At one time certainly when I wrote my first coffee book 25 years ago the distinction between commercial and specialty was clear. Commercial coffees came in branded cans at supermarkets and specialty coffees were whole beans sold in bulk at obscure stores in college towns with dark wood counters and burlap on the wall.
Today, of course, that distinction is blurred. Many specialty roasters, large and small, sell their products through supermarkets, while large, multinational commercial roasters court specialty buyers with hybrid supermarket products of various kinds, from whole beans through fancy solubles.
One small indication of the importance of supermarkets in specialty coffee: About half of the coffee nominations Coffee Review receives from enthusiastic readers name coffees sold in supermarkets rather than those sold in specialty stores or chains.
Still a Difference?
So, does the original distinction between specialty coffee (quality, variety) and commercial coffee (lackluster quality, limited variety) still hold? In part, it does, particularly if we define all coffee sold in whole beans as specialty and all coffee packed roast-and-ground as commercial. Mainstream roast-and-ground, canned coffees actually appear to have become even more infested with cheap robustas than they were two years ago, the last time I conducted a supermarket cupping. And if we divide the 24 supermarket coffees I cupped for this months article into those offered as whole beans and those offered as roast-and-ground, the whole-bean offerings (11 with an average rating of 83) beat the cans off the roast-and-ground samples (13 with an average rating of 79). By the way, I did not make a distinction on the cupping table between whole-bean and roast-and-ground samples. As usual, I cupped all coffees twice, blind, in two different random orderings.
Twenty-Four (Mostly) Multi-National Coffees
When choosing the 24 coffees for this article (I ultimately reported on 20 of the 24), I concentrated on offerings that I felt were widely available across the country. Most are produced by multinational food companies (Sara Lee Coffee & Tea, Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble). Others are the product of Italian companies with a multi-national reach (Lavazza and Illy Caffe) or very large American chains (Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts).
Generally, these 24 products demonstrate a continued effort by large companies to capitalize on the growth of consumer interest in small-roaster specialty coffees. There are American-style drip coffees offered by erstwhile espresso roasters Illy Caffe and Lavazza, famous brands of canned coffee split into sub-brands to appeal to differences in taste among consumers (Folgers Classic Roast and Folgers Gourmet Supreme, Hills Bros. Coffee and Hills Bros. Mild Roast) and new offerings by multinational Nestlé designed to appeal to specialty buyers under the revived Nescafé label (Nescafé Cool Java and Kona Blends).
The Roast-and-Ground Crowd
First the traditional supermarket staple roast-and-ground coffee packed in cans, bricks or bags. Last time we tuned into this station the bland, grainy robusta coffees (see The Robusta Fuss) were closing in on the last of the mild, bright arabicas. The beat goes on.
Folgers (Procter & Gamble) and Hills Bros. (Sara Lee Coffee & Tea) have chosen to fragment their brands to appeal to, on one hand, traditionalists who still crave a bright, mildly acidy American cup (Folgers Gourmet Supreme and Hills Bros. Coffee), those who crave a light bodied, innocuous, sweetish cup (Hills Bros. Mild Roast), and the apparently palate-dead masses who are willing to put up with anything, including a cup so dominated by cheap robusta coffees that it literally tastes more like an infusion of mildewed grain or nuts than coffee (Folgers Classic Roast).
Both Lavazza and Illy Caffe enter the market for the more upscale segment of the American drip-coffee market in character. Lavazza offers a rather heavy, neutral coffee that probably relies on the better quality robustas (Lavazza Premium Drip), while Illy Caffe, the great European champion of pure Arabicas, offers a drip coffee that, like the famous Illy espresso, is so exquisitely refined that it barely whispers to the palate.
In addition to the refined Illy Medium Roast, the other champions of the roast-and-ground category are well-established on supermarket shelves. The Yuban 100% Colombian is, as always, a fine, consistent canned coffee that offers a sturdy, versatile version of the classic American breakfast cup. And the MJB Hawaiian Blend is a continuing coffee miracle: A canned coffee so aromatic and complexly fragrant that, on the cupping table, I invariably mistake it for a fine whole-bean specialty blend.
What the Illy Caffe Medium Roast, Yuban 100% Colombian and MJB Hawaiian Blend demonstrate is that there is no technical impediment to delivering a good, even fine, coffee in a roast-and-ground, canned format. The real impediment is a mutually reinforcing alliance of nickle-and-diming, cost-rationalizing commercial roasting companies and palate-dead consumers who have been fed grainy, cloying robustas for so long that theyve forgotten what coffee tastes like.
Supermarket Whole Beans
At the whole-bean end of the counter the multinationals have pursued a variety of strategies in their efforts to ride specialtys coattails along the supermarket aisles. One simply is to acquire a specialty roaster (Proctor & Gamble owns Millstone Coffee); another is to distribute a specialty roasters coffee (Kraft apparently distributes Starbucks supermarket line of coffees); a third is to offer whole beans in bags under ones own label (whole-bean coffees offered by Procter & Gamble/Folgers and Nestlé/Nescafé).
