I’ve written before about how growing up I thought of cans of Folgers ground coffee as high quality, and then the little cans of instant with pre-mixed flavored creamer that was sold under the name General Foods International Coffee were gourmet coffee. A coffee grinder was an antique appliance with a big hand crank on top that you would see from time to time, and the adults would explain that in the Old Days™ you had to grind your coffee yourself—and no one described it as if it were a good thing.
So I was a little surprised in my late teens when a couple of friends took me with them up to Seattle one weekend to go to a comic book shop there, and one of the other shops we went by was a place where they sold whole coffee beans, or if you wanted to buy a cup there, they would grind some beans and use what to me was a very weird looking machine to make you a single cup.
It would be some years later, after I came to Seattle to attend university, that I would start seeing whole bean coffees on sale regularly in supermarkets, and it wasn’t until I got my second full time job after college, in an office building in downtown Seattle, that I would learn that the odd shop my friends had shown me was the oldest continuously running Starbucks in the world (not exactly the original, because that had been a few blocks away, but they had had to relocated when the building they were originally in was renovated).
The upshot is, that it wasn’t until my late twenties that I owned my own (electric) coffee grinder and started buying whole bean coffees of various varieties and blends. And soon I had opinions about which blends (and which companies that sold blends of roasted beans) were the best.
One type of coffee I became fond of were various Kona mixes. The Hawaiian islands are the only place within the U.S. where coffee can be grown, and the Kona district of the Big Island contains a large number of small farms most of which are still owned by individual families. The climate in that district produces coffee beans with a distinctive flavor. Because the area where it grows is restricted, the annual production is low, in comparison to coffees from other parts of the world, so there are laws defining when one can put the work Kona on a coffee blend.
Starbucks isn’t the only company to sell blends that consist of a small percentage of Kona beans mixed with other beans (usually Brazilian) that have been determined to compliment the flavor well. Pure, 100% Kona coffee is always sold at a premium price.
For years I was perfectly happy to purchase these Kona blends. Until one day, while shopping at Ballard Market (a store only two blocks from my home at the time) I saw bags of coffee called Wings of the Morning, pure Kona Coffee. And the canvas bag further indicated that the beans were grown on the Wings of the Morning Farm which was still owned and run by a family that had been growing coffee there for many generations. It was about $22 bucks for a bag, which was a bit steep (other whole bean coffee was often on sale for $7.99 per pound, as I recall) but I’d never had pure Kona before. So I bought it.
And I became quickly addicted. Because it was more expensive than my usual coffees, I tended to ration it. The $22 bag at the time contained only 14 ounces of coffee, not a full pound, which meant that it was even more expensive than I had originally realized, but it was so, so good!
As I said, I rationed it. I would only make a pot at most once a week. The rest of the time I used other coffees. Sometimes, yes, much cheaper Kona blends, though I’ve always liked switching between light roast coffees (Kona beans are usually lightly roasted) and very dark roast coffees. Over the next couple years I watched the price creep up, eventually reaching $29 for the 14 oz bag. I kept buying it, but continued to ration it.
Then the coffee vanished from the store. For several months there was no Wings of the Morning on the shelf. When I asked about it, I was told that some years the supply of coffee from an individual Kona farm will run out before the next year’s crop comes in. Then, one day I’m in the store by the coffee and I looked up and there it was! And it was back down to $22 for a bag! Yay!
It wasn’t until I was unpacking groceries at home that I noticed that the bag now said it only contained 12 ozs of beans. But it was still really good. And I had been without it so long, that I let myself make the coffee a little more often, because, it’s all right to treat yourself kindly, right?
Over the next couple years, the price crept up a bit faster than before, and I was feeling a little bit guilty. I had about half a bag at the house, and I almost bought a new bag, but the ghosts of my penny-pinching ancestors all seemed to be scolding me for unnecessary expenses. So I bought a pound of cheaper Kona blend instead. And the cheaper Kona blend was a perfectly fine coffee. I liked the coffee it produced. It wasn’t bad, it was good. It just wasn’t as remarkable as the Wings of the Morning.
It was as I was heading home with my purchases that I got an idea. The Kona blends usually contain about 10% Kona beans, while the rest of the blend is some other kind of coffee. What would happen if I mixed in a little bit more of Kona beans in the blend? Would it taste better than merely perfectly fine?
When I got home, I carefully cleaned out the coffee grinder. I measured out equal parts of the cheap Kona blend and the more expensive Wings of the Morning—just enough for one pot as an experiment, right?
I made the coffee, then sat down to try it.
It was not merely a perfectly fine cup of coffee, it was superb. Not as stupendous as pure Wings of the Morning, but definitely much better than the cheap Kona blend alone.
I took some of the cheap Kona blend and carefully mixed it with the remainder of my Wings of the Morning. I put the new mix in a bag that I labeled so I would know it was my blend. When that bag was about half empty, I bought a new bag of Wings of the Morning, I made myself one pot of pure Wings of the Morning (which produces a damn fine cup of coffee, let me assure you!), and then I blended the rest of the Wings of the Morning with my blend. Then, when I used about half of that up, I bought some other Kona blend to mix in. And from there on I started alternating.
When I get a new bag of the Wings of the Morning, I make myself one pot’s worth of coffee with it, then blend it. The last couple of years instead of really cheap Kona blend, I’ve been mixing it with Lowry’s Dark Roast Hawaiian, which isn’t really a very dark roast at all, but I find superior to the really cheap Kona blends.
The other thing this adventure has taught me is that many coffees can be improved with a bit of blending. A few years ago I picked up a new Starbucks blend and roast that was… um… well, it wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t very good. It was definitely worse than mediocre, to my taste buds. But it hadn’t been cheap, and those penny-pinching ancestors turn into a cacophony in my head if I even think of throwing out something like that just because it doesn’t taste great. And it occurred to me that it might be improved by blending with some cheap Kona. So I tried a single pot and darn, if the less than mediocre coffee didn’t turn into perfectly fine coffee once blended.
Earlier this year my husband (who doesn’t drink coffee at all, and usually only buys me coffee if he sees that one of the Christmas blends he knows I like has popped up in the store before I’ve bought any) picked up a two-pound bag of some coffee I had never heard of before at Costco. It wasn’t their Kirkland brand. I tried it, and well…
Okay, if you are a coffee drinker, I am sure you have experienced the phenomenon where a good cup of coffee turns into something icky tasting when it cools to room temperature? Remember that taste. That’s what this stuff tastes like when it is piping hot. And it just gets worse as it cools off. I even tried turning it into an iced coffee, but no, that was really really bad. If I added some creamer it was tolerable, but only just. And it it occurred to me that I hadn’t tried mixing it with a cheap Kona blend yet. Once again, something that wasn’t good was transformed into a perfectly fine cup of coffee, simply by blending in some Kona blend beans.
So I was able to use up the rest of that really big bag of coffee and actually enjoy drinking it. But, now that I’ve used it that up, well, I’ve indulged myself with Wings of the Morning two days in a row. I’ll blend it with some Dark Hawaiian for the rest of the bag, but every now and then, you need to reward yourself, you know?
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