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.
Coffee Reviews and Taste Test
In combing through coffee reviews, we discovered that it's actually hard to find a coffee that's not widely adored. There seems to be something out there for almost everyone. Consumers posting reviews of their favorite super-cheap brews use the same words you might see in reviews of premium blends. Even when expert reviews pan a certain cheap option, consumers who have been drinking it for years counter those comments with acclaim.
Mild/Medium Roast Coffee.Light and medium roasts are the ones most Americans drink. The color is light brown and the beans have been roasted to a point where their sugars have started to caramelize, giving the coffee a somewhat sweet and nutty flavor. In a tasting by America's Test Kitchen, experts found that medium roasts may be best for people who drink their coffee black, because milk and sugar tend to drown out the subtlety of the flavor. Our tasting panel noticed this with supermarket brand Eight O'Clock Original (starting at $4.98 for 12 ounces of whole beans) in a blind test.
There are so many varieties of mild to medium coffee out there that finding your favorite based on trial and error could take years. In the course of our research, Melitta 100% Colombian (starting at $5.99 for an 11-ounce can) emerged as the best canned coffee in the light-medium class, based on coffee reviews posted online. Melitta, which is also known for its coffee makers and cone filters, grinds its beans to an extra-fine consistency, so consumers need less coffee to brew a pot of decent strength using a Melitta manual coffee brewers. That may be the key to properly enjoying this coffee; our tasting panel found that a pot made in an automatic coffee maker, using the standard ratio of 2 tablespoons per cup of water, turned out far too strong and bitter for their liking.
Melitta boasts that this blend is made from arabica beans grown at high altitude, and consumers posting coffee reviews on Amazon consistently praise the result. In contrast to our tasters, they compliment its lack of bitterness and full flavor profile. One consumer says in a review that this is as close as you can come to premium coffee at a low price.
We were somewhat surprised to find that experts at Coffee Review and elsewhere have awarded high ratings to Eight O'Clock Original. Consumers posting reviews on Amazon concur that Eight O'Clock is smooth and flavorful, if you like a light cup of coffee. Many have been drinking it for years, since it was the A&P signature medium roast. Reviews note the invigorating aroma and say the brew suits black coffee drinkers, because it's not bitter. Indeed, our panel found that adding milk nearly drowned out the coffee taste. They were relatively unimpressed with this extremely mild blend (most habitually drink premium coffee with stronger flavor). Some longtime Eight O'Clock drinkers posting at both Amazon and Coffee Review say they've noticed a recent drop in quality.
Dunkin' Donuts Original Blend (starting at $8.99 for 16 ounces) is just blah, some reviews say, although our panel deemed it smooth and aromatic -- the best of the five budget coffees on our list. Other consumers like it for breakfast because it's not too dark and not too acidic. A coffee drinker who posted a review on Amazon appreciates that it's so mellow -- not as harsh as other brews. Coffee Review declares it balanced and sweet, while other expert testers note that it's fairly thin and they found a lot of unroasted beans in the bag.
Some consumers swear by Chock Full o'Nuts (starting at $24.99 for a 48-ounce can of Original) -- they drink it, their parents drank it, and so on. It originated in retail locations in New York several generations ago, and coffee drinkers posting reviews at Amazon and online retailer Coffee For Less still find it rich and robust, with a strong and pleasing aroma. It's especially favored among consumers who drink their coffee black. They say it has a deep flavor for a medium roast without the bitterness of a darker roast.
Starbucks coffee (starting at $11.99 per pound) is a bit out of our price range but worth a mention, as it's one of the best-selling brands in the U.S. Starbucks calls its House Blend a medium roast, although it's darker than most. Consumers posting coffee reviews on Amazon find the coffee rich and not acidic, and agree that it's better than much of the cheap coffee available in a can. In the most recent reviews on Epinions, the primary complaint is price, although older comments repeatedly mention a burnt taste. Experts seem to ascribe this to over-roasting for the sake of consistency, and Starbucks recently introduced Blonde Roast blends to attract customers turned off by its traditionally dark brew.
- Cheap Coffee
- Organic Coffee, Dark Roast Coffee, Fair Trade Coffee