In almost all cases whole-bean coffees distributed by these companies far exceeded in quality analogous roast-and-ground products. The only exception was the MJB canned roast-and-ground Hawaiian blend, which handily out-rated two whole-bean Kona blends, one from Nestlé (Nescafé Kona Blend, 85) and one from the Safeway supermarket chain (Safeway Select Kona Blend, 84, not reviewed).
I was curious about how well coffees from the Proctor & Gamble Millstone bulk line would match up against Starbucks bagged supermarket whole-bean coffees. Based on an extremely limited comparison, it was something of a standoff. The Starbucks House Blends mildly sweet, burned profile came off the table with an 80 rating, whereas the Millstone Fog Lifters aggressively burned, woody, and lifeless cup emerged at 74. (Neither is reviewed here.) On the other hand, the Millstone Colombia (89) proved far and away a more complex and aromatic coffee than the Starbucks rather tired Colombia (81).
Old-Time Whole Beans
Finally, a few words about two venerable brands, Dunkin Donuts and Eight OClock Bean Coffee. Dunkin Donuts has distinguished itself by carrying the torch for the classic medium-roasted American breakfast cup against the darker-roasted onslaught of Starbucks (one side presumably hurling donuts and the other croissants). This was my first experience with the original Dunkin Donuts cup, and I was impressed: A genuinely classic profile, acidy but full, cleanly floral and fruity.
Eight OClock Bean Coffee is another piece of Americana, a line of whole-bean coffees surviving from the days when we shopped at grocery stores rather than at supermarkets. The Eight OClock brand offers a variety of blends and roast styles; I reviewed the Original blend. Although Eight OClock competes on price with canned blends (it is the third-cheapest coffee in the cupping), it consists entirely of arabica coffees, an achievement managed by using cheaper arabicas that often display a variety of off-tastes. When I last cupped an Eight OClock coffee, many years ago, the off-tastes wildly dominated the sample, producing a coffee that I described, hyperbolically perhaps, as barnyard nasty.
I now hope to make amends by reporting that the sample I cupped for this article displayed some woody tones and a hint of mustiness (both characteristics of mass-processed coffees), but overall was very agreeable in the sturdy, pungent, floral-toned mode of the Indonesia coffees (or perhaps natural Brazils) that I assume contributed heavily to its makeup.
The Price Issue
And, finally, price, which I assume is one reason (besides convenience) people buy coffee at supermarkets rather than at specialty stores.
First of all, taken as a whole, these supermarket coffees cost a bit less per pound than coffees sold in independent or small-chain specialty stores in the same neighborhood. Prices at the specialty stores averaged about 50 cents to 75 cents per ounce.
The 13 roast-and-ground coffees cost an average of 47 cents per pound (41 cents if we exclude the very expensive Illy Caffe), whereas the 11 whole-bean samples cost an average of 52 cents. This means that, on an average, the roast-and-ground coffees cost about 5 cents per ounce (80 cents per pound) less than the whole bean coffees. Which means, if we are relentlessly mathematical, that when we buy whole-bean coffees we are paying 9.6% more money for 4.8% more quality (based on my ratings).
Whole-bean coffees purchased in a supermarket (average of $8.32 per pound) cost slightly less than similar whole-bean coffees ($8.00 to $10.00 per pound) purchased at independent or small-chain specialty coffee stores in the same neighborhoods.
But such figures are a bit meaningless in terms of individual coffees choices. Throughout both categories, coffee by coffee, a bit more money generally buys more quality, but with some striking exceptions. The two Starbucks samples (75 cents per ounce) are definitely not worth 25 cents per ounce more than the three competing Millstone samples (50 cents per ounce). The two least expensive canned coffees (Maxwell House Master Blend and Folgers Classic Roast) were way, way down the quality scale, yet one canned coffee (MJB Hawaiian at 33 cents per ounce) was my personal favorite in the cupping, and rated as high as the highest-rated whole-bean selection (Millstone Colombian at 50 cents).
Two (and-a-Half) Conclusions
I find two conclusions to be drawn from all of this:
One: Even if coffee drinkers buy their coffee at a supermarket, they (generally) will do better in terms of quality if they are willing to pay a bit more for whole beans and do the grinding themselves.
Two: There is at present a rather impressive range of cup profiles available to the supermarket coffee buyer, from the almost effetely refined Illy Caffe, through the rugged Eight OClock Bean Original, to the acidy classic Dunkin Donuts, to the smoothly innocuous MJB European Roast, to the delicately aromatic MJB Hawaiian Blend. However, the tendency to promote brand over honest description means the coffee buyer may have some difficulty matching expectations to cup.
Which leads to a third, bonus conclusion: Read Coffee Review before you visit the supermarket and buy the cup that fits.