The search for good coffee in New Jersey

Coffee

Let me state first that I am not a coffee addict. I just happen to like coffee a lot – whether it’s the taste or the ritual, I’m not sure – and it seems to have become a quiet but rather pleasant habit to drink coffee a few times a week (I’m trying not to say daily). Iced is my preference, as you might know from my Instagram feed.

I should also add that I can live without coffee. In fact, I’m quite grateful for the break (that sounds like a recovering addict doesn’t it, oops). So when I arrived at my home-away-from-home (staying with my wonderful aunt) for my annual East Coast sojourn, I was prepared for the caffeine deprivation. For East Coast Home is in bumblefuck New Jersey, and although I quite enjoy the laid-back motorway surburbia (including a huge supermarket with a dedicated ice cream aisle (YES) within walking distance, and a massive Target – both perhaps uncool but nevertheless highly convenient amenities), there are some metropolitan comforts that are out of reach. Good coffee being one of them.

Back in London, I am well served both at home and outside. My beloved Wilfa grinder is right now missing me, as is the bag of coffee beans I currently have on the go (the great Black Cat Espresso by US roastery Intelligentsia). I didn’t mind leaving that all behind for a few weeks. A dearth of good coffee is not the end of the world, I said. (I thought differently last year, when I packed my mini Bialetti espresso maker, espresso cups, and some ground coffee too. A little extreme, so I let that go).

I’ve lasted two weeks. That’s ignoring the coffees imbibed when I’ve been to New York (very often), where iced lattes cost a lip-biting ¬£5, temporarily halting my grumbling about the price of coffee in London. I’ve actually hopped on the bus to New York to get a decent coffee, and come back a few hours later. I have challenged my own snobbery and tentatively tried an iced coffee from Shitbucks (which has opened a large branch just across the road from me, as if to mock me. They really are everywhere). That ended badly as I realised that no amount of desperation can make coffee that tastes like water that has passed through soil palatable. Now, two weeks later, after an ignoble attempt to resist, I find myself with a rare day in and presenting myself with the ultimatum that I can only enjoy it if I have good coffee by my side.

I might not have presented myself with such an ultimatum had my aunt not been given a cute, 1-cup moka pot from a wedding she recently attended as a guest. The unexpected emergence of coffee-making equipment dangled temptation and hope before me. That iced latte was possible. All I needed was coffee (and ice).

I knew this would be an improvised situation, so I went to Target (see, helpful) to explore what was available. Walking down the coffee aisle, I scanned the varieties available, ranging from the budget and ghetto (Cafe Bustelo, which looks South American and comes in a kitsch, bright yellow tin) to the premium (La Colombe, which I enjoy when I’m in NYC).

The problem is that I can only buy ground coffee since I don’t have a grinder, arguably the most important piece of equipment in ensuring a good cup of coffee. Ground coffee starts losing its flavour within 15 minutes of being ground, so basically I knew that buying ready-ground coffee, no matter what the brand and how premium, was like buying ash. Despite that, I persisted. Something would be better than nothing.

With that in mind, I was less inclined to pay anything more than a few dollars (the price of a crappy Frappuccino, and I’d rather buy ash than one of those) for ground coffee, but still bearing in mind that I would be drinking whatever I bought so it had to be of reasonable quality. La Colombe ($11) – out. Peet’s ($10) – out. Starbucks – never in the running.

My eye fell on Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. America runs on Dunkin, y’know. And I also ran on it a few years ago, when I couldn’t get enough of their caramel iced lattes (still one of the cheapest around, and ubiquitous in New York and New Jersey). Then, one day, I tasted it and realised it was actually dishwater after all, and my heart was a little broken, and my wallet a little sad. Nevertheless, my interest was piqued now by the sight of the distinctive packages of coffee side-by-side in a neat row, fuelled by nostalgia and the price – it was on special at just under $6. The price of a Crappuccino, perfect.

Now, which one? There were at least 12 varieties. I read each label, aware that this was far too much effort to choose one bag of ash over another, but I couldn’t help myself. Medium Colombian Roast, Original Medium Roast, Premium Roast, Dark Roast, French Vanilla, Hazelnut, Decaff…and a selection called ‘Bakery Series’. Here I found a Caramel Coffee Cake variety, a Dulce de Leche, and a Cinnamon Roll.

These coffees are flavoured with ‘natural and artificial flavours’. God knows what those were, but they’re certainly not meant to be in coffee, and definitely not decent coffee. And yet my eye lingered. If I’m already conceding and buying non-premium coffee ash, then why not do it in style and try the campest flavour I could find? I picked up a bag of Caramel Coffee Cake and headed to the checkout.

The moka pot was a delight. Wafts of caramel sweetness filled my nose as I poured the espresso into a glass and added some sugar. Milk. Ice. Sip. Pure kiddy caffeinated sweetness in a glass. The added flavour was definitely present, and I don’t know how long before I get sick of it, but for this afternoon, as I sat inside while it hit 30 degrees outside, enjoying the peace and quiet, it hit the spot. Even my inner coffee snob was giggling.

My afternoon snack was very considered. The camp childishness of the caramel cake iced latte was balanced with a reassuringly adult chocolate and walnut cookie (mountain) from Levain Bakery. I munched, I sipped, I wrote (and also checked out the new iPhone 11, but only for a few minutes). The world was melting outside, but in my world, things were pretty cool.

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