One of the greatest disappointments of my early life was that coffee never tasted nearly as good as it smelled. Coffee was for grown-ups and I desperately wanted to be a grown-up—at least in some ways—but for years, I couldn’t bring myself to drink the stuff, even after I was an adult working in an office job and my coworkers mocked my morning Coca-Cola habit as childish. (I had to pay for the Coke, too, while coffee would have been free.) The day I realized I could drink coffee and actually enjoy it, which happened the summer I was 24, felt like one of the great coming-of-age moments of my life. At last I was a woman! No longer would I go out for “coffee” and order hot chocolate or a caffeinated milkshake. I would have coffee, by god, and people would take me seriously.
The problem with a dependence on cream and sugar is that you are utterly lost without it. Whereas if you are strong and mature enough to take your coffee black, you never have to worry that an unexpected shortage will leave you uncaffeinated for the day or that you’ll have to pretend to enjoy a cup someone else poured for you. Even if you come to the uncomfortable realization that not all coffees are like Dunkin’ and taste their best when loaded with the white stuff. Sometimes cream and sugar can make coffee taste awful.
A few weeks ago, I received box in the mail from Tchibo, a German roaster that has just started to sell its coffee and machines in the U.S. It contained two packages of coffee, one whole bean and one ground, and an invitation to attend a “virtual coffee tasting”—in other words, an invitation to use the beans to brew my own cup before a Zoom call with the Tchibo marketing team and other journalists.
Out of respect for Tchibo, I decided I would at least try drinking the coffee black and then add my usual sugar cube after the call was over. But in my hurry to log in on time, I forgot to add a pinch of salt to the grounds, my new favorite trick for reducing the bitterness of coffee.
While all of us on the call waited for our steaming cups to cool to reasonable sipping temperature, the marketing people told us a bit about Tchibo. It was was founded as a mail order company in Hamburg, Germany, in 1949 and remains a family business. Today it’s expanded to retail, a chain of cafes, and stores that sell everything from clothes and appliances to cell phone plans. The reason Tchibo coffee tastes better, according to the marketing team, is because the company controls the entire production process, from harvesting the beans through packing and shipping, which gives it complete oversight. Each batch of beans is roasted individually, and then the blends are combined. This is the opposite of many other roasters who throw everything together, even if different varieties of beans are best at different degrees of roasting. The pièce de résistance is the specially engineered packages that are sealed and held closed with a screw cap, which in theory keeps the beans fresher longer. (Oxygen causes the quality of coffee beans to deteriorate, and that is why you should always keep your coffee in an airtight container.)
Aside from the screw-cap bag, none of this seemed that much different than the propaganda put out by just about every other coffee company, including Starbucks, which is notorious for overroasting perfectly good beans that brew up into undrinkable sludge, no matter how carefully you measure your grounds and heat your water. (There’s a reason why Starbucks is better known for its specialty drinks than its signature blends.) And everybody also has market studies about how much better their coffee is than their competitors, so I didn’t really listen to that part, either.
Then it was time to taste the coffee. Tchibo had sent me a bag of Röstmeister, its darkest roast and greatest pride. Röstmeister is billed as “the coffee for people who really love the flavor of coffee.” Given my cream and sugar habit, it could be argued that I am not truly a person who really loves the flavor of coffee. But I gave it a sip. And then another.
You cannot write about coffee flavor without sounding like a pretentious ass, so forgive me for what follows: It had a rich flavor that tasted closer to the way it smelled than a lot of other coffees; the coffee flavor was strong, but it was coffee, not burned beans. It didn’t taste like dirt and it didn’t taste like acid, or thin and bitter, like there weren’t enough grounds to get the job done. I didn’t feel the need to dip something sugary in it to balance out the flavor, or to take a good swig of water afterward to clean the residue off my tongue.
Really, it tasted the way I always imagined coffee would taste, once I realized that Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream is, like all ice creams, not a strict re-creation of a flavor but a sweet and cold interpretation. If it were a color, it would be a rich, dark brown, like fancy chocolate.
For the rest of the month, until it ran out, I brewed my morning coffee from my bag of Röstmeister without bothering with cream, sugar, or salt. It made me very happy. When that finished, I switched over to the bag of Metropolis Colombian that I’d bought before the Tchibo arrived. I tried drinking that black, too. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the Röstmeier—it was a medium roast and a bit more acidic—but I was glad that I could do it. At last I was free!
Tchibo is starting to appear in a very select assortment of grocery stores in Illinois and Wisconsin; if you happen to live near a Woodman’s, Festival, County Market, or HyVee, you’re in luck. Otherwise, beans and grounds are available, as ever, by mail order online. (One bright spot of quarantine is the increased number of packages we’ve been getting.)
There’s also a Tchibo coffee machine. It grinds and brews your coffee for you all at once, and you can specify how much and how strong you want it with the touch of a button. Chris Mattina, one of the members of the American marketing team, demonstrated it on the Zoom call. It seemed to work well and he said the coffee was delicious. It costs $349. I will be sticking with my little $20 French press for now, but I guess it’s nice to have options.