The Nature of Robust

I tripped over a delightful word while reading a John McPhee book, turned it around in my head to assess it, and diligently highlighted it for the definition to be sure I had it right. The word? Pallesthesia. I write it and even WordPress underlines it in red dots of confusion. Pallesthesia is a “vibratory sensation”. A more complete definition may be found here if you choose. Anyway, the word seems appropriate for the topic at hand this morning: coffee.

This week I’ve had the opportunity to assess four distinct coffee blends with my trusty AeroPress coffee maker. Two Peet’s (Berkeley, CA) Major Dickinson blends, one pre-ground and one whole bean. A Stumptown (Portland, OR) Hair Bender pre-ground blend and finally, a Blue Harbor (Hampton, NH) Sumatra whole bean blend. This gave me a unique testing lab to compare the differences, with the AeroPress and the water consistent for each cup.

It may go without saying that there’s a distinct difference between whole bean and pre-ground coffee, but sometimes you just need the convenience of pre-ground. Given the time it takes to grind a tablespoon of whole coffee beans, it isn’t even convenience, really, but lack of motivation to get the grinder out and do the necessary work. Since I’m waiting for water to boil anyway, why not grind a few beans?

The difference between pre-ground and freshly ground whole bean was most pronounced between the two bags of Peet’s Major Dickinson beans. The whole beans offer undeniable richness and flavor profiles that you don’t get with the pre-ground. I’m not one to ever turn down a cup of Peet’s, but given the choice the whole bean is the way to go.

Stumptown is a famous name in coffee, and it’s a good cup, but it suffered in comparison to the whole bean Peet’s. I think it’s partially the Hair Bender roast being blended for mass appeal versus the richer blends I tend to favor. That said, I’m sipping a cup of it now while writing this blog, and it will do the pallesthesia trick when you just want to get moving in the morning.

And that brings me to Blue Harbor’s whole bean Sumatra. This turned out to be my favorite of the lot. I think it comes down to it being the freshest roast of them all (being a local roaster that doesn’t mass produce bags of coffee at the scale of a Peet’s or Stumptown) and Sumatra is a go-to blend for me anyway. Peet’s guarantees that their coffee is no older than 90 days when you buy it at your local market, but that Blue Harbor is likely no more than 9 days old. Both are great, but you really taste the difference in a freshly roasted, just-ground coffee. So a nod to the local New Hampshire roaster for this round of the coffee wars: best in class this week.

One thing is clear from all of this sipping and contemplation: great coffee matters. And whole bean great coffee roasted recently is profoundly more interesting than a whole bean brewed a while back. Another example of buying local making a big difference in the quality of your life.

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