As the 5-11 Chicago Bears wind down a disappointing season with their fifth straight loss, I thought I would do something else that would leave a bad taste in my mouth, roast and taste a batch of bad coffee.

I purchased a pound of Sweet Maria’s “Thumbs Down” coffee back in 2012 with the intention of experiencing a cup of coffee that was rated as truly bad by one of my coffee heroes.

The pound of coffee I received was described as follows:

Panama “Dry Process Experiment Gone Awry”
Fruity, vinegary, musty, ack! Here is an example of unclean fruit flavors, a textbook case of processing taint. heavy body, cloying fruit notes, slightly rotten coffee cherry flavor, musty scent and flavors in the finish, medicinal.

Recently some of the best coffees in the world have been coming out of Panama, why would someone want to taste a coffee that is vinegary, musty, and slightly rotten tasting?

  1. To help with learning to taste and distinguish defects- As someone that has an interest in roasting coffee for other people, it is important to be able to detect and taste defects in coffee. When you are just roasting coffee for yourself it is okay to go with the “I like it, who cares if it is a good, quality coffee or not” mentality. When you are roasting coffee for others it is important to keep in mind that there are certain standards and expectations placed on how a specialty coffee should taste. Even slight defects can taint a batch of coffee beyond saving or sharing.
  2. To better appreciate good coffee and the work that goes into it- Good coffee is a lot more work to produce than bad coffee. If you think that a coffee being good or bad is just a matter of a farmer having a lucky year, you are wrong. Some coffee farmers expend a tremendous amount of effort and pay extra money to make sure their coffee is exceptional. In contrast, there are coffee farmers that are less diligent with their coffee and cut corners. Most do this because they believe it to be the best way to feed their families and make a profit. If a farmer spends extra time and money developing a great coffee and it doesn’t fetch a premium price, he could actually be selling his coffee for less than it cost him to produce it. Drinking a bad coffee helps keep things in perspective and makes us willing to pay a premium price to support good coffee.
  3. It is actually hard for someone like me to get a hold of a very bad coffee- There are lots of opportunities to buy mediocre coffee beans out there, but the opportunity to buy a coffee that is declared to be truly terrible is actually a rare thing. In order to buy coffee of this caliber, I would at least have to buy a large bag of it. Getting a hold of a single pound of bad coffee is a gift from the Sweet Maria’s team (who also have a hard time finding and buying coffee that is especially terrible). It is fun to experience a little of what green buyers have to go through in the quest for great coffee.

Roasting and Brewing

Even though I started with an entire pound of this “Thumbs Down” coffee, I figured I would not be interested in roasting and drinking the entire bag. If this coffee tasted half as bad as the description, I wouldn’t want more than a few sips of it. I decided to roast 50 grams or so in my hot air popcorn popper, The Poppery I.

The information page on this particular bean said that the coffee was “intolerable” at light roast and that darker roast were a little more palatable. I decided to give the coffee a little help and roast it a little darker. It would be unfair not to try and play to the beans strengths, even though the purpose of this exercise is to make some bad coffee.

I thought about doing a cupping for the roasted coffee, but I am not in the habit of doing them very often. The truest measure for me would be a drip brew, as that is the method I personally use and evaluate most often.

Tasting

My first sip was not unpleasant. I thought to myself, “This certainly is interesting tasting.” It was all downhill from there.

On my second sip, I could detect the presence of disagreeable flavors I was not accustom to in coffee. It is hard to say if this was my own taste buds or the psychology of expecting it to be bad. As I took a more “cuppers” slurp of the coffee, I did notice some vegetal type flavors on the front end, with some harsher flavors on the back end. Throughout the cup, there was a creamy nuttiness that I liked, I was only wishing there wasn’t all the other unpleasant and distracting flavors overshadowing it.

As the coffee cooled, it started to get a medicinal, chemically finish that lingered and lingered. Yuck!

I gave my wife a sip of it without telling her what is was, she looked at me and said “What is that?” Not a good sign. This is definitely a bad coffee.

Costa Rica for contrast

To balance the tasting of this unpalatable “Thumbs down” coffee (and because I really wanted to drink some good coffee), I brewed a cup of a tasty single origin coffee from Costa Rica. I roasted this coffee a few days ago and I really like it.

The contrast between the two coffees is amazing. The “Thumbs Down” coffee is muddled, harsh, and has an unexplainable taste that makes you want to just dump it down the drain and forget you ever tried it. The coffee from Costa Rica is clean with a mild acidity and a subtle cohesiveness of flavors that makes you want to savor it and keeps you coming back for more.

As I sat down and enjoyed my cup of Costa Rican coffee in a fresh non-Bears mug, I couldn’t help but wonder if the “Thumbs Down” coffee would have tasted any better if I hadn’t put it in my Bears mug in the first place.

Anyone out there have a bad coffee story they’d like to share? ….Anyone want to gripe about the Bears?

Happy New Year from the Brewing Coffee Manually Blog!