The perfect cup of joe

| March 05, 2008

Today’s trucker can be choosy about coffee.

In the Starbucks age, coffee is the new Coke. The sheer number of varieties – from different roasts and flavored beans to the myriad methods of brewing and varieties of milk and creamer – has resulted in what TravelCenters of America’s food-service category manager Pete Chrystal calls the truck driver’s “educated palate.”

As indicated by Truckers News’ coffee survey, conducted online in December 2007, the tastes of that palate reflect the ever-expanding coffee options. Finding your favorite brew might not be a priority, but odds are whether you take it black, as espresso with steamed milk, or Canadian and northeastern “regular” (cream and sugar), it’s become more and more likely that the perfect cup may be closer to the cab than you think.

In pursuit of variety
Alan Merfeld takes his coffee black. According to Truckers News’ coffee survey, he’s among a near majority of coffee drinkers who do so (46 percent of truckers reported drinking black coffee). The company driver in pallet manufacturer Millwood Inc.’s private fleet first caught a whiff of the notion of “better coffee,” as he puts it, “close to 10 years ago. My wife and I were invited over to dinner at some friends of ours. Another couple was there and both husband and wife worked for a local coffee distributor.” The gentleman of the pair brought up the subject of coffee by asking Merfeld whether he’d ever tried some of the “premium” coffees out on the market. “I told him that I did drink premium coffee,” Merfeld says. “I told him that it was Maxwell House. He gave me sort of a little grin.”

Merfeld’s story is emblematic of America’s embarkation on the search for the perfect cup of coffee, the Starbucks phenomenon functioning as an early- to mid-1990s highly-caffeinated wake-up call to sleeping palates. A few minutes after Merfeld’s Maxwell House declaration, he heard about Starbucks for the first time, and later, while working as a northeast regional hauler (he’s mostly local these days), he happened upon a franchise at a travel plaza and tried a cup. “I couldn’t believe the fuss that people were making over the brand,” he says. Then he bought his second cup. “I was hooked!”

In 1998, Starbucks and Kraft partnered to deliver packaged Starbucks roasted beans and ground coffee to major grocery-store chains, and Merfeld tried some out in his home drip brewer. “My results weren’t as good as what I had tasted out on the road,” he says, which led him to embark upon a course of self-education into brewing practices, quality beans and even home-roasting, of which he’s something of an aficionado today. “I have tried to brew the perfect cup of coffee over the years,” says Merfeld, a quest which continues for many drivers.

And for truckstop owners, to a degree. They’ve at least followed the Starbucks phenomenon in pursuit of greater choice for their customers. The year 2001 saw the introduction of the first Starbucks franchise in a TravelCenters of America location in Lodi, Ohio. “That was a bold step for Starbucks, because they are very, very concerned about image and synergy,” says Guy McNeil, TA’s director of quick-serve restaurant operations. Starbucks’ propagated image as the coffeehouse home away from home didn’t immediately gel with the image of a truckstop. “It started off pretty slow,” says McNeil.

But in the long run the partnership proved effective; after all, as any trucker will tell you, a good truckstop succeeds by being much the same home away from home that a good coffeehouse is. In about year three, McNeil says, long lines formed, and the Lodi location’s sales went through the roof.

And it wasn’t just froufrou urban four-wheelers looking for a pick-me-up in those lines, either. “We had a tough time figuring out what we should charge for a thermos of Starbucks coffee,” McNeil says, “because the truckers were right there in line with everybody else.” The concept spread to three other TA locations – one in Roswell, Texas, and two in Connecticut – before TA developed and launched in mid-2005 its proprietary Café Express concept, offering several premium roasts, eventually among them its TA Extreme blend, a highly caffeinated variety tailored to the alertness needs of the professional driver.

Pilot Travel Centers, just a few months before, had launched its own line of premium coffees, partnering with Sara Lee for its various roasts, and Petro soon joined the fray with its Java Junction concept, utilizing North Carolina’s S&D Coffee (longtime partner of McDonald’s) in tandem with TA, making their recent merger that much more convenient.

All of the truckstops’ new coffee programs are driven by a trend that TA’s director of advertising and public relations, Tom Liutkus, says took the world of colas by storm years ago. “If you draw an analogy to soft drinks and you go back 50 years,” he says, “you had cola and maybe you had ginger ale or some milder flavor. You look at the proliferation of soft drinks now – you’ve got multiple flavors, colas with lime, colas with lemon, colas with cherry – and it’s because people like variety.”

