Super Supermarket Coffee: The Best Beans Buying Guide
How To Find Quality In The Coffee Aisle
A stroll down the local supermarket coffee aisle may be overwhelming for some, and a sheer panic attack inducing attack for others. The massive selection of ground coffee, single-serve pods, instant coffee, whole bean, and whatever else, can completely intimidate any innocent shopper just looking for a good cup of coffee.
The key to finding quality coffee is knowing what you’re not looking for. By understanding the options, you can quickly narrow your scope. And, all the coffee choices you don’t want to become a blur in your periphery while focusing on the few choices that do matter.
One of the reasons most grocery stores offer so many coffee choices is the varying forms by which coffee can be presented. The most popular these days seems to be the single serve coffee pod.
By coffee pod, we mean that coffee that comes in little containers that look like half-n-half capsules on steroids. The ones that need special machines. The selection of coffee pods can take up half the coffee aisle real estate, which is surprising because they all taste the same — stale. Are they convenient? Sure. Do they constitute quality coffee? No.
Next, there are those tubs of pre-ground coffee to rule out. You can keep right on walking past these beauties. Coffee loses its freshness within hours (some would argue even minutes) within being ground. So, you can guarantee all the ground coffee in the aisle is stale.
Moreover, most tub coffee is a mix of all the bargain basement mass harvested coffee beans that possess very little flavor. Those substandard beans are then over-roasted and ground up into these vacuum sealed tubs that sit on grocery shelves, and then your Aunt Marge’s counter for who knows how long.
Once you’ve ruled out the single serve pods and the big vacuum sealed tubs, besides the niche coffee products you can completely ignore, you’re left with the rows and rows of coffee bags to figure out. Since we’ve already established that ground coffee means nothing good, you can focus on the whole bean bags. (And, pick up a grinder while you’re at it.)
The Whole Bean Picture
So here’s where a discerning eye is crucial. While buying whole bean coffee will help guarantee a fresher product, not all whole beans are the same. Your goal is to walk away with a bag of high-quality beans that have been sourced on a small scale, processed correctly, and roasted to the appropriate level. To help whittle down the choices, use the following criteria.
The cheapest whole bean coffee will most likely be over roasted to hide defects in the beans. Common bean defects include under-ripe, overly ripe, or rotten beans. Conversely, while the more expensive beans are usually a sign of higher quality, purchasing the most expensive beans may not be necessary. So, don’t rely solely on price to find the best whole beans.
Finding bags that have an appropriate roast level will help narrow down the choices quickly. Most supermarket coffee is over-roasted for the aforementioned reasons. Look for bags that say “medium roast” or “light roast”. (You may also see light and medium roasts called “City +” or “Full City”.) Beans roasted at this level most likely indicates the roaster is not attempting to cover up imperfections, and focusing instead on showcasing the natural flavor of the bean.
Looking at the package for statements about bean origin can give you some indication of the quality of beans you’re buying. But it’s not foolproof. If the front of the bag says something like “An enticing mix of 100% Arabica Beans” and nothing else, then you may want to keep looking.
Although Arabica beans are far superior over their lower grade cousin, the Robusta bean, the best Arabica beans will be found in bags that are labeled with the exact location of origin. For example, a label that says “Guatemala Antigua Familia Perez” is ideal because of the specific origin identifiers.
A bag with this label tells you the beans are from the Antigua region of Guatemala from the Perez Family farm. A label this specific may be hard to find among the offerings in a chain supermarket, but you should be able to find something close, such as “Guatemala Antigua”. At least with this label you know you can expect a flavor profile that’s specific to a certain region.
A Word About Blends
Blends are great if your roaster is combining two or three beans from different regions. The label should specify, however, what the blend is, such as “Ethiopian/Mexican Blend”. If the label isn’t specific, that “blend” could literally be any coffee bean from anywhere, including all the reject beans at throwaway prices.
Now, this may be asking a lot, but once in a while, you’ll be able to locate a roast date on the package, especially if your supermarket carries coffee from local or regional roasters. If a roaster is willing to stamp their bag with a “roasted on” date, that’s a good indication that roaster cares about the quality of their product.
If you do see some bags that appear to be from local roasters, take the opportunity to give them your consideration, even if it means spending a couple dollars more. Local or regional roasters tend to be smaller, tend to take more care in offering quality coffee, and participate more in direct sourcing of their beans.
Getting To The Point
Really it’s up to you how much time you want to invest in getting a quality cup of coffee. If you just want something worth drinking that doesn’t taste like liquid cigarette ashes, go the whole bean. Everything after that is all about preference.
If you’re searching for the best the supermarket coffee aisle has to offer, keep your eye out for locally roasted coffee, light to medium roast levels, single origin or clearly stated blends, and pricing that’s not bargain basement. Roast dates are a plus if you can find them. Happy Brewing!