As Americans become more sophisticated about their morning cup of joe, the coffee aisle at the grocery store is expanding. Now there are single-varietal beans alongside those tubs and cans your grandparents drank, but with all that choice comes the dilemma of what to buy.
To help you zero in on your perfect cup, we sampled 15 of the most readily available coffees usually found at supermarkets nationwide and ranked them.
How We Picked and Brewed the Coffee
There are a lot of brands, and a lot of variety even within those brands, so we narrowed the playing field by choosing only dark roast beans, and pre-ground whenever possible for consistency.
Although some brands recommend using one tablespoon of ground coffee for six ounces of hot water, that is never, ever enough. Two rounded tablespoons is the way to go, and that's the measurement we used across the board. To ensure consistency, we used a digital scale to measure the grounds (13 grams of coffee per cup), a temperature-controlled electric kettle for the water (205°F), and a metal pour-over filter. Here's how they stacked up.
The Grocery Store Coffee Taste Test
In order from worst to best, here's our grocery store coffee ranking. Note that I tried to link to the correct coffee on Amazon for purchase, but it's not always an exact match.
15. Yuban, $18 ($.41/ounce): This was a slightly lighter roast than the other tubs, because that's all we could find. Lighter roasts usually yield more complex and discernible flavor and aroma notes, but that wasn't the case with this one. The smell of latex paint was detectible from the moment we opened the tub, and only got stronger with brewing. Overall, we don't recommend this coffee.
14. MJB, $12 ($.53/ounce): Save for the whiff of latex paint (again), there was very little aroma when unsealing the tub. And it brewed up slightly sour with wet paper and woody pulp as the most pronounced flavor characteristics.
13. Maxwell House, $6 ($.2/ounce): You can sum this one up with two words: bitter and burnt. Throw in some creamer and it would likely go down just fine, but I still felt like I was standing in a freshly painted room while I was drinking it. We're not sure where these chemical notes are coming from, is it off-gasses from the plastic tub, or something related to how the beans are processed? Either way, we're not in favor.
12. Folgers Classic Roast, $8 ($.21/ounce): If you like classic "diner" coffee (think: mild and balanced, but forgettable), then you're going to like this tub of coffee. There were faint chocolate notes in the aroma, and no disconcerting latex paint notes.
11. Café Bustelo, $5 ($.46/ounce): The bright-yellow tin (or vacuum-packed brick) of "espresso" is a staple of corner bodegas, and for good reason: For inexpensive coffee, it's really not bad. Although it's not very complex, it gets the job done. It's simply dark, bold coffee, heavy on bitter notes, which is why it's no surprise that it's traditionally consumed Cuban-style with ample sugar. If you're on a budget and need a really strong coffee to stand up to the sugar and cream you want to throw at it, this one's for you.
10. Gevalia Kaffe French Roast, $6 ($.54/ounce): The aroma was harsh, but the coffee brewed up relatively smooth at first, with a bitter finish and a hint of toasted almonds. This would have been a decent cup of coffee if it weren't for the discernible chemical notes.
9. Seattle's Best 6th Avenue Bistro, $6 ($.48/ounce): Starbucks in Seattle and Peet's in Berkeley seem to have defined the West Coast roast as unabashedly bold and bitter. Well, Seattle's Best seems to have taken that style even further. Although we appreciated the toasty-buttery notes of graham crackers or caramelized baked goods in the aroma, the overwhelming bitterness made the coffee simply taste burnt. There was some nice acidity on the finish, though.
8. Dunkin' Donuts French Roast, $7 ($.58/ounce): Dunkin' Donuts coffee has a rabid following, and it can't be due to the not-so-great packaging. We suspect it's familiarity — and not just for those who have grown up going to the donut mega-chain. The flavor is so generic it would be familiar to everyone. This is simply coffee-flavored coffee. There are no discernible notes of anything — no bitterness, no acidity, and no complexity.
7. McCafe Colombian, $6 ($.49/ounce): You know how McDonald's does something to their fries to make everyone on the planet crave them? They're doing that with their coffee. That's not to say this is crave-worthy, but there's something going on, some amped-up flavor enhancer, that makes this really very different from all the other coffees, and yet it's not unwelcome.
Let's start at the beginning. It's Columbian coffee (said to be the most familiar in flavor to Americans) and it's a medium-dark roast (which satisfies both medium and dark roast drinkers). So right off the bat this brew is truly aimed at the majority of American coffee drinkers. It brews up rich with nutty tones and a lively brightness and acidity. Where things started to get a little weird, is when we sampled it again, after drinking other coffees. It was almost juicy, maybe even a little salty in comparison. None of the other 15 coffees had this juicy-salty mouthwatering thing going on. Again, not unpleasant, just not, well, not normal.
6. Illy Dark Roast, $15 ($1.70/ounce): When you pull the tab on the can it opens with a satisfyingly audible gasp. The beans are ground espresso-fine and there are hints of bright fruit in the aroma, although they don't come through in the cup. It's not complex, but the coffee brews up mellow and rich, with a hint of smoke, a touch of acidity on the finish, and no trace of bitterness. Even cream-lovers could skip it with this brew.
5. Lavazza Gran Selezione, $11 ($.92/ounce): Freshly brewed, this coffee smells like toasted bread, or maybe poundcake. In other words, it's perfect for breakfast, no? The flavor is smooth and rich, although not complex, with a bracing acidity on the finish.
4. Peet's French Roast, $11 ($.55/ounce): Full disclosure: I grew up drinking Peet's, so I know there's a very characteristic super-dark, almost-burnt-but-not quality about all of Peet's coffees. No matter the bean or the level of roast, a Peet's coffee is easy to identify (although hard to describe). This French Roast is no different. It's a little chocolatey, a little smoky. The bitterness is strong, but there are enough complex sweet notes and acidity to offer some balance. You must be a fan of bold coffees to like this one, but if you are, you will.
Tellingly, Peet's prints its roast date and its preferred brew-by date on the package, recommending you use the coffee within 90 days. Every other brand recommended consuming within about a year or more.
3. Starbucks Caffe Verona, $13 ($1.12/ounce): Even though it was a dark roast, and Starbucks is known for taking its roasts to the edge of burnt, this coffee brewed up deliciously balanced. It was smoother than the French Roast from Peet's, its West Coast rival, with pronounced hints of fruity berries complemented by dark chocolate notes.
2.Caribou (Mahogany Dark Roast), $7 ($.58/ounce): There was hardly any acidity to this one, but very pronounced smoky notes and a touch of bitterness, all balanced deliciously by honey-floral tones. Like the Green Mountain Sumatran (see below), it was actually smooth and balanced enough to drink black.
1. Green Mountain Organic Sumatran Reserve, $14 ($1.42/ounce): This brand seems to have cornered the market on K-cup pods, but it was harder to find just a plain bag of ground dark roast beans, until we spotted this organic variety on the natural foods aisle. It was only available in whole bean, which we ground in a burr grinder. Surprisingly, the beans weren't very aromatic at all, but once brewed their flavor was deliciously complex. It was earthy with fruity-cherry notes and a hint of vegetal greenness. The coffee was smooth and not bitter, with a bit of balancing acidity. It was so well-balanced, in fact, that we would happily drink it black.
And that's it! Did your favorite grocery store coffee make the list? Let us know in the comments!