Brewing Coffee Manually

Better coffee. One cup at a time.

What Coffee Should I Buy at the Grocery Store?

“What coffee should I buy at Jewel?” (or “The Jewels” would be more accurate for my locale, it really doesn’t matter {Insert Local Grocery Store for “Jewel”})

It is hands down the most common question I get whenever someone finds out I know a little bit about the blissful beverage. It’s an entry level coffee buying question but it’s also a loaded question. Nonetheless, it is a question the deserves an answer.

What is the best grocery store option for the curious person who wants to peer into the rabbit hole of a better cup of coffee?

A short explanation- Why is this such a loaded question?

I can already hear the third wave coffee pitchforks being raised. “Good coffee from a grocery store!?”

I get it, the average grocery store holds no treasures for the coffee aficionado. Bear with me.

On the other side of the coin, I’m about meeting people where they are at. An earnest question in the search of a better cup of coffee that is rebuffed with a curt “You’ll never find good coffee at the supermarket” does no good at all.

I am a huge proponent of the small craft roaster and love to support them but let’s be honest, not everyone values the same things. There are several distinct (three that I could think of) advantages to purchasing coffee at a grocery store.

  • Convenience- This advantage is somewhat of a myth but I had to put it in here because it is a major excuse people use to purchase coffee at the grocery store. If the only reason you are buying coffee where you buy your milk is convenience, skip all the way down to the part about subscription services and call it a day. Great coffee can show up in your mailbox. Your world is about to be rocked.
  • Economic reasons- You can’t argue the economic advantage of buying coffee at the grocery store. If money is your main concern, then you will seldom find a better ‘deal’ than the coffee that is on sale at the grocery store. Craft coffee most often comes with a higher price tag (for good reasons).
  • Time constraints- If you need coffee now, there is no substitute for going and picking up a bag. When the local roaster is closed and you can’t wait three days to ship some in, the grocery store starts to look like the prettiest girl left at the ball.

There is also the 439 pound gorilla in the room, everyone has different tastes in coffee. How can you recommend a particular coffee to someone when you have no idea what they like or are expecting in a cup of coffee? At the very least, a canned response to the coffee at the grocery store question will not do.

It’s a loaded question.

How to navigate the hundreds of coffee choices at your grocery store

Since my wife and I usually get our coffee from other sources, it’s been awhile since I’ve gone to the grocery store in search of coffee. I’m preparation for this post, I thought a trip to the grocery store was in order to check out the situation.

Let me just say, the sheer amount of coffee available at the grocery store can be staggering. I paced 16 strides, which is roughly 45 feet, of coffee options in my store. That is a lot of coffee to choose from.

Luckily, the selection at the grocery store can easily be chunked and explained in a few subcategories. This can help simplify the possibilities tremendously. I’ve listed them in order from least desirable to the best option (my opinion of course) with some explanations of why you may want to “settle” on a given category.

“Gourmet” Flavored Coffee

Examples: Dunkin’ Donuts Chocolate Glazed Donut Blend, New England Coffee Blueberry Cobbler, anything that is Snickerdoodle flavored.

It may come as a surprise to some that this is the least desirable option on my list (even below instant coffee) but I am a serious gourmet flavored coffee hater. The chemicals used to give these coffees their flavors not only taste bad to me, but they can also ruin your coffee equipment. Plastics will absorb the chemical flavorings, so brewers and coffee grinders that have touched the stuff will never be quite the same again.

My advice is avoid these types of coffees or resign yourself to the reality of tainted equipment. A few experimental indiscretions will not ruin your equipment but prolonged use of the this type of product will result in the necessity of replacing it all if you should ever decide to move on up from the flavored coffee world.

Instant Coffee

Examples: Taster’s Choice, Nescafe, Starbucks VIA

These days instant coffees have a range of quality levels but traditionally instant quality was the lowest of the low. Instant is different than the other coffees as it has already been brewed once and flash dehydrated. You don’t actually brew with instant coffee, you just rehydrate.

While extremely convenient (and consistent), I wouldn’t recommend instant coffee either. The cheap stuff is typically low quality mixed with robusta. It’s resemblance to a good coffee is closest at the molecular level and it sharply diverges from there.

At the undisputed top of instant coffee dog pile is Starbucks VIA (in this case, the top doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good option). I have not tried it in years, however, at an average of 83 cents a serving, my heart skips a beat. This is roughly comparable in price to an 18 dollar 12 oz package of specialty coffee.

Single Serve Coffee Pods

Examples: Keurig is the overwhelming majority here. The brands run the gamut from Folgers K-cups to Starbucks and Peet’s brand K-cups.

As of this posting, the Brewing Coffee Manually Blog has pretty much laid off of the single serving coffee pods. Hundreds of posts have been written on the K-cup’s flaws and coffee quality issues.

