Date: May 1997

Column/Title: Supermarket Coffees

Author: Ken Davids

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It's one of those does-the-emperor-have-no-clothes questions. When we fork out nine or ten dollars per pound for specialty coffee are we getting something clearly better in the cup than the granulated brown stuff in cans that sells for several dollars less?

The question becomes even more interesting when we consider how the line between "specialty" and "commercial" coffee has blurred in recent years. Two decades ago, when I wrote my first coffee book, the line was quite clear. Commercial coffee came in cans that went "poof" when you opened them. Inside was a light-brown granulated substance from indeterminate origins that tasted monotonously the same. Specialty coffee, on the other hand, was sold in bulk whole beans in small stores whose décor ran to burlap sacks and stained pine, and whose bins offered a wide range of choice in coffee roast and origin. Specialty coffee was almost all very high grade, and commercial coffee was, well, commercial grade.

Given the expansion and consolidation of the specialty coffee business since then (the singular store in burlap and pine has become a chain of stores suavely swathed in dark matte Formica and photo murals of coffee branches), invasions of supermarkets by bulk coffee installations, and canned counterattacks from the large commercial coffee companies, I found myself wondering whether the specialty/commercial line has become so mushy that a coffee lover might do about as well in a supermarket as at the specialty store down the street.

To put the issue to test, I visited three standard chain supermarkets, all within a few miles of my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, plus one chain gourmet food outlet (Trader Joe's). I picked up a random selection of whatever coffee was for sale, both canned and bulk, had a friend open the cans and prepare the samples, then subjected twelve to a standard blind cupping.

For me at least, the stakes were considerable. I've founded a writing career on the premise that specialty coffees are better and more interesting than commercial coffees. Many of the people who are now my friends have founded their businesses on that same premise.

What if the stuff in these repetitive cans cupped out as well or better than the "specialty" coffees sold bulk in bins for twice as much? What if the big fella really has no clothes?

The results of the cupping were, in the main, reassuring, although there was enough ambiguity to give cause for concern in the specialty camp and some encouragement to the big food corporations with their canned blends.

The best coffee by far was a bulk specialty coffee sold from a bin: Millstone Breakfast Blend. It also was the most expensive coffee in the cupping, which further reassured me, since it supports the assumption that price reflects quality. And, the Millstone Breakfast Blend most definitely was better than the "commercial" coffees in the cupping. As my sports-talking friends would say, it blew away the competition.

On the other hand, the bulk specialty whole beans I bought at my local Safeway market (Safeway Select, private label) cupped out no better than most of the canned coffees, and worse than some. This Colombia Supremo was also the second most expensive coffee in the cupping. In this case, price did not reflect quality.

The Trader Joe's coffee represents a sort of specialty coffee compromise. Trader Joe's coffees are sold whole bean with plenty of "specialty" choices and variety, but packed in nitrogen-flushed cans rather than dispensed in bulk. The surprise is the price: These coffees sell for about 30% to 40% less than similarly titled coffees at specialty stores.

Are these savings owing to Trader Joe's self-proclaimed no-frills, bulk-purchase policy, or are they the result of poorer quality coffee beans? What's really in these nitrogen-flushed cans with their deliberate funky labels?

I tasted only one Trader Joe's coffee. Doubtless some others are better. I'm sure Kenya AA is a good coffee, for example, because all Kenya AA coffees are pretty good. But the Trader Joe's Moka-Java blend I cupped clearly cut some corners. The Moka part of the blend was mildly fermented, a sign of a low-grade Ethiopian coffee, while the Java did not fill out the bottom of the blend the way Javas are supposed to, indicating another corner cut. It was undoubtedly a specialty blend, but not a particularly good one.

Four of the canned coffees in the cupping are supermarket standards. Three of them bear familiar names from grocery store aisles past: Hills Bros., Maxwell House, and Folgers. The Lady Lee coffee is a private label in the same traditional price-conscious league. And here, there were no surprises in the cup. No ferment, no sourness, nothing particularly offensive, but no power and little intrigue either, and almost none of the acidy brightness that should energize lighter-roasted coffees.

