Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary People by Ordinary People, #18.
I introduced the Millstone (Procter & Gamble) organic line of coffees in a previous post. This is a review of four of the five of the coffees in the line (I did not receive a sample of the Organic Mountain Moonlight blend). There are four certified organic/certified Fair Trade coffees, and one Rainforest Alliance (RA) certified coffee.
The product brochure indicates these are grown in Central and South America, although they would not divulge any specifics, such as farms or co-ops, growing methods, or even country of origin for two blends. The information says that this collection is “made from the very best arabica beans” although the product descriptions do not say “100% arabica.” However, these coffees arrived in coated paper bags, taped shut, with handwritten labels, so I don’t know what the actual bag might indicate.
These coffees made their biggest and most lasting impression right after I opened the box. The smell — presumably mostly from the paper-bagged varieties — filled the room in short order. It wasn’t a pleasant coffee smell, but a very strong chemical/burnt rubber odor. It remained pungent for another 12 hours, as I took it all into work and had to move it out of my office because it smelled up my whole end of the hall. Happily, (but curiously), the odor disappeared by the next day, and even when we opened the packages, the beans mysteriously lacked real coffee odor.
Organic Nicaraguan Mountain Twilight Blend. This is described as “A medium-dark roast with a delightful aroma and smooth, rich taste.” Millstone would not answer a question regarding what co-op(s) in Nicaragua this came from; “blend” indicates more than one country of origin, but this information was not forthcoming.
The beans were quite dark, with a sheen but no spots of oil. The beans didn’t really smell like coffee, but had a dull burnt rubber aroma. The coffee didn’t taste burnt, but lacked any richness. One taster thought it tasted like coffee that was too weak made in a dirty pot (although it was made with our standard measurements, two tablespoons of grounds to each six ounces of water, in a french press for our first tasting). This was just plain, mediocre coffee. 1.25 motmots.
These were dark beans indeed. They smelled vaguely like burnt nuts (some debate on what kind of nuts — the kind that is the fruit of a tree, or the kind that is screwed onto a bolt). It was a surprise to us all that such a strong, dark and assertive-looking brew could taste so flat, insipid and lifeless. It left an odd coating on the tongue. I recall, back in the day, getting drunk, trying to sober up with coffee, then passing out. That stale taste left in my mouth the next morning? Sorry, that’s what I thought of. Our mean score barely struggled above 1 motmot.
Kenneth Davids at Coffee Review took a run at this one:
“A rather striking dark-roast coffee in its disconnected extremes of abandoned sweetness and charred bitterness.”
Yes, we kept going (we only tried one a day, to prevent any fatigue or bias). This was surely the strangest and worst of the bunch. Also a dark roast, but again a flat dark brown without surface oils. The beans had absolutely no coffee smell. One reviewer said if he had been blindfolded, he would not have guessed it was coffee. Brewed, this blend had a truly strange oceanic smell, not coffee-like, but almost briny, a whiff of the sea. The taste was also genuinely odd — one reviewer (who has spent three summers in Alaska) said it reminded him of a hot puddle of seawater sitting on a pair of discarded rubber waders on a crab-fishing boat. 0.5 motmots
Rainforest Reserve. This was the only coffee that came in a sealed foil valve bag. It actually smelled like real coffee, but there was still a harshness to the odor that was faintly disagreeable. It is billed as a medium dark roast, but was identical to Green Mountain’s dark roast Rainforest Blend.
I was absolutely unable to get an answer from Millstone if this RA-certified Rainforest Reserve is the same as their Signature Collection Rainforest Reserve. If so, I found an old press release that notes it it sourced from the Lake Atitlan area in Guatemala. However, the Signature selection is not labeled organic, so I have to assume they are not sourcing from the same farms (remember that RA-certified coffee is not required to be certified organic, unlike Smithsonian Bird Friendly coffee, which is). The advantage Millstone has by not revealing the source of their beans is that they can change what goes into each variety, depending on availability and price.
This coffee was certainly the best of the bunch, which wasn’t saying too much. It was slightly bitter, with a thin, metallic-tinged flavor that lacked richness. One person in our first group of four tasters did like it, and her score bumped up the average to our final rating of 2.25 motmots.
The only variety of the line not sampled was the Organic Mountain Moonlight. However, the far-more-talented palate of Doug at Bloggle did review it. He notes “Its flavors tend toward wet earth and wood… and for a cup that tastes subtly of mud, it has surprisingly little body, but it does offer a fairly harsh, stale finish.” Check out the comment regarding why Millstone might be purposely marketing such characterless and uninspiring organic, Fair Trade coffee.
The thin body of these coffees, and their unappetizing aroma, were what really made them stand apart. If we give Millstone the benefit of the doubt and believe that they use all arabica beans, then the lack of body and flavor can only be from poor handling and processing. This is a nice lesson in mass production versus hand-crafting. You can’t process and roast tens of thousands of pounds of beans with the same care and attention as batch-roasting to order. The wheels just fall off.
Finally, a bit on Millstone and sustainability. I dug up P&G’s 2004 sustainability report (PDF). It covers the whole company, not just the coffee, but has an index by subject. Under “Environmental Indicators, Biodiversity, Major Impacts on Biodiversity” there is no page reference, but a statement that says
“P&G does not track biodiversity land use as in general we do not operate in these areas.”