Starting with Cans: Mainstream Supermarket Coffees
True, not all of the coffees reviewed this month came in cans and the term "mainstream" may be ambiguous, but all definitely were purchased retail at supermarkets and most should be available in any large, well-stocked grocery in the United States. All were sold pre-ground with the exception of Eight O'Clock Coffee, the traditional supermarket whole-bean alternative for cost-conscious shoppers.
At Coffee Review, we do not normally consider price in our reviews. Our general assumption is that, at today's prevailing prices, genuinely fine coffee tends to be a bargain when compared to wines or teas of similar distinction.
Clearly, however, anyone who buys a mainstream, pre-ground, packaged coffee in a supermarket must be motivated either by value or convenience or both, hence our inclusion of prices in these reviews, expressed as cents per dry ounce of coffee. (One pound of coffee beans typically yields about 40 to 60 six-ounce cups of brewed coffee so one ounce of dry, ground coffee produces about 15 to 20 ounces of brewed coffee.)
Bad News, Good News
At least I hope buyers of mainstream supermarket coffees are motivated by price and convenience. Because when compared to what is available at a good specialty coffee store or on the Internet, the mainstream supermarket coffees reviewed here offered mainly mediocrity, bracketed by a couple of excursions into pretty good and more than a couple into sheer repulsiveness. Part way through this cupping it struck me as mysterious why anyone would even drink coffee if they were limited to the most common of the canned brands reviewed here. I suppose anything hot, brown, cheap and caffeinated beats NoDoz or overpriced energy drinks.
But to turn to the good news: Given our criteria for this month, the real winners here would seem to be those coffees that proved to be good in the cup and easy on the pocketbook.
Leading on the price side of the equation was the Wal-Mart Great Value 100% Arabica, a rounded, balanced blend rated a respectable 84 and selling at an amazing price of 18 cents per dry ounce. (Again, one ounce of ground coffee nets about three to five mug-sized servings of brewed coffee, meaning this coffee costs the consumer at most six cents per mug, energy and water aside.) A Wal-Mart 100% Colombian (not reviewed here), with a brighter if simpler profile and a slightly lower rating at 83 and slightly higher cost at 20 cents per ounce, was almost as impressive a value.
Leaning Toward the Quality Side
If we give a bit more emphasis to the quality side of the price-to-quality trade-off, the Brown Gold 100% Colombia with a rating of 88 and the Community Coffee red-bag Between Roast at 87, both at 36 cents per ounce, are impressive. Like the two Wal-Mart coffees, they also offer alternative styles of cup: The Brown Gold Colombia is a sweetly tart, light-to-medium-roast high-grown coffee, whereas the Community Between Roast is a rounder, lower-key cup that probably depends on a substantial Brazil component.
Starbucks and Specialty Coffee Crossovers
Also rating relatively well, though offering little in the way of special value, were coffees from larger specialty coffee companies with broad supermarket distribution. The advantage here would seem to be convenience rather than price, as these coffees, at 80 cents up to a dollar per ounce, offer little advantage in price compared to similar specialty coffees purchased in gourmet stores or on the Internet. We sampled offerings from three crossover specialty brands: Starbucks, which appears to be striving mightily (though only marginally succeeding) at maintaining quality and distinction in its Kraft-distributed supermarket offerings; Millstone, the specialty arm of corporate giant Procter & Gamble; and Peet's Coffee, the iconic, pioneering West Coast specialty company that is attempting to push out from its San Francisco Bay Area base into supermarkets and metropolitan areas in other parts of the country without completely losing its cult identity and signature "deep" dark-roasting style.
We cupped two coffees from each company. The African Kitamu from Starbucks and Peet's Major Dickason's Blend both attracted identical ratings of 87, though with different (and quite distinctive) profiles. Both coffees offered experiences that are simply not available from any of the less expensive commodity brands, experiences that justify the old specialty coffee marketing slogan "adventures in a cup."
True, more exciting versions of these coffee adventures can be had by careful shopping at coffee specialty stores or simply by ordering from recent reviews appearing in this publication. However, such upgrading most likely involves the inconvenience of an extra trip to a specialty store or an Internet excursion.
The two coffees from Millstone were not nearly as distinctive or impressive as the Kitamu and Major Dickason's. However, both of the Millstone samples also offered cup styles that can?' be obtained in cans: the Kona Blend (85) is an attempt at a gently low-key, medium-roasted imitation Hawaiian Kona, while the French Roast (82) offers a blend much darker and roastier in profile than any available from commodity brands.
The disappointment for me was constituted by two specialty Sumatras, one from Starbucks and the other from Peet's. Neither offered the rough, earthy/fruity Sumatra style that attracts enthusiasts to this origin. The Starbucks Sumatra, reviewed here with a rating of 84, was decent but simple and generic. The Peet's supermarket Sumatra, not reviewed here, was truly mediocre, tasting quite literally like wood - not cedar or aromatic wood, but plain old boards. I have to assume that the particular bag I sampled was an anomaly from a great coffee company, perhaps an effort to get rid of the dregs of a terminally faded, end-of-crop lot of green.
The Traditional Value Blends
However, even the atypically failed Sumatra from Peet's struck me as a better cup than the various non-Colombia commodity blends in our sampling.
These coffees tended to take two strategies to achieve value-pricing. One involved using dominating quantities of cheap coffees of the robusta species and putting them in cans. The other strategy involved using all arabica coffees, but very bad arabica coffees, and putting them in laminated foil valve bags.
