Every month Coffee Review publishes reviews of exceptional, often extraordinary single-origin coffees: green coffees produced in a single country, from a single crop, from a single farm or cooperative and, often, from a single variety of tree. These coffees are usually roasted and packaged by smaller roasting companies, however, so unless you happen to live in the immediate neighborhood of one of these companies you need to buy these very distinctive single-origin coffees online.
What options, we wondered, are available in the way of exciting, distinctive single-origin coffees at the local supermarket or big specialty food store? Are there coffees that consumers can just pull off the shelf and toss in their carts during a weekly shopping run that at least come close in quality and character to those available from the websites of smaller, higher-end roasting companies?
Although various cities and neighborhoods in our home base, the San Francisco Bay Area, regularly enjoy periods of self-congratulatory “it’s all happening here, folks” culinary buzz (Oakland is enjoying one of those moments as I write), the actual array of supermarket, specialty food and big box chains in our area is typical of those found in most large U.S. urban centers. We scouted the aisles of Safeway, by far the dominant supermarket chain in our region, of Target, of Costco, of Trader Joe’s, the innovating value-oriented specialty food chain, and of Whole Foods, the more upmarket innovating specialty food chain.
Although we bought coffees for which “single origin” was defined by the broadest of criteria – coffee produced in a single country from a single crop year – we particularly focused on finding coffees that fit the single-origin epithet more closely: coffees from a single farm or coop, or even a special selection from a single farm or coop.
Very roughly, the roasters of the coffees we bought fell into the following categories: 1) major national or international brands (Maxwell House, Lavazza, Gevalia, Dunkin’ Donuts, McCafé, Illy); 2) national specialty coffee chains (Starbucks, Peet’s); 3) proprietary store brands (Trader Joe’s, Target’s Archer Farms, Whole Foods’ Allegro, Safeway Select); 3) elite specialty roasters with increasing national presence and satellite roasting facilities in our area (Intelligentsia Coffee, Counter Culture Coffee); and a scattering of offerings from genuinely local-only specialty roasting companies of varying sizes (in this case the largish Mr. Espresso in Oakland and the smaller Ritual Coffee Roasters and Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco).
We bought and tested thirty-eight samples. We did not, alas, find any 94- or 95-rated, palate-blowing gems. But the top twelve, nine of which are reviewed here, netted rather impressive ratings of 88 to 93. The entire array of thirty-eight coffees averaged around 85. Since we were able to buy more Colombias than any other single-origin, and because we wanted to convey some sense of the overall range of coffee quality and character we experienced, we added to the nine reviews of high-rated samples a review of a mid-rated Colombia (the 84-rated Safeway Kitchens 100% Colombia) and a very low-rated Colombia (the 75-rated Maxwell House 100% Colombia Medium Roast).
Big-Store Coffee Shopping: Some Issues and Answers
Cupping for this report raised an interesting set of issues and questions, more interesting than I had expected. Here, from a consumer perspective, are some questions and answers provoked by our little sampling.
Q: How important is buying coffee as whole bean and grinding it yourself as opposed to buying it pre-ground?
A: Apparently quite important. Of the six coffees rated 90 or higher, five were whole bean. The average rating for whole bean samples was 86; for pre-ground 84. This should come as no surprise, of course. Roasted beans are natural packages protecting the delicate aromatic substances that give coffee its sensory appeal. Break them open and even the most sophisticated packaging techniques are feeble compensation for the protection lost by premature grinding.
Q: What is the best origin to buy at supermarkets or specialty food stores?
A: Clearly, based on this very limited sampling, Kenya. We tested only two Kenyas; both placed among the three top-rated coffees in the cupping: the Ritual Coffee Kenya Karatina AA Espresso topped the ratings at 93 (tested here for brewed coffee applications, not espresso) and the Trader Joe’s Kenya AA Medium Roast tied for second at 92. However, another origin that regularly attracts high ratings on Coffee Review, Ethiopia, did not burn through the ratings this time round: three samples, high 88, low 84, average 87. Guatemala did well (three samples, including the 92-rated Allegro Organic Guatemala Asuvim Micro-Lot: high 92, low 85, average 88). Central Africa (Rwanda and Tanzania) also did rather well (four samples: high 89; low 83; average 87).
It should come as no surprise, however, that Colombia turned out to be the most frequently appearing single-origin on store shelves. Colombia has recovered from its recent weather-related crisis and is currently producing very large quantities of often quite good coffee at reasonable prices. Plus there is still the residual impact of decades of effective marketing of Colombia coffee around the photogenic Juan Valdez character and his donkey. Fourteen of the thirty-eight samples we tested were Colombias. However, they ranged enormously in quality, from a high of 90 to a low of 69, with an average of 84.
