Coffee drinkers behaving badly

Judging by the ads that coffee companies chose to promote their products halfway through the 20th century, men were jerks back then. Take a quick look here for a unique laugh-cringe combo involving Folgers.

Can you imagine talking to anybody, much less your wife, this way today? I certainly can’t. I make my own coffee, for one thing, but if I ever said “Honey, your coffee really *is* murder” with that kind of disapproving, superior tone to the woman I love, I guarantee that she’d toss that brew right back in my face! And I’d deserve it.

But what if you *are* served bad coffee? How do you respond? Strip away the veneer of post-war gender relations, and you’ve got a real issue here, it seems, especially if you think outside the home and include restaurants and cafés.

Maybe at a restaurant you don’t expect good coffee. We’ve almost been conditioned not to, though there’s no reason why the bar for coffee after dinner out, for example,  has to be so low. Not every restaurant can afford to keep dedicated baristas on staff, but they could all learn a little something from Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, where Allie Caran oversees a great coffee program featuring fresh Counter Culture beans carefully ground and brewed by the cup (press or espresso). To me the key word is “fresh,” which even bulk-brewed coffee stored in an airpot can absolutely be. However, I’ve never complained publicly about restaurant coffee; instead, my typical response is to make a mental note to avoid ordering it at [insert restaurant with poor coffee here] in the future.

Surely at a café our standards are (and should be) higher. And yet even in coffee establishments there’s a tendency on the part of some people to chalk up a less-than-stellar cup to the subjectivity of taste, etc. “This coffee’s not for *me*,” you might imagine thinking to yourself, directing the blame inward rather than assigning it to the coffee itself and/or its preparation.

In my experience, the fancier the café, the stronger this tendency becomes. I’ve seen a few surly customers demanding that drinks be remade at Starbucks, but I’ve never seen the same at, say, Spro in Baltimore. And yet even there, home of some of the city’s best coffee, the baristas must occasionally miss the mark. The one time I “confronted” this issue there specifically was months ago when I tried Intelligentsia’s Honey Badger both in a macchiato and as a straight shot. The coffee’s limey acidity did *not* work well without milk. I talked about it with the baristas there afterward, but as I recall the gist of my contribution to that very friendly conversation was that the Honey Badger was just too bright for me, i.e. it wasn’t my favorite *style* of espresso (which might well be true, granted). It never occurred to me to ask if they’d tried brewing it at a higher temperature, grinding more finely, using a smaller dose, or some other trick. Maybe it should have.

For various reasons, we don’t often speak out about bad coffee in 2011. It’s always easier to assume we (as consumers) are at fault-–after all, we’re not pros! Plus, complaining (even respectfully) is awkward, sometimes unpleasant, and it takes time, and it marks the complainer (right or wrong) as fussy/difficult, which causes more problems. Nevertheless, I’m starting to feel that it might be worth the trouble to take these risks and stand up for what I taste with a little more backbone in certain situations. You can always vote with your wallet, of course, but a good café should welcome this sort of feedback, in my opinion, as long as it’s offered constructively.

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