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These Coffee Sites Speak Java

March 29, 2001|JENNIFER LOWE | jennifer.lowe@latimes.com

A guy I work with has a whole system for getting his daily caffeine, and it usually involves a cup or two of what he calls coffee from the office vending machines.

The rest of us coffee drinkers shake our heads. We have learned about what we drink, of course, not from some faceless machine but from the world of coffeehouses. There, you don't just drink coffee, you absorb the aura of the bean.

Though I inhale deeply when walking into a coffeehouse, I sometimes want to skip straight to having coffee brewing in my pot at home. Spare me the highlights of Ethiopian blend scrawled on a chalkboard; just gimme a cup o' Joe.

Surely the Internet could bring me beans without bother.

I went first to Starbucks.com, since I usually can't pass up a cup of Starbucks. Of course, that's just one thing available on the company's Web site. There's also Starbucks tea, Starbucks gifts and Starbucks coffee education. Under the "about us" section, you can also read about social responsibility.

If you're a regular, you can shop using the coffee quick order function, and if you're buying a gift, you can punch in some information and get some ideas using the "gift matcher." But I figured I might as well try the "coffee taste matcher" since I haven't seen that service in Starbucks stores.

"What does coffee do for you?" began the seven-question survey. Hmmm, was it "the magic potion that gets me going"? "My reward"?

I diligently answered the questions, wondering how they might determine which bean was meant for me. I was given two "sure thing" recommendations, along with three "adventurous" and three "daring" choices, which included French roast and Arabian.

I ordered a pound of Starbucks Kenya coffee--under the adventurous category--for $10.75 because "it aces all tests and resonates in your mouth . . . it reflects the African scene in its bright and refreshing acidity." I could just see the zebras cavorting on the plains.

The site was easy enough to navigate and had plenty of information, each page describing a coffee and its brewing instructions. There were also ideas on foods that would go well with that particular brew, though I'm not sure I wanted to labor in the kitchen to follow them: "Sip it over a berry tart for complete insight into Kenya's awesome depth." The only really odd note was my order number--26 digits long.

The Web site for Peet's Coffee (http://www.peets.com) offered a chance to read about roasting right on the home page, but I headed to the "coffee taste guide" for help in choosing what to buy.

Twice I tried using the guide, but I'm not sure it worked right. After answering which coffee features I care about ("Flavor and aroma"? "Region"?), I faced a 14-point chart asking me to pick what coffee characteristics were more or less desirable, from "berry-like" to "woody." (Had I made a mistake and wound up on a wine Web site?)

Both times, after I saw the chart, the next page asked for some personal information--age, country, etc.--and then I was given my results, which included Sumatra, Sulawesikalosi and Viennese blend.

I clicked back and forth, through some more pages, and finally decided to order a pound of the mild Gaia Organic Blend for $12.95. In a posted review, a customer described it as a "rich mouthful with a variety of subtle tastes."

Checkout gave me the option of buying whole beans or a variety of grinds, such as percolator, filter or espresso. Starbucks just had something called "universal grind."

Last stop: Torrefazione Italia (http://www.titalia.com), a coffee site recommended by an Italophile in the office. The company's Web site was simple and straightforward. A paragraph described each of its eight Italian blends. There was no touchy-feely Q&A. Beans were available in half-pound quantities, so I picked two for $5.95 each based on these brief descriptions: Roma, "Like in Rome, every coffee drinker will enjoy this artistic, full-bodied blend," and Milano, "Italy's fashion capital inspires the snappy quality of this blend."

The best part of all this, in the end, was coming up my front walk to a delicious smell that wafted from the Starbucks and Peet's boxes.

I then brewed all four coffees and shared them with my colleagues. Each had its fans and its detractors. I liked them all. And that guy I work with--the one who keeps the vending-machine companies in business--thought they all were good too. But he didn't get it.

"It's just coffee," he said.

*

Jennifer Lowe is deputy food editor of The Times.

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