Why does North American coffee taste so bland?

lattefan

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Sep 3, 2009
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For those of you who have been on both sides of the Atlantic, you already know that coffee in North America is much less strong (and therefore less tasty) than in Europe...

I'm talking here about a typical cup of coffee served in a restaurant or diner. You can always get a decent cup of coffee at Starbucks or a real coffee shop.

But back to the question...what is the historical and/or cultural background behind this preference for light coffee in North America?
 

topher

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Aug 14, 2003
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Personally I enjoy light and medium roasted coffee. I like the snappiness and bright acidity. I think a lot of great coffee gets destroyed by roasters that go so dark. You do not have to burn a coffee to make it a rich bold cup. I think the problem lies in the restaurant or the diners. They used to just buy commercial crap coffee...recently I have seen a trend of diners and restaurants ordering higher quality coffee. What they are starting to realize is that the last impression one gets in a dinning experience is the coffee. I hope that coffee takes the sales trend that wine did in establishments. Years ago there were a few wines that you could get at your local restaurant but now your local mom and pop have a kick ass wine list!
 
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lattefan

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Sep 3, 2009
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When you say coffee quality is improving, I hope you are right because generally speaking, coffee served in a typical restaurant doesn't have much taste.

You are right when you say it has something to do with the quality of the coffee. Maybe I should have phrased my question differently. Why I meant, was, how come coffee in North America is typically light (as opposed to strong), and therefore light in taste?

Are they trying to save on the quantity of coffee they put in their coffeemaker?
I think that people in North America do not appreciate strong coffee, compared to European customers. And I was wondering why that's so...
 
I reckon this is a trickier question to answer than one would think. Ok lets try and tackle it-

1/. Myth 1- European Coffee is "better" than North American roasted equivalents. Not necessarily true. Europe is a collection of states each with their own preference in blends, roast types, bean types. Its pretty rare youfind any type of Robusta used in North America, but in Greece, Turkey, Southern Italy, Spain, Southern France and parts of Germany Robusta is at least part of e3spresso blending. Along with degree of roast (as Topher has mentioned) often many of the Southern European roasts are over roasted in my opinion and the orign- brightness, percieved acidity and body is wrenched out of the beans. Also there is a biased, historial biased, towards buying coffee that is tried and tested. Coffee, as artisan roasters will tell you, is not like a factory produced widget. It changes crop season-to-crop season. Many of the European roasters I know get EK2 from Java, because they have done so for 100 years. I think the average US roaster- the Intelligentsia, Allegro, Rituals (shall I add Boca Java??) are willing to change blends depending on what the cup week in and week out. This is a huge strength.

2/. Myth 2- Coffee in the average cafe in Italy is better than in the USA. I would say this is a question of how the coffee was prepped. Many of the Good Ole US dinner type restaurants (truck stops etc in this bracket) still use Bunn drips that sit with coffee burning away in them for hours. It tastes like tar mixed with horse poo. Ok, nothing is worse than this type of coffee. However, the cafes using espresso machines, especially those I have tried on the West Coast, make a decent EBD. Conversely, in Italy I have had some subloine shots but also some that were made poorly with poor quality blendins and roasting.


3/. Myth 3- The Europeans are "better" at doing coffee than the Yanks: I am neither American or European, so maybe I cant qualify to judge. I love the North Italian, Slovenian, Croatian Espresso blends I have tried, but cant say I really appreciate some of the 50:50 blends I have tried south of Napoli. I agree, for sure, cafe culture is an art not only in Italy but throughout Europe. There is a thread on that somewhere.

OK, thats my view on it from afar!
 

ElPugDiablo

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Jul 16, 2004
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Hartford and New Haven, CT
lattefan said:
generally speaking, coffee served in a typical restaurant doesn't have much taste.
Generally speaking you are right. A typical restaurant does not put much thought into coffee. Coffee are made by wait staff whose earning is base on tips, they rather sell $10 after dinner drinks or dessert than take the time to get coffee done right, so coffee is a $3 afterthought. There are very few restaurants where you can get excellent coffee, but that is less than 1% of the restaurants in the US, and your dinner bill is likely to be well over $100 per person.

lattefan said:
how come coffee in North America is typically light (as opposed to strong), and therefore light in taste?
You mean drip coffee instead of espresso base drink or degree of roast? Drip coffee is less concentrated than espresso or Canadian's very own allongé but when well made it is very bit as nice as well made espresso drinks. Stronger is not necessary better. It could be a taste preference thing. If you are referring the degree of roast which I think you are, in the US they are all over the place from undrinkable light roast to undrinkable dark roast, and plenty in between. Again, it is individual preference, I find Starbucks Breakfast blend bitter and over roasted, yet you like it. So to each his own, And Northern Italians who are accustomed to lighter Northern roast will probably find Southern Italian coffee way to "strong".
 

topher

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Aug 14, 2003
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Words have so many different meanings. I mistook what you were saying with the word light. I was speaking as in roast profile and you were speaking as dishwater in the cup. I think it could be many things leading to the crappy cup you end up in the typical diner. One stale pillow packs, wrong grind, and amount of coffee in the brew cycle. Lets get back to your original question...Why does North American coffee taste so bland? I have to say in my opinion that most low end diners do not realize that they can increase their biz by having quality coffee. In this economy they might be scared to change something they see as a convenience and not a money maker...now my wife has a different opinion. She says people go to crappy diners and expect crappy coffee. They have just consumed millions of drinks and are either drunk or hung over and want the grease from the fried food and high caffeine of cheap coffee...I say do not drink coffee at diners...go to your local coffee shop/roastery and have a fresh cup of joe.
 

PaulLovesCoffee

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Jan 19, 2010
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I doubt a greasy dive diner(which are usually the best eats anywhere in the world, IMO) in Europe is going to have any better coffee than a greasy dive diner in America or one in Africa or South America or Asia or anywhere. Too many comparisons are apples to oranges. Compare cafe to cafe, not diner to cafe. It seems like people are comparing Europe's best with America's worst, then being surprised as to the results.
 

paulina12

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Feb 24, 2010
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First, the coffee beans grown in different regions differ in taste and starting from this point, the coffees are totally different in Europe and North America as in any other geographical region.
And of course everything depends on barista's personal skill - the barista who is a true professional - not the one without a special technique - will make any coffee look and seem perfect. That's my point of view... :)
 
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