Four of the canned coffees, however, made gestures in the specialty direction. One, Yuban, was 100% Colombian. I would have been hard put to identify it as a Colombia purely on the evidence of the cup, however. Rather than a fragrant and full-bodied profile with a sturdy current of acidity running through it, I found a rather underpowered, low-toned cup. On the other hand, the "specialty" whole bean Colombia (Safeway Select), though more acidy, was overall no better.

The Melitta canned coffee I tried is a traditional blend, but edges toward specialty owing to higher price, superior quality, the Melitta name, and a considerably finer grind than the supermarket norm. In fact, I found the Melitta an excellent coffee, genuinely traditional in roast style and balance, and well worth the premium over the other canned coffees. However, it was no match whatsoever for the best specialty whole bean blend in the cupping, the Millstone.

To my palate the best of the canned coffees was the MJB Hawaiian Blend. It struck me as superior to many of the whole bean "Kona Blends" put out by specialty roaster, displayed a genuine, subtle Hawaiian profile, and at four dollars a pound constituted a striking bargain.

Folgers Coffee House French Roast is typical of the efforts by commercial-scale roasters to fend off the drift of consumers toward the higher quality, darker roasted coffees sold at specialty chains like Starbucks.

It cupped out considerably better (to my palate) than most of the more generic, traditional canned blends, exhibiting a soft profile with considerable body and low acidity. If the folks who are buying Starbucks, Peet's and similar dark roasted coffees are simply looking for a low-acid cup, they'll get it here. On the other hand, Seattle palates will not find the exciting tension between acidy high notes and dense, pungent bottom that Peet's, Starbucks and the many excellent smaller roasters in the West-Coast style supply. Nor will they find the scores of choices in the darker-roast style offered by these places.

Additionally, the Folgers blend is roasted too light to qualify as a genuine dark or "French" roast. The soft profile of this coffee probably derives as much from the lower-priced, lower-acid coffees incorporated in the blend as from a darker roast style.

Finally, we arrive at the only flat-out loser in the cupping. Eight O'Clock Bean Coffee suggests specialty with its whole beans and valve pack, but the generic nature of the blend, the package presentation, and, above all, the wretched quality, all say commercial. In fact, this coffee is sub-commercial, since the well-trained professionals at the large commercial roasters would never foist off a coffee as wildly fermented as this one on their customers. There was even a small stone in the bag I bought, a treacherous oversight that could wreck someone's burr grinder.

So where does all of this put us in regard to the relative merits of specialty can commercial coffees? About here, I think:1)The best specialty coffees, whether this cupping's Millstone Breakfast Blend or the superb Kenyas and Yirgacheffes in the March cupping, are both far more distinctive and far superior to the best of the canned coffees in this (or I suspect any other) cupping.2)On the other hand, canned commercial blends from the big food companies (and I don't include the Eight O'Clock Bean Coffee in this category) do offer one clear virtue: consistency and lack of dramatic fault. None of the canned coffees in the cupping display fermented notes like those found in, for example, this month's Trader Joe's Moka-Java blend, the April cupping's Java City Celebes, or a couple of the dry-processed Ethiopian coffees that we reported on in March. But, again, neither do the canned coffees deliver anything close to the power and intrigue of the best specialty selections.

In other words, you can either play it safe and take the water slide at the theme park, or you can go rafting and risk a spill now and then for the sake of some genuine excitement.

To truly engage specialty coffees, you must learn to taste and keep tasting. The ratings in the Coffee Review are snapshots of a moment in time. Specialty coffee concerns, even large ones, are volatile, personality-driven places. Millstone could lose its blender to another coffee company tomorrow, and the Breakfast Blend could go straight downhill, for example. Or the buyer for the roaster who does Trader Joe's coffees could find a new supplier for Ethiopian Mocha Harrar and the Trader Joe's Moka-Java blend might just as quickly turn into a winner.

Meanwhile, canned coffees are likely to remain pretty much what they are right now: which, in most cases, is boring.

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