Why It’s Worth Overpaying for Coffee

Coffee Brewing

As much as I love getting a bag of freshly roasted specialty coffee, it is painful when you take a 12 ounce bag of coffee to the counter, hand the cashier a $20 bill, and save for being asked if I need it ground, getting nothing back in change.

Thrillist’s Dan Gentile had Lorenzo Perkins, a coffee instructor at Cuvée and executive council member of the Barista Guild of America, brew and taste ten different “second-wave” brands of coffee. For those who are smart enough to avoid knowing these three “waves” of coffee, here’s a brief primer.

  • First-wave coffees refer to your father’s canned coffee, such as Maxwell House, Folger’s, and Chock Full o’ Nuts. My parents drank Taster’s Choice for most of my childhood and switched to brewing Peet’s in a press pot only about ten years ago.
  • The second wave refers to more specialized brands such as Starbucks, Peet’s, Seattle’s Best, and Lavazza. I’m not sure where a brand like Illy fits in, which is served at theaters, museums, and other institutes of culture, but it comes in a can, already ground fine.
  • The third wave refers to the hand-picked coffee beans that are directly sourced from a single farm with the occasional blend that has been carefully “curated.”

The coffees in each wave also vary in price. Whereas a single sixteen-ounce can of first-wave coffee costs about five dollars at the grocery store, a one-pound of second-wave coffee will cost about a dollar per ounce. As I mentioned, third-wave coffee costs about 50% more, and it’s not unusual to pay about twenty dollars for a twelve-ounce bag.

Are you Down to Brew?

Are you Down to Brew?

Perkins’s tasting and his findings redeemed my silly spending habits: it’s worth overpaying for coffee. He found that Starbuck’s coffee, which I used to consider to be pretty good and will settle for while on the road, smells “gnarly” and tastes “smoky, but not ashy… actually kind of endearing,” and upon having the initial smoky flavor subside, it tastes “very bitter and astringent, but not in an unpleasant way.” For the longest time, I used to be a Peetnik, a subscriber to Peet’s delivery service. I always liked their coffee, but having become accustomed to fruity, third-wave coffees, I can’t drink it anymore. Perkins found that the coffee did have a nice “dark chocolate” aroma. But it let him down in the flavor department. He said it tasted like a cigar, “not a great cigar, more like a Philly. But there’s some sweetness — bittersweetness, but still sweetness — despite tasting super dark.” He also noted that “the darkness would lend itself well to cream,” reaffirming my belief that most people drink coffee as a delivery vehicle for milk and sugar.

Perkins also sampled a third-wave coffee, from North Carolina’s Counter Culture. Here, he noted an aroma of “green pear and cucumber” that seems more familiar to those of us who have been to coffee tastings, known as “cuppings” in the barista world. And the flavor was more suited to hand-picked beans, noting that it was “really juicy and acidic, with a peachy flavor and lots of sweetness.” Doesn’t that sound better than a cigar from the local bodega?

And if you’re wondering if he liked any of the first-wave coffees, he did appreciate the venerable Chock Full o’ Nuts, although he thought Maxwell House tasted “like death.”

I’ll raise a cup of Stumptown’s Burundi Kayanza to that!

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