The Search for Great Gas Station Coffee
Coffee culture long ago reached peak trendiness in the U.S. with brands like Starbucks, Caribou and Peets leading the explosive second wave beginning in the 1990s. This movement was followed by the third wave beginning around the turn of the century, featuring smaller shops roasting single origin and/or fair trade beans sold by highlighting flavor notes and regional appeal and using unique brewing techniques like pour overs and french presses. I can’t imagine what the next wave might entail…perhaps coffee brewed to match your individual genetic profile?
The thing is, many of us simply want a good cup of hot coffee and the only flavor note we care about is, well, coffee flavor! And while I enjoy a premium roast as much as the next guy, what if you’re not in a coffee city and instead travelling along the interstate and you simply want a good old fashioned cup of joe? Not surprisingly, even gas stations now offer “premium” coffee so unless you’re making a cup of Folgers at home, first wave (think the coffee your parents drank) coffee is probably a thing of the past.
I’m simply not a coffee snob. Yes, I can probably tell the difference between a third wave brew from Costa Rica vs Sumatra, but I don’t want to have to do that all the time. At the same time, I refuse to drink swill from the local Circle K or Chevron station, or heaven-forbid McDonald’s. So I’ve decided to go out of my way over the next few months to try some gas station coffee in case I’m halfway between Phoenix and Tucson or in the middle of nowhere in a red state and need to put some pep in my step.
I had to drive to Tucson for work this morning so I decided to begin this quest by driving past Starbucks and Dutch Bros to a truck stop for a cuppa dirt. I read online that Flying J/Pilot was a favorite of long haulers so I pulled off Interstate 10 south of Eloy and marched into the store after filling up my gas tank. I noticed right away that Flying J was not going to make my choice easy. I’d read they were among the first truck stops to put in those fancy brewing machines that grind your beans and brew your coffee all at once. Fancy indeed for a truck stop. But much to my chagrin, and maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise, both of the machines this truck stop had installed were out of order. Even still, I was faced with a couple of choices — on my left the shop had freshly Bunn brewed coffee from the same brand as the fancy machines, and on my right was a selection of freshly brewed Dunkin Donuts coffee machines. I am among those who believe the hype around Dunkin Donuts coffee has more due to the fact that they typically serve it with lots of cream an sugar, and since I drink my coffee black with no sweetener I’ve never cared for Dunkin Donuts coffee and think its popularity is more about nostalgia than good coffee. So I opted for a cup of Pilot House medium blend (self-proclaimed best coffee on the interstate).
The coffee was too hot to drink, which is fine, so I let it cool off a bit and headed back out on the highway. After a few minutes, I took my first pull of “the best coffee on the interstate” and it was…basic. That’s about the best thing I could say. It was coffee. It had flavor notes of, well, coffee. No “citrus” or “chocolate” or “nutty” undertones. It was just basic coffee.
But it wasn’t bad. It was hot. It was drinkable. It filled my need for a jitter juice. It was serviceable. For you hipsters, I’d describe it as solid first wave java. Not Denny’s good…but way better than Circle K or Texaco.
If I’m ever out on the interstate again and simply need a hot cuppa to get me going down the highway, I’d stop at a Flying J or Pilot in a heartbeat. That said, I was super disappointed that the premium blend machine wasn’t working. I would have really liked to try the “limited release” Machu Picchu roast which according to the sign offered flavor notes including chocolaty, sweet, and floral.
The big question is, where will I stop on the way home tomorrow? Love’s Travel Stop? JA’s? Bowlin’s Picacho Plaza? Stay tuned.