even the Dark Lord.
This time, we went for a less formal but more carefully curated showdown, pitting Bonny "Prince" Billy's Kona Rose Coffee against the Leonardo DiCaprio-branded blend from La Colombe Torrefaction, proceeds of which supposedly benefit the actor's charitable foundation.
This time, instead of a formal cupping at Intelligentsia HQ, we headed to Proof Bakery for an informal, blind tasting overseen by Yeekai Lim. Our esteemed panel of tasters included Squid Ink contributors Tien Nguyen and Dommy Gonzalez, a couple of friends and, to edify our palates and make us casual coffee fiends feel like complete schmoes, a couple of professional palates: Miran Oh of Cafe Americano and Tony Konecny of recently launched microroaster Tonx Coffee.
With our backs turned to him, Lim and his intrepid assistants brewed the three blends (he threw in a control coffee). We sniffed, we sipped, we slurped. Then, we discussed (still not knowing which coffee was which).
Coffee #1: light, thin, watery, bland, earthy, even-flavored, over-roasted, woody, strong ending, bold, no flavor, espresso-like, strongly roasted but not harsh, slightly grassy, sandy, nutty, bread crust, slight rubber taste that increases on cooling.
Coffee #2: smooth, light, pomegranate, a little sweet, woody, bright, light body, good aftertaste, baked, tea-like, burnt chocolate, extremely mild, heavy, sour, round finish, easy morning, watery, vaguely molasses, diner coffee, Indonesian Sumatra.
Coffee #3: acidic, bold, fruity, floral, clean finish, fresher, melon, molasses, fig, complex, tangy, smoky, sweet, citrus, unique, bready, toasty, mashed potatoes, savory, fuller, lots of body, lime, tomato, bright, medium body, good acid, winey, tomato, lime, Kenya-style.
Two people chose #1 as their favorite, one person picked #2, everyone else preferred #3.
Coffee #1: Bonny "Prince" Billy's Kona Rose Coffee ($20 for an 8 oz. bag, includes S&H)
Coffee #2: Leonardo DiCaprio La Colombe Torrefaction ($19.73 for a 12 oz. bag, includes S&H)
Coffee #3: Heart Brazil Daterra Sweet Collection (control coffee)
We were all hoping Oldham's coffee would beat DiCaprio's, but as with the initial Celeb Coffee Showdown, the control coffee beat all other contenders.
The Upshot: No matter how much you adore a celebrity or movie character, chances are their coffee will be terrible, especially if it's being sold mail-order via the Internet.
First, and most obviously, these celebs don't know coffee. They're willing to slap their name on anything that earns them money.
Also, celeb coffee is rarely fresh. Look at a bag of specialty coffee. The package should be stamped with a "roasted on" date. Coffee doesn't expire the way milk does, but for full aroma and flavor, you want to consume it within two weeks of roasting.
"Some coffees will hold out a bit longer," Konecny says. "No amount of fancy packaging will prevent nature from taking its course. If you are paying good money for coffee, it should be fresh roasted, above all else. For coffees that weren't that good to begin with, freshness maybe doesn't make much of a difference. No 'roasted on' date? Avoid it."
Finally, celeb coffee tends to be bland, simple and boring, chosen to appeal to the widest variety of palates. Specialty coffee roasters carefully choose and roast the beans to highlight certain flavor profiles. There's nothing wrong with diner coffee -- when you're paying $2 for a cup at 7-Eleven. If you've just shelled out $15-$20 for a bag of beans, you ought to get your money's worth. Celebrity-branded coffee is the worst of both worlds: paying specialty coffee prices for cheap, flat diner coffee.