Most of the robustas in the cans appeared to have been steamed to remove the sewery taints these coffees acquire through being dried inside the fruit in rotting heaps. The result is a neutral, cloyingly sweet, woody, vaguely nut-like cup, usually with a slight residual hint of rot. All of the standard branded, canned blends shared a similar steamed-robusta-heavy profile, with only minor differences. The Maxwell House Original sample was best (rated 81, also cheapest at 26 cents per ounce), displaying at least a little nuance and no sewery taint whatsoever. As for the rest: Folgers Classic Roast (76), Folgers Special Roast (79), MJB Premium (78), Yuban Original (79) and Yuban Organic (76), differences in cup quality and style were relatively minor, though Yuban now offers the differentiating innovation of certification - organic or Rainforest Alliance - which I touch on near the end of this article. All of these blends were packed in familiar, colorful cans, cans that should reassure us with their tradition but instead continue to betray us with coffees that actually seem to achieve the impossible - get worse every time I sample them.
The Eight O'Clock Original represents another wonderful tradition, a whole-bean, all-arabica, value-priced coffee brand that dates from the early days of the twentieth century. I have on occasion sampled pretty decent coffee from these familiar red bags, but the last two times around the Eight O'Clock Original samples were abysmal: the worst kind of fermented, mildewed arabicas, doubtless dried in rotting piles just like the robustas in the cans but without the softening impact of steaming to remove taints. Two years ago a sample I bought in New York City was so foul I rated it 66. This year's sample (not reviewed) came off the table at 70.
New Trends in Mainstream Blends
Two innovations turned up on this year's supermarket shelves. First an effort by Folgers to offer coffees that are better and pricier than the robusta-heavy canned blends while a bit cheaper than upscale specialty blends like Starbucks and Millstone, and second, Yuban's interesting effort to offer environmentally friendly certified coffees in a relatively inexpensive supermarket format.
Folgers' new line of "Gourmet Selections" coffees are in fact the latest actors in a regular coffee market ritual, which involves large commodity-oriented roasting companies attempting to define a middle ground between specialty coffees like the Peet's and Starbucks reviewed here, which currently come in about 90 cents per dry ounce, and the low-cost, robusta-heavy canned blends, which tend to come in around 30 to 40 cents per ounce. The two Folgers Gourmet Selections reviewed here cost around 66 cents per ounce, putting them squarely in the middle of the current price range.
Are they squarely in the middle in terms of quality and distinction? It didn't seem so, based on this month's sampling. True, the 84-rated Gourmet Selection "Lively Colombia" was a decent Colombia, though not as impressive as those offered by at least two competitors, the 88-rated Brown Gold (36 cents per ounce) and an 87-rated Don Fernando's Colombia from F. Gavina & Sons (42 cents per ounce, not reviewed here). But the other, non-Colombia Folgers Gourmet Selection in our sampling, "Morning Cafe," proved close to abysmal with a rating of 75. Like this month's Eight O'Clock Original sample, it consisted of all arabica coffees, but cheap arabicas tainted with the distinct aroma of rotten ferment. Together the sewery notes of the Folgers Morning Cafe and the Eight O'Clock Original made the relatively clean-cupping, 18-cents-per-ounce, 100% Arabica blend from Wal-Mart all the more impressive in its price-to-value achievement.
Certifications in Cans
Finally, we have the efforts from Yuban to bring certified coffees into the mainstream. Both the Yuban Organic and the new Yuban Original with its minimum 30% Rainforest-certified content are innovations in terms of relationship of price and certification, but regrettably not in terms of coffee quality. Both the Yuban certified blends we sampled this month were dominated by the same woody, flatly neutral to mildly fermented character displayed by the other canned commodity blends. Nevertheless, these new certified Yuban blends do offer a value option for those coffee drinkers who want their purchases to support environmental sustainability.
What Does Cheap Mean to Farmers?
However, the Yuban blends also raise the issue of what buying inexpensive coffee, even good inexpensive coffee, does to farmers. For example, at 18 cents per ounce the impressive Wal-Mart 100% Arabica may be a blessing for poor Americans in search of the best coffee value for their money, but its low price also means that someone even poorer got shafted out at the far, coffee-tree end of the supply chain.
Returning to the Yuban coffees, the farms and workers who provided the minimum 30% of the Yuban Original that was Rainforest-Alliance certified indeed may have benefited to some degree by the Yuban move, since criteria for Rainforest certification include direct consideration of socio-economic factors that affect farm workers. And the various 100% Colombian coffees reviewed here provide another set of low-cost options for consumers who care about the well-being of farmers. All consist of coffee produced by the Federation of the Coffee Growers of Colombia, an association of cooperatives that vigorously supports the well-being of its largely small-holding farmer members.
Yet, even given exceptions like the Yuban blends and the 100% Colombians, mainstream supermarket coffees generally fail to provide much option for those of us who want to recognize and reward coffee growers as our colleagues rather than exploit them as unacknowledged drones in the vast global commodity hive.
Here, it seems to me, is where specialty coffee, true specialty coffee of the kind generally represented in Coffee Review, excels. Genuine specialty coffee offers a relationship, sometimes tenuous but often substantial and explicit, between our choices and the coffee farmer's efforts. The choice may be structured in different ways - as a relationship based on reward for quality and distinction ("estate" coffees) or a relationship based on socio-economic ideals (Fair-Trade), or a combination of both, but the choices are available, and are real and viable and usually taste good. For those of us who can afford them, I would argue that these are choices well worth the extra few bucks per pound and the inconvenience of Internet shopping or an extra trip to a specialty shop.
Nevertheless, for those heads of families who push through the supermarket aisles toting coupons and scouting for specials while trying to live with dignity on very little, I have to say I'm happy that there are good, cheap coffees out there like those in the Wal-Mart and Brown Gold cans.