As Liutkus suggests, while caffeine content is considered the top attribute of coffee by 3 percent of drivers in our survey, taste is the defining factor, reported the most important aspect of a cup of coffee by a whopping 85 percent of drivers. Out of all that variety, the trucker’s educated palate directs the selection.

From variety to perfection
Truckstop coffee, once a euphemism in the wider culture for a highly caffeinated cup of flavored water, has clearly taken on new meaning. As drivers trade their free thermos with a fill-up (though Petro, among others, retains that policy to this day) for flavorful specialty roasts on offer, many drivers have done one better.

Connecticut-based independent owner-operator Sanford Becker runs the upper Midwest and mid-South with a four-cup household Mr. Coffee drip brewer and a stash of the affordable Eight-O’Clock brand bean coffee in the sleeper. “If you grind it yourself, it seems to have a fresher taste,” says Becker. “I have it in a sealed tin, so it seems to last that way, too. When I keep ground coffee in the truck, I’ll get it ready the night before. When I wake up, I hit the inverter switch, and I’m ready to go.” He’s part of the 20 percent of drivers who reported having some sort of coffee maker in their truck.

No trucker interviewed for this story reported continued use of the 12-volt direct current-powered models of coffee makers, though many reported having tried them in the past. With inverters and/or genset-type APUs, the ease of obtaining 120-volt power has led to the wide adoption of more speedy household makers. J.B. Hunt leased owner-operator David McCollum also utilizes a Mr. Coffee four-cup brewer. “It takes about 2 minutes to brew the four cups,” he says, “which I then put in an insulated cup. This is the perfect size coffee maker for the truck. I don’t need to leave it turned on, and it brews much more quickly than 12-volt coffee makers.”

Becker’s maker brews directly into an insulated carafe, eliminating the need for the glass pot and hot plate. “The hot plate has the tendency to burn the coffee,” he says. “In the carafe it’ll stay hot four to five hours. I store the maker on a shelf in the sleeper. When I’m not using it, I have it bungee-corded in. It stays there all day long.”

If you’ve got coarse-ground coffee and a way to heat water in-cab, one particularly attractive, portable brewing implement is a French press. It’s a carafe in which you combine grounds and super-hot water (200 degrees, just shy of boiling, says Merfeld, is the perfect temperature) then “press” a filter to the bottom after steeping. The end result is what Merfeld believes is a superior taste. “[French presses] aren’t very expensive,” he says, and “give you a coffee with all of the original flavor but leave a sediment on the bottom of your cup. The sediment is usually caught in paper filters or other filters in most drip coffee makers.” But he adds that it’s the infusion of the sediment remaining in the colloid that gives coffee made this way its more rich taste.

Cleaning a French press can be messy, though, requiring a great deal of water.

McCollum keeps a stock of flavored ground varieties from Gevalia Gourmet Coffee and Tea Service, paying by the shipment, which comes every 10 weeks – “at the cost of $33.95 for 2 pounds of coffee,” he says. “It’s shipped in half-pound packages so that it doesn’t get stale.” He leans toward flavors like Pumpkin Spice, Chocolate Raspberry and Irish Cream. (Visit Gevalia.com to browse their selection.)

Merfeld’s taken to ordering unroasted green coffee beans and experimenting with his own roasts at home in search of the perfect coffee. He recently upgraded from an $80 Fresh Roast roaster to a Heathware I-Roast, purchased for $189. He can now roast a week’s worth of beans at once. He buys green beans at $4.50 a pound, purchasing from a variety of Internet retailers, including Bald Mountain Coffee (Baldmountaincoffee.com), where last year he purchased organic Mexican Chiapas beans that Merfeld found roasted to a fresh, bold taste reminiscent of Dunkin Donuts’ coffee.

“Whenever you roast coffee, the machines all produce some smoke,” Merfeld cautions. The first time he roasted beans he made the mistake of performing the operation in his kitchen. “My home was so full of smoke that it took a day or so to get rid of the smoke smell.

