Big Bags from the Big Boxes: Value All-Arabicas from the Discount Chains
Those who read Coffee Review regularly may have noticed the appearance of some rather pricy coffees recently, albeit many of them very highly rated and well worth the money for those willing to pop. This month's article heads in an entirely different direction. On behalf of those consumers who nose their carts down the cluttered but austere aisles of national discount chains in pursuit of maximum value at minimum price we took a look at "premium" offerings from big-box and other discount chains. These are coffees that either position themselves as superior to the standard national canned brands while attempting to remain roughly competitive with them in price, or attempt to offer a line of specialty coffees at sub-specialty prices.
Big Bags, Fat Cans, Cheap Prices, No Robustas
We tested a total of twenty-six coffees purchased from Northern California outlets of four discount chains: Wal-Mart, Costco, Sam's Club and Trader Joe's. All trumpeted their 100% freedom from robusta, the cheaper, blander coffee species which over the past decades has tended to fill the cans of the cheap supermarket brands. Secondly, like more conventional and generally pricier coffees from specialty roasters, they tended to differentiate themselves either by certification (Fair-Trade certification was the favorite, organic second) or by single-origin. Finally, these coffees typically came in large volume: Big cans, three-pound bags, a colorful pile that filled an entire corner of my lab.
And they definitely were inexpensive: as little as 16 cents per ounce for the 83-rated 100% Colombian Supremo from Costco's Kirkland Signature or the 82-rated 100% Arabica from Wal-Mart's Great Value line, for example, and 18 cents per ounce for the quite decent, 84-rated Fair Trade blend from Sam's Club's Member's Mark. Most others came in around 25 to 35 cents per ounce. The most expensive, a Sumatra from Trader Joe's rated 85, topped out at 50 cents per ounce, still a reasonable price for a rather pricy origin. By comparison, average specialty roaster prices for similar coffees range from about 60 cents to 1 dollar per ounce.
The Downside: Nuancing Wood
How do they manage to come to the shelf so cheap? In part, simply by incorporating decent but ordinary coffee. Many samples shared a faded woodiness, a characteristic professionals sometimes call "past-croppish". Two of the samples were so faded they barely flavored the water. They were either old coffees that had sat in warehouses so long they turned into bargains or they started out simple and without character. I found myself making fine distinctions among various kinds of woodiness I encountered along the way: pungent cedar or aromatic wood on the high, pleasing end of the spectrum, old board wood on the low end, and neutral but fresh-cut, softly sweet wood somewhere between.
On the other hand, only a handful of the twenty-six samples displayed outright flavor defects (although there were some of those!), a tribute to the green coffee buyers' ability to find arabica coffees that are cheap but not obnoxious.
Three with Character
I found three coffees that displayed what I would consider genuine specialty character. All originated from Sam's Club. An intense, complex Sumatra from specialty roaster Quartermaine offered under the Barista Brava label (88-rated, 35 cents per ounce), a lovely cocoa-toned, crisply delicate organic Brazil from the Marquis de Paiva line (87-rated, 32 cents per ounce), and a faded but still impressively Kenya-like dry-berry-toned Tanzania from the Coffees of the World label (86-rated, 37 cents per ounce). Probably the best of the blends was a Guatemala/Papua New Guinea construction from Trader Joe?s (85-rated, 31 cents per ounce).
Quality and Consistency by Label
As labels go, the Marques de Paiva line from Sam's Club clearly showed the most consistent quality. Here the cost-savings apparently derived from vertical integration. All of the Marques de Paiva coffees originate in Brazil and are roasted and packaged there. The three medium to medium-dark samples I cupped from this label incorporated sound green coffees and clustered tightly in a respectable 85 to 87 range, with only a rather tired, low-energy French Roast at 81 dragging down the average of the other three. On the other hand, the Coffees of the World single-origin series displayed rather alarming inconsistency, with at least one outright dead coffee joining the quietly distinctive 86-rated Tanzania. The three extremely inexpensive Great Value coffees from Wal-Mart (16 cents per ounce) tended to be rather simple and flat but were at least consistently so: They clustered within two points of one another in the low 80s. The Trader Joe's samples, chosen at random from a huge array of specialty types and origins, showed good consistency in the mid-to-low 80s.
Box Score with Caveats
All of that having been said, twenty-six samples purchased from four Northern California locations do not add up to an exhaustive survey. I am told that Wal-Mart has nearly two hundred different coffee "sets" or product arrays for coffee. So in a national context, this month's twenty-six tested coffees represent a rather small regional snapshot. Also keep in mind that coffees change season by season despite green buyers? efforts to retain consistency. This is a good season to buy Sumatras, for example, which is why we included three of them in our sampling. All did rather well. On the other hand, it is not a good time for Perus; we tested two and both were faded.
But given those caveats and cautions, here is a charted summary of brands, outlets, ratings and prices from our sampling of twenty-six discounter coffees, all purchased in Northern California. INSERT CHART HERE
This month's ten reviews honor the highest rated and in some cases second-highest rated coffees from the most prominent, successful or interesting of the various labels. I reviewed the Kirkland Signature Rwandan French Roast simply to have a French roast and another single origin in the mix.