We were there for a coffee cupping—but Guy Fieri had more sinister plans.
In a large, sunlit room on the second floor of a North Portland apartment building, five eggshell cups sat on a waist-high wooden table. Next to each cup were small, plastic, Keurig-compatible canisters that allegedly held—in five flavors—the keys to a mythical, forbidden land—Flavortown.
Around the table, a small group of friends waited in the afternoon heat as the canisters were emptied into each cup; the important first step in any cupping. When the coffee grounds are dumped into vessels, participants go around one by one, smelling and taking notes on whatever aromas they pick up.
Considering that such a large part of taste is olfactory, aromas are crucial for understanding a coffee. But after only one time around at this cupping, everyone had headaches. "I feel pretty nauseous," a friend observed.
The headaches, and the sickly, sweet smell filling the room, were no doubt the workings of whatever churns out the "big aroma[s]" and "funky flavors" in the selection of Guy's new Flavortown Roasts sitting in front of us.
The flavors: Caramel Apple Bread Pudding, Bananas Foster, Hot Fudge Brownie, Chocolate Mint, and Hazelnut Cinnamon Roll. There was definitely some "funky" shit hanging around in there.
A week earlier, I'd asked my friend Nolan, who works at a coffee roaster in Portland called Heart, to lead a cupping of Guy's joe after a package arrived in the mail and my bank account dipped to a grand total of $14.75. In a cardboard box, ten plastic canisters sat dormant and benign in my apartment.
The pack excluded three of the eight tantalizing flavors—Guy's American Diner Blend, Redwood Roast, and Unleaded Decaf, but that was alright since they were the most boring varietals. Only idiots drink boring things.
The official description for the Diner Blend alone leaves you feeling blank and aimless: "One thing you know about a diner is that they've got a great cup o' joe…so here you go!"
Back on the cupping table, we were ready, somewhat begrudgingly, to forge ahead. After smelling the dry grounds—Nolan instructed us—the next step in a cupping is to saturate them with 205 degree water and let them sit for ten minutes. When the time is up, you take a special cupping spoon and break the gaseous crust that has formed over the top of the liquid and inhale.
Ideally, this is done with concentration and without headache, but we were woozy from the dry run and had trouble finding any crust since Guy's Roasts are composed of dehydrated coffee crystals, which, unlike normal coffee, tend to dissolve in hot water. "I'm getting a lot of tanker oil," Nolan said, his nose nearly touching the surface of the Hot Fudge Brownie. There were murmurs of agreement.
After smelling all five once more, everyone needed a quick break outside before moving on.
Earlier this year, when news broke of the Flavortown Roasts, the very notion was almost immediately and uniformly mocked. Still haunted by the demons of the infamous New York Times review of his Times Square restaurant, it was either a daft or brilliant business move to inject his brand into a base level product whose nuances are often convenient straphangers to functionality. More still, the coffees are in the Keurig "K-Cup" style, whose countless home and office users face potentially limited new options.
According to a prepared statement, they're built to withstand the test of discerning taste buds, too. "Really good coffee's always been super important to me. It's gotta be the real deal with big bold flavors," Guy said. "Over the years, I've been working with an awesome team of coffee nuts to create a killer line that's ready to rock! My fans are going to dig the huge taste, big aroma and funky flavors in my brand new collection."
Back inside and ready to rock, there was nothing to do but keep brewin'. With tasting, the key is in the slurp. It seems ridiculous, but a sharp intake "ensures that the coffee gets oxidized and hits every part of your palate," Nolan told us.
Throughout the cupping, it was difficult to apply consistent criteria, but we managed to compile notes and produce a one to five scale, one being the best.
We moved silently from cup to cup, slurping in a way that Guy would definitely get a kick out of.
But if that was Flavortown, I wanted to go home.
We started rating the coffees in proper cupping fashion, and started with the chocolate mint flavor first, naturally:
Chocolate Mint: The rich and creamy taste of chocolate and cool, fresh mint is perfect any time of year."
The Aroma: Andes mints, cough drops, warm mouth of a menthol smoker.
Taste: Dissonant mint with an immediate cooling sensation that coats the mouth. Balances out to a steeped tea of vintage mentholated tobacco and chocolate. Bitter finish is mostly lost in the prevalent, lingering menthol.
Aroma: Green apple air freshener, crystallized apple cider powder.
Taste: Acidic green apple gives way to and old caramel apple sucker, retrieved from deep under a bed, left to dissolve in a mug of over-extracted, scalding coffee. Bread pudding MIA.
Aroma: Dollar store cinnamon/holiday candle, conservative suburban home, crystallized apple cider powder.
Taste: Liquefied dollar store cinnamon/holiday candle, conservative suburban home tap water.
Hot Fudge Brownie: "My chocolate on chocolate Hot Fudge Brownie coffee comes to you straight from Flavortown!"
Aroma: Hazelnuts, Coffee Crisps, abstract confectionary ingredient, most coffee-like.
Taste: Coffee and cheap, dark chocolate mingle freely. Our Desert Island pick.
Aroma: Banana flavoring, car freshener, banana Runts crushed in Tri Flow bicycle lubricant.
Taste: A creamy banana snow cone melted into over-extracted coffee, banana finish in the back of the throat à la snorted Runts. Most seamlessly pulled off flavor present.