“I prefer to roast my beans outside on my patio or porch,” he says. “What I have to be cautious about is not to have the machine out when the wind is blowing hard because it is very easy for the machine to catch fire. You must keep an eye on the machines while they are roasting to ensure that the beans are roasted at the right level that you prefer.” The longer the roast, the darker the roast and the more bold the flavor of the end result, your cup of coffee. Robusta beans will be bitterer than the darker, more smoothly flavorful Arabica beans common in today’s “specialty” blends.

Whether you roast your own coffee or not, the freshest-tasting cup will come from freshly ground beans, as Becker notes above. Merfeld recommends a burr grinder instead of a typical blade grinder. Blade grinders chop the beans, resulting in unevenly sized grounds, and getting the approximate level of grind you want is largely a function of how long you grind the beans. Getting a fine espresso grind with a blade is problematic. A great deal of heat is built up during the longer process, and that heat can be transferred to the grounds and result in a burned taste.

A burr grinder crushes the beans against a stationary surface, resulting in a more consistent size among the grounds. The size of grounds can typically be adjusted. Merfeld swears by the Zassenhaus models, hand-cranked grinders with a high level of durability and function. They’re often hard to find, though, he says. Other makes include Delonghi, Solis and Capresso. Prices range from around $30 to more than $100.

Other varieties are out there. In addition to Bald Mountain’s site, two good resources to browse the options are online retailers www.espressozone.com and www.thecoffeebrewers.com.

Whatever you prefer, odds are a thorough search will yield the cup you’re looking for. Tennessee owner-operator Andy Soucy, leased to Landstar Ranger, swore off coffee for “10 or 15 years,” he says. It didn’t sit well with his stomach, increasing his stress level. But then, in May of 2006, he says, “Folger’s came out with their ‘Simply Smooth’ roast,” called by the company “the first nationally available stomach-friendly coffee in the United States.” He’s been back in coffee ever since.


Best Coffee on the Road
Among respondents to our online survey, Pilot Travel Centers lived up to the “Best Coffee” slogan on many of its billboards, with almost a fifth of respondents reporting its coffee as superlative. Among truckstops, Petro Travel Centers placed second, in a statistical tie with McDonald’s, Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. Notable in the “Other truckstop” category was QuikTrip, with locations in Georgia, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona.

Other fast-food restaurant or coffeehouse/doughnutnut chain: 3%
Tim Horton’s: 3%
Krispy
Kreme: 1%
Dunkin
Donuts: 10%
Starbucks: 10%
McDonald’s: 10%
Other truckstop: 3%
Love’s: 5%
TA: 3%
Petro: 10%
Flying J: 8%
None, I make my own: 16%


Coffee Styles
According to our coffee survey, a full fifth of truckers roll with a coffee maker in their truck, the vast majority of them using a classic drip-style maker. European presses and espresso makers have become widely available and popular in the United States over the last two decades. Truckers are utilizing them, too, as the graph depicts.

Alan Merfeld recommends that budding coffee connoisseurs or anyone with more than passing interest in the search for their perfect cup pick up Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, by Kenneth Davis. Merfeld calls the book a coffee bible and likewise recommends Davis’ coffeereview.com website, where Davis writes a monthly column. In January’s column, Davis samples and reviews “premium” roasts and blends from big-box discount stores for their superiority – or inferiority, as the case may be.

What Kind of Coffee Maker Do You Have in Your Truck?
Electric espresso machine: 2%
Classic drip style: 93%
French press: 5%

How Do You Take Your Coffee?
Black: 46%
With cream: 10%
With milk: 3%
With sugar: 14%
With cream and sugar: 20%
With milk and sugar: 5%
With flavored creamers: 12%
With flavored syrups: 1%
With flavored syrups and milk/cream: 3%
Among users of flavored creamers, French vanilla was by far the most popular flavor used.

Coffee Practices and Preferences – Broad Survey Results
Why Do You Drink Coffee?

I like the taste: 85%
To help stay alert/awake: 38%
To aid in digestion: 4%
Other: 4%

When Do You Drink Coffee?
After I wake up: 58%
After meals: 13%
All day long: 46%
Late at night: 16%

What Is the Most Important Attribute of a Good Cup of Coffee?
Taste: 86%
Heat: 3%
Aroma: 4%
Caffeine
content: 3%
Density/thickness of the brew: 4%

What One Factor Most Influences Your Decision to Buy and Drink a Cup of Coffee?
Taste: 61%
Brand: 4%
Price: 4%
Other: 2%
Availability of flavored creamer: 6%
Availability/location of seller: 23%

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