Taste test of ‘the best’

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We are trying to tell the world about our great coffee program.” –Tim Purcell, director of merchandising, Pilot Travel Centers

You may remember way back in January this year this space discussed the boast by Pilot Travel Centers that it offers “The Best Coffee on the Interstate.” Not just “good” coffee, mind you; not even “great” for that matter. But the very BEST coffee you can get out on the highway today.

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As a mega-consumer of the black brew (no story from me gets written without it!) I couldn’t wait to put Pilot’s claim to my own personal test. Luckily, just such an opportunity arose this weekend on a road trip to North Carolina for a ride and drive of Volvo’s new 2010-compliant VN tractor, which the OEM says offers a 5% fuel economy boost over its 2007 emission-compliant models (but more on that later).

Jason Kidd, the manager on duty at the Pilot Travel Center off I-85 outside Mebane, NC, gave me quick a rundown of the different blends of coffee I’d be tasting, pointing out the “condiment” station nearby packed with a wide variety of flavored coffee creamers, plus chilled creamers and real half & half (kept at a steady 37 degrees Fahrenheit), along with sugar and other natural and artificial sweetners.

Now, in all fairness to the java, I sampled everything without any creamers or sweetners – “straight up black” so to speak – in order to get the full flavor of the coffee, in the process adhering to an old trucker belief that, “if you wanted cream and sugar, why didn’t you order that?”

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First up, the “Pilot House Blend,” which is a mild roast crafted to appeal to any palate. Me? I like coffee that’s got some bite and boldness – so, no, the house blend didn’t cut the mustard with my taste buds. (The house decaffeinated blend also didn’t make my coffee team – and it’s DECAF, too, so two strikes against this one!)

The flavored Hazelnut blend was OK (and Kidd warned me that if I had any nut allergies to stay away from this one), with the Hazelnut flavor barely there, seeming to fade out quickly.

Next came the “origin” premium blends, made from 100% Columbian, 100% Costa Rica and 100% Sumatra beans.

The Columbian blend offered a nice rich but smooth taste with no bite to it – a medium-to-bold flavor with a clean finish. The Costa Rica blend proved to be stronger, with definitely more boldness yet still a smooth and clean finish. Both a thumbs up in my estimation.

Ah, but then the Sumatra blend – African-grown coffee beans that offer a brash and bitter brew. Yeah! This particular coffee packs an uncompromising punch – you either love it or hate it; there is no middle ground with Sumatra. A big plus in my book!

To finish things off, though, were two interesting blends. The first is another Pilot “house” variety but in this case a 100% Arabica dark roast blend. Arabica blends are typically made from many different beans grown at high altitude to provide a strong but not too bitter bite to the coffee – and this one delivered a good “earthly” taste with a mild bite. Put this one down in the “I like it!” category.

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And last but not least is what’s dubbed by Pilot as its “Intense” brew – coffee that’s got twice the caffeine as regular java, Kidd told me. This stuff had a very strong yet smooth flavor – sure to deliver a serious jolt whether gulped in the eight ounce or mammoth 24 ounce cup. And no doubt I'll need it on this road trip! So to this blend another big thumbs up.

In talking with Rosa (seen here at right), one of the ubiquitous “coffee hostesses” staffing Pilot Travel Center locations, customers seem to favor several blends – but the favored few change based on whether it’s day or night. As Rosa works both the day and night shift, she told me the house, Columbian, and Hazelnut blends are the top choices during the day, shifting to the house, dark roast Arabica, and “Intense” at night.

Pilot’s invested a lot of time and money into its new “coffee program,” kicking off the “best brew” effort back in 2003. For starters, away went the old three-gallon coffee brewing “urns” so ubiquitous across the fast food industry, replaced by upwards of eight Bunn brand “soft heat” brewers that not only make coffee in smaller, more tasty batches but keep the java at an even temperature so it does not “cook” the coffee post-brewing.

Kidd, the manager at the Mebane, NC, Pilot location, told me his “regulars” noticed right away how much better the coffee tasted after the company upgraded his coffee dispensing equipment. They also appreciated the beefed up “condiments” station, too: stocked with six different artificially flavor creamers (Irish cream, hazelnut, amaretto, French vanilla, white chocolate mocha, and caramel macchiato), with chilled half & half, French vanilla, white chocolate mocha, and caramel macchiato available as well.

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One interesting (and scary!) addition to the condiment offering is “stok,” while comes in both sweetened (silver top) and unsweetened (gold top) varieties. This stuff contains an “espresso shot” worth of caffeine – a 40 milligram per dose power punch – and there’s a warning on the label not to ingest more than two of these per day.

“It’s for those that need a little extra energy on the road,” Kidd told me. (And how! But let it be known that I didn’t partake of this liquid dynamite – at least not on this road trip!)

Let it also be known that several readers out there conducted their own taste tests, as well – with some telling me they liked Pilot’s java blends, while others saying they were neither better nor different than other coffees plied on the highway. It’s also important to stress that my reviews shouldn’t be considered definitive! Feel free to go out and taste on your own, and tell me what you think of them.

But whether you end up liking or loathing Pilot’s “Best Coffee on the Interstate,” the mere fact that they’ve launched this effort should hopefully help raise the quality of the brew across the highway travel service industry, including truckers (and trucking reporters, too!)

“In the past, the coffee served on the interstate was often just an afterthought; you needed to have it, it needed to be hot, but the quality largely got ignored. We’re trying to change that,” Pilot’s Purcell, told me the last time we chatted about the company’s coffee program. At the end of the day, you really can’t argue with that philosophy.

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