Originally created 07/11/98

Traditional coffee drying up



SEATTLE -- Just what does it take to get a plain old cup of coffee these days, anyway?

The gourmet coffee craze has spread far beyond coffee bars and kiosks, reaching even chain restaurants. It seems everywhere you go -- and not just in coffee-mad Seattle, either -- someone is trying to sell you a fancy brew instead of a good old diner-grade cup of joe.

"We are losing the choice of being able to get a real cup of coffee in America today," says Rose Mary Crane, 57, of Hollister, Calif. "All my life, at my mature age, I've stopped at Denny's for coffee, and it was always a good cup of coffee."

But she says Denny's quit serving the coffee she was used to about a year ago, and now she can't get it at McDonald's either.

"I thought at first I'd hit a bad pot," she says.

For the record, Denny's spokeswoman Debbie Atkins insists the restaurant chain has not changed the regular coffee it serves but has added other flavors, such as French vanilla, to its menus.

But some McDonald's restaurants are indeed introducing gourmet coffees in place of the regular stuff. Spokesman Bill Whitman says McDonald's in Seattle has been testing a high-quality blend from Seattle's Best Coffee Co. for several months.

The backlash against fancy coffees is nothing new to experts.

"There's a militant part of the population that really likes traditional commercial coffees," says Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Long Beach, Calif.

Mr. Lingle says most people who hanker for "real" or "old-fashioned" coffee probably are referring to the robusta profile, a flat, mellow taste -- some might say bland -- derived primarily from robusta beans. It's essentially the Maxwell House taste, Mr. Lingle says.

What are sold as gourmet and specialty blends -- the terms are inexact and sometimes used loosely -- often contain arabica beans, which are more bitter, and added flavors such as hazelnut or vanilla.

Seattle accountant Rick Robinson, 39, says he recognized the switch at his local McDonald's immediately. "Their newer coffee just doesn't have as much flavor," he says. "They say it's better, but I don't think so."

McDonald's sells so much coffee -- in excess of 20 million pounds a year nationwide -- it has become for many people the standard for what coffee is supposed to taste like.

"So once you make any change, whether it's good or bad, it's not often going to be well-received," Mr. Lingle says.

Pat and Elmer Yates, a retired couple from Irvine, Calif., who spend their summers in Minneapolis, were enjoying coffee this week at a McDonald's in Minneapolis, where coffee is still just coffee. Their grandson runs a gourmet coffee shop back in Venice Beach, Calif., but they don't drink that stuff.

"It tends to be too strong for us," Mr. Yates says. "We're not used to that."

Says his wife: "I think it is a generational thing. The young people seem to like the strong coffee."