Two Colombias attracted the 90 rating. One was a surprise: the McCafé 100% Colombian, the highest-rated pre-ground sample in the cupping. The other 90-rated Colombia was a more predictably successful offering, a whole-bean Colombia Nariño Medium Roast from a respected, long-established local roasting company, Mr. Espresso. Other solid Colombias were the pre-ground Colombia Luminosa from Peet’s Coffee (88) and the whole-bean “Big Trouble” Colombia from Counter Culture Coffee (88). With the exception of the 90-rated McCafé Colombia, pre-ground Colombias from other major national brands ranged from disappointing to outright bad: Dunkin’ Donuts Colombian (83); Folgers 100% Colombian Medium Dark (77), and the 75-rated Maxwell House 100% Colombian Medium Roast.
Q: Is it a safer bet to buy a supermarket coffee produced by a local roaster than one from a nationally branded roaster?
A: Based on our modest sampling, the answer is a qualified yes, particularly when considering the coffees at the very top of the ratings: Four of the total of six 90-plus-rated coffees we tested came from roasters identified as local. Two were from San-Francisco-based Ritual Coffee and one was from the largish Oakland wholesale roaster Mr. Espresso. We included the 92-rated Allegro Guatemala Asuvim in the local category because it was roasted in Allegro’s nearby Berkeley small-batch roasting facility, not in Allegro’s large national facility. On the other hand, a classic small-roaster single-origin coffee (Sumatra Siliban Village) from Sightglass Coffee , a highly-regarded San Francisco company, did only moderately well at 87, and a locally, satellite-roasted Intelligentsia coffee disappointed (probably owing mainly to roast and packaging issues) at 86. Keep in mind that small, local roasters typically do not use expensive, sophisticated packaging techniques to protect coffee (see our section on Supermarket Packaging and Freshness later in this report), so if a store’s inventory of these local, small-roaster coffees is not refreshed regularly, quality suffers.
Q: What about roast?
A: As is usual with our surveys, the highest-rated coffees were brought to a medium roast, although this month’s samples showed a wide range of medium, with some samples quite light, like the top-rated Ritual Coffee Kenya Karatina (93), and others darkish like the 90-rated McCafé 100% Colombian.
And, as usual, we ran into a few coffees roasted so dark that putting an origin name on the bag constituted a meaningless gesture. Furthermore, with these super-dark-roasted coffees the roast name on the bag often had little connection to what appeared inside. The word “Medium” might appear on the bag, while inside a dark- (sometimes very dark-) roasted coffee showed up. Nevertheless, with most of the samples we tested, the roast description on the bag more or less matched the actual roast style of the coffee.
Q: Which of the supermarket/specialty foods/big box chains surveyed appeared to do best by single-origin coffees?
A: All chain locations we visited offered a more or less reasonable selection of decent single-origin coffees except our local Costco, which seems to have given up on carrying much in the way of coffee aside from a handful of super-dark-roasted selections produced by Starbucks. Our neighborhood Safeway seems to be mounting a significant effort to carry local roasters among its generally wide, if rather motley, selection of nationally-branded, mostly pre-ground coffees. Whole Foods, as usual, offered a good range of single-origin coffees, including locally roasted selections from Allegro Coffee, its specialty coffee subsidiary. The very interesting lineup of rather sophisticated single-origin coffees offered by Target’s Archer Farms brand was in part compromised by their pre-ground format, although scores were still solid (three samples; high of 89, low of 85, average 87). Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, sells its robust if rather generically described line of single-origin coffees in whole-bean format only (four samples; high 92, low 84, average 87.5).
Supermarket Packaging and Freshness
Packaging strategies used to protect freshly roasted coffee from the staling impact of oxygen are complex. As I noted earlier, all packaging works best when the coffee inside the packaging is whole bean rather than ground. Pre-grinding coffee enormously ups the freshness ante, making technically superior packaging absolutely essential. What follows is an overview of how coffee packaging works and can be evaluated. If you are not interested in the technical details, stop here – I hope you enjoyed the portion of our report you have already read. But if you are interested, here goes.
