Date: June 2003

Column/Title: Pursuing Quality at the Supermarket

Author: Kenneth Davids

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Suppose a coffee drinker knows that most coffee cans now lined up on North American supermarket shelves are rotten with poor quality coffees of the bland-at-best robusta species. And suppose that coffee drinker wants to move up to something better without excessive fuss or expense. In other words, simply add something handy and reasonably priced to the grocery cart. Are whole-bean coffees sold in Lucite bins or foil bags worth their additional cost plus the effort it takes to grind them? And if they are worth the added cost and trouble, which bags or bins are likely to repay us most for our dollars and gropings around the coffee grinder? Coffee Review will take on this question through a series of reviews that survey coffees available in the larger stores and specialty chains of metropolitan areas around North America. We start with New York City, and will follow in the coming months with similar surveys focusing on other urban centers.

For this article, we purchased about forty coffees from New-York-area locations ranging from price-sensitive supermarkets to high-end gourmet food stores to a chain of natural food stores and a couple of dedicated specialty coffee chains. Our main criterion for selecting the specific coffees themselves was their declared absence of beans of the robusta species. The very finest robusta coffees can be valuable additions to high-end blends, but the kind of robustas present in commercial canned coffees are generally not the nice kind. Consequently the absence of robusta coffees would seem to be a good preliminary way to identify coffees that are "better than" cheap canned options.

Predictably, however, we found a tremendous range in quality and distinction among these forty all-arabica coffees, from the outright foul tasting "Original" blend from Eight O'Clock Coffee to the exquisitely refined single-origin coffees from Bucks County and Allegro Coffee. Reassuringly, our sampling suggested that the more you pay the better and more interesting the coffee you take home, although this relationship hardly followed a straight and predictable line. The highest rated Fair-Trade Guatemala from Bucks County cost around eleven dollars per pound, for example, the same price as the decent but middle-of-the pack Soho Blend from Dean & Deluca. The Kenya from Martinez Fine Coffee was a fine coffee but not nearly as distinguished as the store-roasted Kenya from Allegro Coffee, which sold for $9 per pound less than the Martinez coffee. Remember, of course, that all of our cuppings and tastings are performed blind. Coffees are identified only by three-digit number and are cupped twice in two different orders. Scores are assigned before the coffee identities are connected to the numbers. Even building some slack into our analysis to compensate for the relativity of taste and judgment, it would seem that you have to pay for quality in the world of coffee: the average price per pound of coffees rated 89 or above was $12.99, while those rated 84 to 88 averaged $10.53 per pound, and those scoring 83 points or lower averaged $7.27 per pound.

Reassuringly for the coffee aficionado, the highest rated coffees were all single-origin offerings rather than blends. Kenya and Guatemala, coffee origins particularly admired among insiders, accounted for five of the seven highest rated samples. Ethiopia, which generally endured a poor quality crop last year (coffee origins, like wine origins, have good years and bad depending on seasonal weather), produced only middle-of-the-pack coffees, none of which is reviewed here. Colombia, which until recently was known for marketing good but standard commodity coffee (see Juan Valdez) rather than singular and exceptional coffees, fared passably well with ratings ranging from a high of 87 to a low of 78. Neither of the highest rated Colombias (87 and 86) was a standard-issue one-size-fits-all Colombia, however. One was a Popoyan, from a particularly admired growing region, and the other was a coffee that was aged for eight years.

It is tempting to draw conclusions from this survey about which coffee brands or roasting companies deliver better or more distinctive coffees than which other brands or companies, but given the small number of arbitrarily selected coffees we sampled from each brand or roaster, such detailed speculation seems unfair. On the other hand, a study of the ratings does suggest that coffee companies with a clear specialty heritage (Bucks County, Green Mountain, Allegro, plus the much smaller Martinez, Porto Rico, and McNulty's), in general do a more consistent job of generating quality and distinction than do large "commercial" coffee companies that are attempting to move into specialty territory with new brands or presentations (Eight O'Clock Coffee's Royale brand, Kraft Foods' Maxwell House Premium Cup, Sara Lee's Chock full o' Nuts New York Classics, Procter & Gamble's Folgers Whole Bean). The exception to the generally superior performance of brands with a specialty background may be specialty giant Starbucks' line of supermarket coffees. Although we included only one Starbucks sample in this cupping (House Blend, rated 80), my previous cuppings of Starbucks supermarket coffees support the suspicion that the best Starbucks whole-bean coffees are seasonally featured single-origin selections sold in Starbucks stores and cafes, whereas Starbucks branded supermarket coffees tend to be lackluster and dominated by a clumsy, overbearing roast.

Finally, I feel obligated to point out that every coffee rated over 80 in this review is a bargain when compared to prices prevailing for most other beverages. (See Connoisseurs vs. Altruists and the Coffee Price Crisis.) Coffee production is a labor-intensive undertaking. The fruit is hand picked, and the beans or seeds subsequently are subjected to more than a dozen demanding procedures, from fruit removal through cleaning, grading and roasting. Yet, as our survey indicates, perfectly decent coffees are sold for less than $3.00 per pound, or around five cents per cup brewed. And the top-rated Bucks County Guatemala, an exquisite coffee equivalent in quality to the best wines, can be enjoyed for less than twenty cents per cup.

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