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- By Elizabeth Sheer
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. Our other pick for best cheap coffee is Folgers' Black Silk (starting at $7.64 for a 27.8-ounce canister), which delivers depth and boldness without the burnt taste of other dark coffees, according to reviewers and our tasters, although they detected a bitter aftertaste. Cafe Bustelo (starting at $3.79 for a 10-ounce can) also wins over dark roast drinkers posting online, although it was too much for our tasters, who declared it acrid. This coffee is strong and thick, designed for cafe con leche and other variations on Cuban-style espresso. Another tried-and-true inexpensive coffee is Eight O'Clock Original (starting at $4.98 for 12 ounces of whole beans), which began as an A&P store brand more than 150 years ago. Experts say it has stood the test of time, awarding it high ratings for its pleasing aroma and smooth, mellow flavor. Dunkin' Donuts Original Blend (starting at $8.99 for 16 ounces) has many detractors but also many admirers, and took the top spot in our taste test in a unanimous verdict.
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.
Organic Coffee, Dark Roast Coffee, Fair Trade Coffee
If you look at a selection of coffee beans, it's easy to spot the dark roasts. They're darker, of course, and long roasting makes them appear oily, by bringing volatile oils in the beans to the surface. Dark roasting is sometimes used to mask the flavor of inferior beans, because many of the individual nuances of flavor get lost. However, good beans processed by an artful roaster produce a rich dark roast. The most popular dark roasts are Vienna, French and Italian. Vienna roast is slightly darker than the medium roasts that many Americans enjoy. It's usually smooth, full-bodied and caramelly. French roast, often used in espresso, is very dark and oily, without any nuanced top notes, but has a hearty flavor. Italian roast is too dark for many people to drink black. It can be finely ground for espresso, mixed with milk and sugar, or mixed with a lighter roast for drinking as regular coffee. People who take their coffee with milk and sugar may prefer these darker roasts, so the coffee flavor comes through.
Our winner for best cheap dark roast is Folgers' Black Silk (starting at $7.64 for a 27.8-ounce canister). Consumer reviews on Viewpoints call this coffee bold and strong but not bitter, although our tasters found that drinking it without milk left a bitter aftertaste. One online reviewer tried Folgers Black Silk in tough economic times and doesn't miss the pricey French roast she used to drink. She admires the full flavor and lack of acidity. A consumer who used to roast beans at home also turned to this budget brand for financial reasons and recommends using it in a French press in a review on Amazon. Just as Folgers has its adherents, so does Maxwell House. The brand's Dark Roast (starting at $9.89 for 33 ounces) appeals to reviewers with its low price. Coffee drinkers who have posted reviews on Amazon praise its robust taste and full body.
Cafe Bustelo (starting at $3.79 for a 10-ounce can), our pick for a good, cheap dark roast, initially earned a following among college students who wanted the cheapest dark-roasted coffee they could get. It's still one of the lowest-priced dark roasts and a favorite in the Hispanic market. Cafe Bustelo is Cuban-style espresso -- dark and heavy, and a bit much if you drink it black, some reviewers say. Our tasting panel certainly found that to be the case, with one comparing it to gas station coffee that's spent an entire day on a burner. It's a good choice for consumers who take their coffee with milk and sugar, because it's meant to be prepared with sugar and used in cafe con leche.
Fair Trade and Organic Coffee.While Fair Trade and organic coffee is usually on the expensive side, Seattle's Best Coffee Organic Fair Trade blends cost the same at some retailers as the regular blends. The Starbucks-owned brand recently redid its packaging, assigning each coffee a level from 1 to 5. Seattle's Best Coffee Organic Fair Trade Level 4 (starting at $6.59 for 12 ounces) is the second-darkest roast. The few reviews we found at Amazon and Drugstore.com are divided between coffee drinkers who admire its bold flavor and Fair Trade/organic coffee cred and others who pan its taste and aroma, essentially declaring it undrinkable.
If you have a Trader Joe's nearby, the specialty grocery store's dark roasts include cheap Fair Trade-certified and organic coffee. One option is the Cafe Pajaro Blend (starting at $7.49 for 13 ounces), which earns praise for its robust flavor and intense aroma among consumers posting reviews at Viewpoints and SustainLane. Coffee drinkers commenting on Chowhound prefer Trader Joe's Bay Blend for its deep, rich taste, although it's not organic coffee.
Flavored Coffee, Decaf Coffee Tasting
Coffee has withstood the addition of whiskey (Irish coffee), chocolate (mocha), and flavored syrups such as caramel or vanilla. Many coffee brands create holiday blends using spices such as cloves. Purists might denounce the practice, but plenty of consumers savor the taste of flavored coffee. Some of the most popular varieties are hazelnut, vanilla, amaretto, and cinnamon. Coffeehouses usually create their flavored coffees with syrup. But for store-bought brew, the grounds or beans themselves are mixed or treated with natural or artificial flavoring. This lends an aroma to the coffee that's even stronger than the taste. Flavored coffees are usually light to medium on the roasting scale, because the strong coffee taste that comes from deep roasting would nullify any added flavoring.
Starbucks makes its Natural Fusions Vanilla flavored coffee (starting at $17.76 for two 11-ounce bags) by mixing in vanilla beans as the coffee is ground, so the flavor comes through in a subtle way that doesn't mask the coffee taste. In fact, many consumers posting reviews on Amazon are struck by the distinct lack of an overpowering vanilla aroma coming from the bag. The blogger behind CaffiNation was surprised to find a flavored coffee he enjoyed, particularly when brewed cold. He calls the coffee smooth, full-bodied, and balanced.