The Small Roaster Strategy
Most smaller roasting companies use a simple packaging strategy. They seal freshly roasted whole-bean coffee inside foil bags with little one-way valves embedded in the foil. (From the outside these valves look like slightly elevated, nickel-sized circles with a hole in the middle.) The valves allow the large flows of CO2 emitted by the freshly roasted beans to exit the bag, along the way forcing out, or diluting, most of the oxygen-bearing air inside the bag. The valve, if it works right, prevents air/oxygen from re-entering the bag after the flow of CO2 has diminished. This strategy more or less works to protect whole-bean coffee over short periods of time, say two or three weeks. The best smaller roasters supplement this approach by printing “roasted on” dates on the packaging, so that consumers can make their own judgment regarding whether the coffee inside these bags is likely to be fresh enough for them.
This month’s top-rated, locally roasted Ritual Coffee Kenya Karatina (93), for example, a coffee almost certainly packaged using a variation on the simple strategy outlined above and bearing a prominent “roasted on” date, showed 4.5% residual oxygen still in the bag with the coffee, considerably less than the approximate 21% oxygen in the atmosphere. It came across on the cupping table as relatively fresh and lively, presumably because it was recently roasted and the oxygen exposure inside the bag was modest.
The Big Roaster Strategy
Understandably, larger roasting companies with national, or even international, reach cannot depend on such simple packaging expedients. Their business models require a longer shelf life: in the United States usually between eight months and a year, in Europe even longer. These large companies typically use the same foil bags with one-way valve as used by small roasters, but they also employ sophisticated packaging machinery that clears the bags of oxygen-bearing atmosphere at the moment the coffee drops into the bags and a split-second before they are sealed. In the most frequently used technique, the oxygen-bearing atmosphere is displaced in the bag at the moment of filling by an injection of pure nitrogen gas, which, unlike oxygen, does not promote staling.
The majority of the nationally branded coffees we tested were clearly packaged using variations on this more sophisticated technique, often called “nitrogen flushing” or simply “flushing.” Sometimes cans or jars are used in place of the foil bags, and the crucial one-way valve is embedded in the foil that seals the top of the can or jar rather than appearing on the side of a bag. If all has gone well, such flushed packaging almost always registers 0% residual oxygen inside the package by the time it reaches store shelves and the consumer. In other words, no unabsorbed oxygen remains in the bag or can with the coffee until the moment it is opened.
For example, the best-rated of the pre-ground samples we tested, the McCafé Colombia, showed 0% oxygen. On the other hand, some lower rated nationally or internationally branded samples also showed 0%, yet still were listless or faded in the cup, probably because (still another variable) they were ground in advance of packaging and needed to be allowed to sit before packaging in order to dissipate the first explosive volumes of CO2 initially liberated by roasting and grinding (a process called “degassing”). Or they may have been feeble green coffees to begin with.
Still with me? I hope so. To sum up, whole-bean coffees packaged by small companies with recent “roasted on” dates are a good bet for freshness, as are whole bean coffees packaged by large companies using sophisticated equipment. To repeat, preground coffees are likely to be at least a little faded no matter how well-executed the packaging.
Finally, there are occasional major failures. Whole-bean coffees in simple packaging with no “roasted on” dates may be allowed to stale on the shelves (we tested one such semi-staled sample, produced by a very respectable local roaster). And pre-ground coffees in sophisticated packaging may on occasion turn up with that packaging compromised by malfunctioning valves or leaky bag seams. Such flaws can expose the coffee to staling oxygen for months. One of the two Lavazza coffees we tested (Santa Marta Colombia, 69) showed 20% residual oxygen in the bag and a cup so faded that it tasted like vaguely sweetened cardboard. In fact we found three out of approximately twenty-two big-company coffee samples with their sophisticated packaging compromised and showing around 20% residual oxygen, suggesting a failure rate of about 14% for this kind of packaging, a figure that some realists in the packaging industry probably would not find surprising, although many large companies appear to do much better.
You may ask, why not use both this fancy oxygen-reducing procedure and print a “roasted on” date on the packaging? Our locally based but nationally present neighbor Peet’s Coffee appears to do just that. On the side of each bag of Peet’s coffee we bought at our local supermarket we got the date on which the coffee was actually roasted as well as the usual “best by” date, which in Peet’s case was three months out from roasting, a rather reassuring figure given the eight months to a year the coffee industry more typically applies to such coffee packaging. And both of the Peet’s coffees we tested (high 88, low 87) showed 0% residual oxygen. Too bad we don’t resonate to Peet’s darker roast styles. Having worked our way through this exercise, however, we have to love Peet’s packaging practices and the integrity those practices suggest.