More than a third of the coffee Americans drink is classified as "gourmet," according to the National Coffee Association. Nevertheless, cheap coffee still commands a large share of the market, and names like Folgers and Maxwell House remain best sellers. While coffee connoisseurs may deride such brands, our reading of expert and consumer reviews indicates that most inexpensive coffees have many fans. Consumers can buy cheap ground coffee in a package or can, or pick up whole beans to grind themselves before brewing, which experts say is best. We've included examples of both on our list, given that many people don't own a coffee grinder or don't have the time to grind their own beans every morning.
Cheap Coffee Buying Guide
We made our picks based on our usual analysis of features and online reviews but also a blind taste test. A top choice among canned, medium roast coffees is Melitta 100% Colombian (starting at $5.99 for an 11-ounce can), which coffee drinkers praise in online reviews for its rich, mellow flavor and lack of acidity.
We used newly opened containers of fresh coffee to conduct our blind test. The panelists were all premium coffee drinkers unfamiliar with these top-rated brands. Each brew was prepared in an automatic Mr. Coffee machine, using 2 tablespoons of ground coffee per 8 ounces of water, and immediately transferred to a thermal container for consistency. The panel tasted the coffees both with and without milk.
How do high-end premium coffees from places like Portland's Stumptown or Brooklyn's Cafe Grumpy command up to $20 a pound, when the coffees in our tasting top out at $8.99? It starts with the sourcing of the beans. Arabica beans tend to produce expensive coffee because they are delicate, grown under shade at higher altitudes, and require more care in cultivation. Robusta beans are cheaper and less flavorful but contain more caffeine. The Dunkin', Melitta, and Eight O'Clock coffees on our list are made from 100% arabica beans, however, so that's far from the whole story.
The beans in premium coffees often come from a single equatorial location or even a particular farm. By contrast, cheap coffees may be a blend of beans from different estates, primarily in Central America, with Colombia predominating. Coffee estates in places such as Ethiopia and Sumatra are unlikely to be represented at the cheap end of the spectrum.Fair Trade and organic designations can also jack up the price. "Fair Trade" means the importer has paid the farmers a fair price, provided credit, and offered technical assistance. Organic farming practices tend to yield less coffee, resulting in higher prices.
The most expensive coffees are extremely fresh, something that's not typically true of cheap coffee. You can expect the grounds at the bottom of a two-pound container to be relatively tasteless. If you're not the type to buy whole beans and grind them yourself, be sure to note the sell-by date on pre-packaged coffee. We talked to a coffee store owner who said there's a noticeable difference in the taste of 30 pounds of vacuum-packed beans from a large roaster vs. beans from a small batch roaster who roasts them to order and delivers them right away. Small batch roasting ensures evenness, with a minimum of unroasted beans in every batch.
Coffee can be roasted anywhere from light to very dark. Darker roasts are usually denser and more intense, although deep roasting can kill off caffeine. Europeans tend to prefer darker brews, while iconic American coffees are generally mild to medium roasts. Still, the coffee revolution that started in Seattle in the 1970s has changed the way many Americans think of coffee. Darker roasts, which used to be hard to come by, are popping up all over the place at affordable prices. Dark roasting is not necessarily a sign of good coffee, however, even in more expensive brands. Certain beans don't lend themselves to deep roasting, and over-roasting makes coffee taste burnt and bitter.
In addition to choosing the best light/medium and dark coffees, we also took a look at cheap flavored and decaffeinated coffees, as well as pods for single-serve coffee makers. Read on to find out which ones promise the most satisfying start to your mornings.