Summer is over. School is back. Temps are cooler. I’m looking for coffee, good coffee.
Ever since I closed Foggy Bottom Coffee House more than two years ago, I’ve been on the hunt for good coffee. Being Dexter’s “Coffee Guy” for a few years, I thought I knew it all. But in my search for a better cup I would be pleased, dissatisfied and surprised … and in one case bewildered.
I tried home brewing, Keurig et al, but there are two problems with home brewers: 1) Home brewers can’t get the water hot enough for a good extraction. The coffee is thin and weak. And 2) the quality of those pods is poor, except for Green Mountain brand which is a solid “not bad”.
I spend a lot of time at coffee shops, writing, meeting friends, and interviewing. Well, one thought led to another, as thoughts always do, and I wondered how I would order the area coffee shops in terms of who’s got the best coffee. So I donned by official reporters cap, grabbed my 20oz Yeti travel mug and hopped in the Element for a whirlwind tour of area coffee shops; the area being where I roam most – Dexter, Chelsea, the west side of A2.
Actually, it has taken weeks. I made the stops at the shops as it was convenient. Being simple myself, I needed to keep the judging simple. House roast and espresso are the two biggest sellers for a coffee shop so that’s what I would compare from shop to shop.
Coffee beans are actually cherry pits, akin to wild cherries, not Traverse City cherries. The drying process splits the pit in half and voilà! You’ve got coffee “beans.” As with any food, the quality of your coffee depends on the quality of your bean itself and how you cook, or roast it.
Roasting: assuming it is a good coffee bean to begin with, grown above 4,000 ft …
- Light Roast: flavors are acidic (like citrus acidity, not hydrochloric acidity) with an over-the-top brightness and dryness like wine. This is because the “beans” are by nature a fruity and acidic fruit pit.
- Medium Roast: The coffee balances out as between the fruity dryness and emerging caramelization of the beans. The heated glucose activates to create a pleasant and notable brightness in the back of the mouth.
- Dark Roast: What is commonly known as “dark roast” has a burned and bitter taste. The bean is basically charcoal. (True “dark roast” is a bit lighter retaining bean characteristics.)
You can’t roast a cheap bean into good coffee. Cheap beans are typically used in flavored coffees to cover up their poor quality but you can taste the cheapness in the finish. Cheap beans are also commonly burned to charcoal for espresso and dark roasts, again to cover up their low-grade.
When it comes to taste, forget high-falutin’ cupping notes like hints of chocolate, apricot, with a nutty finish. I can’t taste that stuff. Nobody can unless you’ve been trained. Let’s be real. What makes a cup of coffee good for me is:
- Body: How does it feel in my mouth – thick or thin? Body comes from the natural oils being extracted. Body is a product of grinding and brewing.
- Taste: Chewing your coffee will bring out the flavors, good or bad. Seriously, try it. My favorite cup is a medium-dark roast that still has some of that dry brightness that pops and enlivens the cup. In a dark roast, I like a thick body with a smoky (not burned ash) taste.
- Finish: this is the aftertaste moments after swallowing. It’s simple: bad aftertaste = bad coffee. Coffee doesn’t have to give a bad aftertaste and that surprises many people.
I have an easy scale to judge coffee, food, experiences, and just about everything in life actually:
- 0 – Nope. Never again.
- 1 – More please.
- 2 – (In a nod to When Harry Met Sally) “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Let’s get on with the tour.
Note: These are my thoughts, not yours. Don’t take them too seriously. The only real guideline is to drink the coffee you like. Life is short. Be free. Enjoy.
Joe and Rosie’s here in Dexter was my first stop. Spoiler alert: My old competitor fairs pretty well under my scrutiny. Their house roast has a great body with lots of bright pop. The espresso here is really exceptional in how drinkable straight shots are. It is a lighter roast that hasn’t charred away all the characteristics of the bean, and it’s a good bean with lots of pop. The only down side is that it lacks the pungency to cut through the milk and flavorings of lattes. But who needs the milk and flavorings when it tastes so good by itself? Sip a couple of shots and be satisfied without all the unnecessary calories. Score: Coffee 2, Espresso 2.
Biggby Coffee on Jackson Rd was the next stop. I don’t expect much from chains because I find their prices inflated for the quality you get. The cost of regional offices, corporate reps, marketing, etc. has to come from somewhere and it’s usually the product quality. Here was my first surprise. The coffee was bright, lively with enough roasted flavors to keep it interesting. The espresso was similar to Joe and Rosie’s but not as bright. Score: Coffee 1, Espresso 1.
Espresso Royale has my espresso of choice for lattes: bourbon barrel espresso. These are beans, that immediately after roasting, are stored in empty wooden bourbon whisky kegs. The aroma saturates the beans and adds a punch that easily cuts through milk, flavors, and chocolate for a strong, smooth flavor. Careful. It’s strong. Drink it straight and your heart rate may redline. As great as the bourbon barrel espresso is, their regular espresso is underwhelming but passable. The house roast is disappointing with muted brightness and poor finish. Score: Bourbon Barrel Espresso 2, Espresso 1, Coffee 0.
Whole Foods is where I get most of my coffee because it’s where I get my food now that they’ve lowered their prices. Finding that their coffee bar isn’t just an afterthought for an impulse buy add-on to increase sales surprised me. Both the house roast and espresso were very similar to Joe and Rosie’s. Score: Coffee 2, Espresso 2.
Zou Zou’s (in Chelsea) and Arbor Farms use the same supplier and their coffee was the same. This supplier is the roaster I modeled my own coffees after at Foggy Bottom and I was bewildered almost to the point of tears. The house roast lacked the body I remember it having and the finish was unpleasant. I’m crushed. The espresso is adequate. Score: Coffee 0, Espresso 1.
Zingerman’s Roadhouse Airstream Trailer: I expected a smaller cup than elsewhere, a higher price, and lots of hype. That’s what I got. As irritating as I find this, I admit the coffee was good in body, taste and finish, but not better than surrounding shops. The espresso was dark and pungent but not overly burned. Good for lattes. Score: Coffee 1, Espresso 1.
Songbird Café: The barista was waving at me through the window as I walked up? What the heck? It was one of my former employees. After a brief reunion, I got my drinks. Score: Coffee 1, Espresso 1.
Panera Bread is where I was really disappointed. I eat a lot of their food, usually with a bottle of water. I’m a big fan. I wanted to brag about their coffee like I do their food. Instead, the burned espresso was weak. The house roast was flat with only a few faint characteristics. I get the impression coffee drinks are an afterthought to the great food they serve. Score: Coffee 0, Espresso 0.
Starbucks created the demand for gourmet coffee drinks that small operators like me benefited from. They are genius in that they never market the quality of their products. They market a vibe, a cool lifestyle that we all want by association. Their burned espresso is weak without the punch to successfully cut through the milk for a good balanced drink. The house roast had more flavor, brightness, and balance than I expected. Score: Coffee 1, Espresso 0.
The results are in and the best coffee and espresso is found at Joe & Rosie’s and Whole Foods.
And The Winner Is …. Since I am not only Dreadstrong but also Dreadloyal, Joe & Rosie’s wins the coveted Best-Coffee-In-My-Opinion-Award.
So if you’re looking for a little adventure now and then off the beaten coffee bean path, there are plenty of places to explore. Adventure is more than being in the mountains without cell service. Real adventure is where you find it every day.