Coffee is complicated.
That's what about a dozen coffee drinkers, ranging on the scale from modest fan to shameless snob, concluded on a recent Saturday morning at the Style office.
In preparation for this week's feature on all things roasted and caffeinated, a group of food and drink writers, colleagues, friends and folks got together for a blind taste test.
The subjects? A dark roast from eight local roasters: Ironclad Coffee Roasters, Sefton Coffee Co., Captain Buzzy's Beanery, Black Hand Coffee Co., Rostov's Coffee and Tea, Shockoe Espresso and Beanery, Lamplighter Coffee Roasters, Blanchard's Coffee Roasting Co. and Starbucks, just for kicks.
The samples went out, one roaster at a time, in Dixie cups — well, doubled-up Dixie cups, as we quickly learned that hot coffee seeps right through a single layer of the paper (whoops). Everyone filled out a survey, ranking each coffee on qualities like aroma, strength, aftertaste and overall flavor. People also jotted down flavor notes: citrus, floral, chocolate, etc.
It was clear early on that judging and comparing coffee, at least as amateurs, is not an exact science. We all came in with our favorites in mind (lookin' at you, Blanchard's), and I hoped the anonymity of the samples would eliminate some of that bias. It did, to a degree, but those of us who frequent select local shops on a regular basis weren't surprised when the sample in a cup mysteriously labeled C or E struck a chord of familiarity. Most participants marveled after two or three cups at how distinct one was from the next, and began to question preconceived notions of their favorites.
"A few samples in, I started to reflect on the essential elements of coffee," wrote one member of the group. "It's roasted, so it will have some element of smoke. It's a fruit, so it will have some level of acidity. It can interact with heat and water at different levels. And all of that adds up to a surprising variety of taste and pleasantness."
Of all the categories, the most divisive seemed to be aroma, and "it was interesting how aroma and flavor did not always match" noted one taster.
"Aromas can be deceiving. Sometimes they portend what's to come," wrote another. "Other times they can be a curveball, with a flavorful surprise." With a scoring of one being not at all desirable and five being quite desirable, rankings in this category were all over the place. One judge put the aroma of Ironclad's darkest roast at a meager one, while another emphatically gave it a five, writing that it "smelled amazing" and was indicative of its fruity flavor profile.
A few judgments were universal, like describing Lamplighter's Tall Bike blend as citrusy (though one participant picked up some hazelnut flavors) and Captain Buzzy's house blend as smoky, with campfirelike and tobacco notes. Across the board, Black Hand's honey-processed Nicaraguan coffee came across as floral and grassy, almost reminiscent of tea. Sefton's Costa Rican Black Honey was described as chocolatey and acidic, and many picked up on fruity, nutty flavors in the Handshake blend from Blanchard's.
"It was interesting to determine whether I liked a coffee because it tasted great or because I knew who the roaster was and knew I liked the roaster," wrote another judge, whose top three were the House of Usher blend from Ironclad, Rostov's la Voz Atitlah and Shockoe's Mill Mountain blend. "Overall, a lot of the coffees tasted similar, but my favorites were distinct."
One coffee-stained survey reveals that for some samples, the flavor evolved and built on itself. "Some of the coffees grew on me. The first sip was not pleasant, but the next sips gave way to a better taste."
Overwhelmingly, the group's favorite three were Ironclad (which just opened its first storefront in Shockoe Bottom after years of roasting and distributing throughout Richmond), Lamplighter and Shockoe. Three favored Black Hand, Rostov's made it onto two short lists and at least two participants found themselves re-examining their prejudices upon realizing that Starbucks was in their top three.
Once the jitters had set in (I tried not to be too heavy-handed with the pours, but nine samples is a lot of coffee no matter how you slice it), lively chatter rippled around the table as folks defended their top picks. Someone also acknowledged that when it comes to coffee, context is important — sometimes you've got the time for that perfectly crafted pour-over, other times you may want specific flavors to pair with breakfast or dessert, and let's be honest there are the days when you just need something palatable and caffeinated in your system before you either lose your mind or fall asleep.
"What do we want in a coffee?" a judge asked at the bottom of the survey. "Does the answer change if it's morning, midafternoon, sunny, rainy, badly needed? We are the wildcards."
Our conclusions? Well, like I said, coffee is complicated. It's also beloved, coveted and respected, and it's experiencing a renaissance of sorts here in Richmond.
Much like beer, food and everything else we love in this city, there's more than one story behind it, which is precisely why for this special issue we took a tour of the coffee scene and compiled a (nowhere near exhaustive) collection of pieces about the dedicated folks who make that cup possible.