Arriving at Coffee Fest this past Sunday with a creamed-up Dunkin’ Donuts brew in hand, it was hard not to feel as though the Transom had stumbled into La Grenouille chewing on a Big Mac.
A few sidelong glances were detected here and there as we made our way through the bustling trade show, which was held this weekend at the Javits Center. But for the most part, coffee people are more laid-back than you might imagine—and happy to tell you why the brown sludge you purchased at your corner bodega this morning is perverting your taste buds.
At the booth of Ceremony Coffee Roasters, Ronnie Haas, the company’s director of wholesale, handed us a lukewarm shot. “You don’t want to drink coffee smokin’ hot,” Mr. Haas cautioned. “Heat masks the flavor.”
Mr. Haas said that most coffee chains—Starbucks, in particular—over-roast their beans to make up for the absence of flavor. “Like, if you got a cheap steak from the supermarket, you’d want to add flavor by roasting the hell out of it,” he explained.
We drank the shot: sweet, complex, acidic, quite lovely. “If you dark-roasted that,” Mr. Haas said, “then whatever you tasted in it would be gone.”
Phil Miley, a representative of Royal Coffee New York, treated us to three different samples to prove that we should ditch the Dunkin’, which last year beat out Starbucks as the city’s largest chain.
There was a floral Colombian coffee, a deliciously fruity Ethiopian joe and a heavier, more savory Sumatran variety, produced by a women’s cooperative on the north end of the Indonesian island. Each drink was served black. Did Mr. Miley, we asked boorishly, ever enjoy his java with the accompaniment of cream?
“I don’t,” he said, figuring out a way to answer judiciously. “If you’re going to put milk in it, you could probably buy a cheaper coffee and enjoy it just as much.”
Feeling dehydrated, we passed a Red Bull stand (was that really necessary?), had a quick shot of decaf to slow down our quickly beating heart and arrived at Atlas Coffee Importers. Al Liu, a coffee specialist, prepared a sample from a Congolese co-op called Muungano.
“The fact that it’s from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is quite significant,” Mr. Liu said, as he poured hot water into a Bonavita dripper. “It’s an ongoing war zone, and its infrastructure is minimal at best.”
“This is the first time,” he added, “we’re tasting it with this process.” And it was delicious—spicy, nice acidity, slightly mulled flavor. Did Mr. Liu like his coffee to be made in the pour-over fashion?
“I have a preference for the French press,” he confessed, “because I like thicker, oilier, siltier flavors. Filters trap the oils.”
At Dillanos Coffee Roasters, the Sumner, Wash.-based business, the Transom asked for a few samples to compare with the Dunkin’ we still had on hand.
The server went all out, placing monstrous shots on the table before us: a medium-roast Americano, a light-roast African blend and a Kenyan brew. The first, a blend of Central and South American coffee, was our favorite.
“It’s more what your average consumer would like,” the server said. “It holds up well in lattes, flavored mochas and vanilla drinks.”
But a few sips were all we could take before we ran, in a caffeinated frenzy, for the water fountain.