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I need a break from coffee choices

May 02, 2002|BY TIM ROWLAND

I walked into one of those gourmet coffee franchises a couple of weeks ago and made the mistake of saying, "I'd like a large cup of coffee, please."

I might as well have been speaking Korean.

The girl narrowed her eyes and said "You want what?" as all around me people were shouting nonsensical stuff like "caff Latte grand" and "tall lowfat tazo chai" and "espresso macchiato" and "double skim coconut mocha frappuccino."

"Oh, I'm sorry," I said, "I thought you sold coffee."

They do, of course, but it's too much trouble trying to sort it all out. Even after you get it through their tiny little brains that you just want coffee - no milk, no foam, no sweetener, no fizz, no crushed ice, no umbrellas, no trampoline acts - just coffee, you are thrown into an entire subgroup of coffees that you have to choose from.

The problem began when they started naming coffee. It used to be there was "coffee" and there was "Sanka." That was it.

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Obviously, though, when you name something you can charge more for it. A cup of coffee may cost a buck, but a cup of Sumatra Mandheling will cost $3.50 if it costs a dime.

So they ask you, "Are you looking for something full-bodied, acidic or regionally flavored?"

It's 7 in the morning. I'm looking for something with caffeine.

I'm tired. What I'm not looking for is a lecture, but that's what I get from these people whose steadfast belief it is that the Almighty put them on the planet to perform some sort of ground-roasted missionary work among people whose only goal at the moment is to wake up.

"An acidic coffee, see, is usually from an African bean and is like a dry wine, with a sharp sensation on the tongue, almost an effervescence, while a full-bodied coffee has a heaviness on the tongue that feels thicker and smoother as you can tell by drinking an Indonesian, which can be blended with a South American, or say a Honduras Estates Select, although if you use cream, you may want ..."

And I'm standing there with my mouth hanging open, wondering what a man has to do just to get a plain stupid cup of joe. I mean, "... like a dry wine?" Who do I look like, Santo Lancerio - I'm gonna taste this coffee for the Pope?

Some of the names that are out there for these coffees are unreal: Colombian Supremo Popayan Dark, Guatemalan Finca Dos Marias, Kona Mountain Estate, Organic Sumatran Select.

And let's be honest, people don't know what they're getting. You could sit 90 percent of them down and offer them a Powerball payoff to tell the difference three times out of five between Vermont Country Blend and Tanzanian Peaberry and they wouldn't be able to do it.

And what Vermont is doing with a coffee blend, I'd like to know. I haven't seen Juan Valdez hanging around outside Montpelier lately.

So I'll stick with Hagerstown's own Bentley's downtown, thank you. With several selections, they're pushing the envelope a bit, but it's nothing unmanageable. Plus, it's one of those places where they know your name and when I walk in and demand a plain old cup of coffee they always smile and greet me with those three little words that mean so very much: "Get it yourself."

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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