While hardcore coffee fans debate the merits of automatic Chemex pour-overs and how many grams of water it takes to make the perfect cup of coffee, there's significant buzz building over another area of the coffee world, and it has nothing to do with the minutia of bean culture whatsoever. It's Bulletproof Coffee, the so-called toxin-free miracle drink that promises to help you lose weight and improve brain function — all by adding unsalted butter made from grass-fed cows (or ghee) and a coconut oil derivative directly into your daily cup.
Bulletproof is the trademarked invention of self-proclaimed biohacker Dave Asprey, who came up with the idea after drinking a steaming cup of yak butter tea in the mountains of Tibet. Now, the business of Bulletproof is exploding, with national figures like mini-starlet Shailene Woodley and TV's “Dr. Drew” Pinsky endorsing its life-changing powers. While the beans are sold online and in stores throughout the country, the first Bulletproof-branded coffee shop is slated to open in California in the very near future.
Miracle health products have been around for as long as humans have cared about their health. In the late 1800s, cereal scion John Harvey Kellogg was plying weight-loss cures based around yogurt enemas and corn flakes. In the 1920s, Lucky Strike promoted their cigarettes as a healthy way to avoid sweets. The '50s brought us The Cabbage Diet, which promised dramatic results if you just ate cabbage soup for every meal, while the '70s introduced Slim-Fast shakes and Dexatrim. In the '80s and beyond we've gone from low-fat to Atkins to Dr. Oz-endorsed cure-alls like açai berries and garcinia cambogia. Is Bulletproof Coffee next in line to the health fad throne? Maybe.
But we’re not here to answer that question. The question that nobody seems to be asking is: does Bulletproof Coffee even taste good? To find out what the professionals thought about this bubbling trend, I took a few cups over to the coffee experts at Cognoscenti Coffee in Los Angeles' Culver City. Cognoscenti is exactly the type of shop you want to have in your 'hood if you're the sort of person who goes to sleep dreaming about estate-grown beans in Rwanda. With a rotating roster of high-end roasters like Heart from Portland and Seattle's direct-trade Kuma Coffee, the guys behind the counter definitely know their coffee. That made them the perfect people to talk to about Bulletproof from a flavor standpoint.
At the core of Cognoscenti Coffee is Yeekai Lim, a former architect who started the company as a pop-up in 2009 (five years later, it's being recognized as one of the best shops in the country). His baristas have equally impressive resumes. Jeff Gershik spent years behind the counter at Intelligentsia and Dan O'Brien was one of the Sightglass Coffee soldiers working at Gjelina in Venice. If anyone could offer expert opinion on the coffee trend du jour, it was these guys.
Bulletproof claims to target the lowest toxin content versus normal coffee, so you get all the benefits of coffee without the “negative health effects.” The company’s marketing materials go on to talk about Bulletproof’s lack of fermentation and how the beans in Asprey's branded Upgraded Coffee are treated differently than most coffee in the world, to offer a special class of green coffee bean “without the harmful molds, bacteria and toxins that are a huge problem in modern coffee agriculture.” Is coffee, the responsibly cultivated and roasted variety, really that harmful? This is where the Cognoscenti dudes started to have some issues.
“People have been drinking tons of fermented coffee for a very long time,” says Lim. O'Brien was more blunt: “I feel like if you're going to keep coffee as an ingredient and you're looking for health benefits…find them elsewhere.”
The health claims may not have impressed the two coffee experts, but did the flavor? Not quite. It wasn't offensive to them or anything, but as lovers of specialty coffee, they were most put off by the fact that they couldn't really taste the coffee at all. Lim compared it to coffee with milk that had a distinctly buttery mouthfeel. “At the end of the day,” he says, “I don't drink coffee with milk because I'm looking for the subtleties.”
Gershik agreed. “You can definitely just taste the butter,” he says. “The only thing in the coffee I get out of it is kind of an ashy finish. It's not bad, per se, but it's hard to figure out what's going on with the coffee when it's doctored up.”
And here’s the inherent problem with Bulletproof when you focus on the flavor. There's not much to speak of. It's got a coffee base, but the added butter and oil act as a blanket that covers the taste experience of the actual coffee. Lim put it best when he said, “it's like adding fruit to your wine.” Sangria drinkers may be cool with that, but serious oenophiles wouldn't allow it. Specialty coffee folk are the same way.
If you're a die-hard coffee nerd, the Bulletproof Coffee craze probably isn't for you. It isn't supposed to be, though. Bulletproof is made for the casual coffee drinker who's looking to drop a few pounds and sharpen their focus. And if that means adding butter to their morning cup, so be it. Dieters can't really complain. At the end of the day, drinking coffee spiked with butter is a hell of a lot better than eating nasty cabbage soup for every meal.
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