Coffee shops often provide a little jar of cinnamon so customers can sprinkle some spice onto their cappuccinos. Folgers builds this flavor into its Folgers Flavors Cinnamon Swirl (starting at $5.18 for an 11.5-ounce can). This is a medium-roasted coffee with just a hint of cinnamon. According to consumers posting reviews at Walmart, there's enough to flavor the coffee but not enough to overpower it.
Other popular blends marry nuts and coffee. Maxwell House Hazelnut (starting at $5.49 for 11 ounces) counts consumers posting reviews on Amazon among its fans. They find this flavored coffee smooth and rich, with plenty of flavor and no unpleasant aftertaste. Another cheap flavored coffee that incorporates hazelnuts is Melitta Cafe Collection Hazelnut Creme Brulee (starting at $6.99 for an 11-ounce bag). Although it fills the kitchen with a wonderful aroma, all that flavoring can overpower the coffee, according to consumer reviews on Amazon. Many reviewers report that it tastes more like creme brulee than it does coffee, and some detect a distinctly artificial tinge to the flavoring. Overall, however, most reviews are positive.
Decaf Coffee.Decaffeinated coffee isn't technically caffeine-free. According to Mayo Clinic, an 8-ounce cup contains up to 12 mg of caffeine. However, that compares with up to 200 mg in a regular cup, which appeals to those who generally abstain from caffeine for health reasons or who want the taste of coffee but not the jittery feeling. Most decaf coffees are not as flavorful as their buzzy counterparts, because common methods of removing the caffeine from coffee beans tend to remove some of the flavor as well. That means high-quality decaf coffee must start out with extremely high-quality beans. Even subpar decaf coffee is often more expensive than regular coffee, because of the additional processing involved. One coffee roaster told home cooking blog The Kitchn that the best decaf is made from blends of beans from different regions, rather than a single source. The decaffeination process affects all varieties differently, so their individual profiles help cover up others' deficiencies.
It's difficult to find a dark-roasted decaf from a mass-market brand. Several Amazon reviewers who were fans of Starbucks French roast find Jeremiah's Pick Decaf French Roast (starting at $20.99 for three 10-ounce bags) a more-than-acceptable substitute. They compliment its bold, robust flavor and aroma.
For those who prefer a medium roast, Melitta Classic Decaf (starting at $22.86 for four 10.5-ounce cans) is declared just as satisfying as regular coffee by consumers posting reviews on Amazon. They say it has a stronger, richer flavor than decaf coffee usually does.
Consumers loyal to Maxwell House and Folgers seem to favor those brands' decaf coffees based on price. Maxwell House Original Decaffeinated starts at $10.99 for a 33-ounce can, while Folgers Classic Roast Decaf starts at $14.49 for 22.6 ounces. However, experts give both decaf coffees weak ratings in blind taste tests, based on a general lack of aroma, body, and flavor.
Cheap Coffee Pods
Most of the brands in this report also cater to the fast-growing single-serve segment with (relatively) cheap coffee pods. These little plastic cups hold just enough ground coffee to make one mugful. They take different forms and go by different names depending on the brand of machine for which they're designed. Keurig currently dominates the market for single-cup coffee makers, so its K-Cup is the most popular type of coffee pod. You can also find paper pods for Senseo machines and T-discs for Tassimo coffee makers. These systems are undoubtedly convenient, but if you're looking for a cheap fix in the morning, you won't find it in coffee pod. The New York Times recently did the math: At 8 grams per pod, $10.69 for 12 K-Cups of Folgers Black Silk works out to more than $50 a pound. Meanwhile, we found a 27.8-ounce container of Folgers Black Silk -- more than a pound and a half of ground coffee -- for $7.64.
Senseo pods are generally cheaper than K-Cups, because they house the coffee in a paper filter that looks like a round teabag, rather than a plastic cup. Still, the only real way to get your hands on cheap coffee pods for any type of machine is to purchase beans or ground coffee and make the pods yourself. How-to articles abound online and a company called Coffeeduck markets refillable cups. In lieu of cheap coffee pods, one consumer who posted a review on Amazon uses Melitta Classic Decaffeinated in a Senseo coffee maker. The grind is so fine, this coffee drinker says, that you can put some in a small coffee filter and use the two-pod attachment to make a cup in a single-serve machine.
All that said, here are some of the best values we found for consumers embracing the trend toward single-cup coffee makers. Some mid-range brands that fall outside our budget range for ground coffee come into play if you're shopping for cheap coffee pods. For instance, Caribou Coffee's Caribou blend K-Cups start at $14.99 for 24 -- well in line with other cheap coffee pods. This signature blend is a medium roast that wins accolades from consumers posting reviews at Coffee For Less for its smoothness and full-bodied flavor. Those who drink their coffee black find that it has low acidity and nice balance. In reviews on Amazon, dark coffee drinkers say that even using a larger mug doesn't dilute the flavor.
That doesn't seem to be the case with Senseo Medium Roast coffee pods (starting at $5.95 for 18 pods). Coffee drinkers posting reviews at Coffee For Less call the coffee too weak for a regular-size cup, unless you use two pods at a time -- not a very economical solution. On the other hand, in reviews on Amazon, Senseo owners seem pleased with the taste. One consumer describes it as nutty, with notes of chocolate.
One of the advantages of buying single-serve pods is you can get a variety of flavors in one box and try a different one every day. Consumers living in the same household can also choose which one they like best, instead of drinking out of the same pot. Green Mountain's Flavored K-Cup Variety Sampler (starting at $14.99 for 22) contains four different flavors -- caramel vanilla cream, French vanilla, mountain blueberry, and hazelnut. At Coffee For Less, reviewers compliment the aromas and the smoothness of the coffee, adding that they like having a variety for when guests come over. Again, though, the issue of strength comes up in reviews on Amazon. Consumers say the coffee is too wimpy unless you make only a small cup.