Saturday, February 20, 2016

The sad tale of Death Wish Coffee: a review

Death Wish Coffee is a thing now. A science fiction author whose books I've read has declared herself addicted. Apparently the company won 30 seconds of advertising time during the Super Bowl (which I didn't watch). It's got my curiosity up.

What is Death Wish Coffee, you ask?  It's marketed as "world's strongest coffee" and supposedly contains twice the caffeine of "normal" coffee, while never being bitter and having wonderful tones of chocolate and cherry. According to Caffeine Informer (and other places), Death Wish gets its caffeine content by using mostly robusta beans, which have not quite twice the caffeine of arabica beans. Death Wish also recommends using more than the normal amount of ground coffee per cup.

This is sort of a caffeine-driven programmer's challenge, and I work among caffeine-driven programmers. So a couple of guys at my office decided to split a pound of Death Wish (~$20) to taste for themselves. Then one of them passed on enough beans for me to make a pot.

So, some information about coffee, from a serious coffee geek:

I roast my own coffee at home. A home-roaster. I really like good coffee and I really dislike bad coffee. (I find Starbucks offensive on many levels.) I like my coffee to be roasted so as to bring out the best aspects of the beans. My favorites are probably Guatemalan beans from Antigua or Huehuetenango, roasted just to second crack, which often brings out cocoa flavors.

There are two commercial coffee genera, robusta and arabica. (Strictly speaking, robusta isn't a genus, but it's often used as such.) The best coffees are arabica. Robusta is used as a filler in some blends when they want to cost-reduce for mass markets. It should be used very carefully because it TASTES BAD. One coffee site refers to the taste as "burnt tires." Robusta, carefully roasted and judiciously blended, probably makes mass-market coffee only a little more awful than it would be otherwise. All "specialty coffee," which is what I drink, is arabica. If you care about coffee, you try to get good arabica beans.

The place I buy my green beans from sells arabica specialty coffees, but they also may sell robusta, irregularly. Sometimes these beans are for blending; sometimes they're for test-roasting and then tossing in the waste bin.

There are espresso blends that heavily use robusta and roast really dark. If you don't want to taste the bean, you roast very dark. (Starbucks apparently makes heavy use of this.) Dark roasting increases bitterness and cooks out the volatiles that might remind you that the bean came from a plant.

So, my colleague at work passed on a few spare ounces of Death Wish beans. The beans were obviously quite dark with the oil on the surface. The fragrance coming from the beans was unpleasant. Possibly the oils had turned. I made a pot. I drank half a cup, trying to keep an open mind. It was bad, but not screamingly bad. Sort of a more acidic Starbucks. Tones of charcoal, and a faint hint of toasted rubber. Sorry, but I didn't really like it.

Curiosity satisfied. Another triumph of marketing over reality. Don't bother.

See also: How to brew great coffee

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