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Organic Coffee, Dark Roast Coffee, Fair Trade Coffee Taste Test

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.

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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.

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In this review:
  1. Cheap Coffee
  2. Organic Coffee, Dark Roast Coffee, Fair Trade Coffee
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