These single serve coffee pods have the perk of affording the user more customization options as well as being ultra convenient. As a manual brewing enthusiast it is easy for me to see through these flimsy up sides and focus on the negatives.

Sometimes I am startled with how immersed our culture has become in the ultra convenient single serving pods. Just last week, GE released a refrigerator with a K-cup built into the door!

Single serve coffee pods are not only expensive (at full price you could be paying 30 dollars a pound for commodity grade coffee) but require special equipment to brew (which can also get expensive). The quality of the brewed coffee leaves a lot to desired as well (although I must admit it has been probably a year since I have sampled a Keurig brew).

I wouldn’t recommend them for someone who is looking to expand their coffee horizons.

Commercial Coffee

Examples: Maxwell House, Folgers, Hills Bros

Commercial coffees are the household names that most everyone can remember from growing up. They are basic and they are often consumed for economic reasons or nostalgia’s sake. There are people that genuinely enjoy their brand of commercial coffee and that’s fine (these people are probably not asking what coffee to buy at the grocery store).

“Gourmet” Non-Flavored Coffee

Examples: McCafe, Papa Nicholas, New England Coffee

Gourmet coffee is a marketing term that can be used at the discretion of the company that roasts the coffee. (Find out more about Gourmet coffee here). The non-flavored gourmet coffees are typically sold as blends and can come in pre-ground or whole bean form.

The bulk coffee bins usually fall under the labeled of gourmet coffee.

While there should be better options at the grocery store, most gourmet non-flavored coffees are a step up from commercial coffees. Overall they are a little bit less expensive than full priced grocery store specialty coffees but you can usually find a deal that will tip the scales in favor of the specialty coffee.

Specialty Coffee

Examples: Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee, Smaller Less-Known Roasters

Specialty coffee refers to a coffee the was rated 80 points or higher on the 100 point grading scale. Barring any special circumstances, these coffees were probably roasted months ago.

I have heard reports recently that Target is selling Intelligentsia coffee. Those same reports have indicated the coffee is quite a bit past it’s roast date. Whole Foods, Fresh Markets and “botique” grocery stores will typically have better options and fresher roasted coffee.

How to Choose a Coffee at the Grocery Store

Once you understand the different options and tiers of quality available to you at the grocery store, it is time to make your selection. For the sake of this article, I am going to assume that price is not going to be your most important coffee choosing criteria.

Walk down the 45 feet of coffee choices at your grocery store until you get to the section where the specialty coffee is displayed. This is where I would start. There will, of course, be the Starbucks and the Caribous prominently displayed. Hopefully there will also be more than that. At my store, there were a few brands I had never heard of as well as a few bags of a smaller roaster that roasts regionally (Roast date was 7/24, yikes!).

If possible, narrow your search down to the whole bean options (this should thin the field significantly).

When considering a coffee purchase, remember that coffee stays freshest in it’s whole bean form. If purchasing coffee whole bean and grinding at home right before brewing is an option, that is typically your best bet.

If there is a local roaster represented this will most likely be the best place to start. Look at the package to see when it was roasted and try to find one that was roasted most recently. If there are multiple options, think about what type of coffee you are looking for:

If you are looking to expand your horizons and coffee experiences- Try a single origin coffee. (these will have country names and perhaps a secondary geographic descriptor, i.e. Guatemala Antigua or Ethopia Yirgacheffe).
If you are looking for a crowd pleaser- Try a blend if there is one available. Blends can be a little more well rounded and easy drinking.

If there is no local or regional options and you are stuck with the big roaster names, it really comes down to preference. You will have to use trial and error to find which coffee resonates with you. The same guidance applies as with local roasters, there will probably be a few single origins and a few blends to choose from. Check the expiration dates on the coffee and try to find the “freshest” available on the shelf.

Beyond the Grocery Store- Other Resources

If you find your local grocery store lacking or are ready to explore a bigger scope of coffee, where is the best place to go?

Here are a few resources for when you are ready to move beyond what is typically available in the coffee aisle:

  1. The Local Roaster- The local roaster is a great option for getting fresh coffee. It is also a great place to learn about coffee. If you have someone near you that roasts, you are lucky. Take advantage of it. Go to public cuppings, ask questions and learn about coffee directly from someone who is immersed in it daily.
  2. Someone Else’s Local Roaster- If you don’t have someone near you that roasts, don’t despair. There are many great roasters that will ship coffee to you. While you miss out on some of the community aspects of going local, you gain the advantage of having more options available to choose from.
  3. Subscription Service- There are subscriptions services for everything nowadays and coffee is no exception. There is every combination of options and delivery intervals you can think of. If you want to sample lots of different coffees you can choose a subscription service that features a wide variety of origins and roasters. If you would like coffee on a regular basis and have a particular roaster you like, check to see if they offer a subscription. Two of my favorites are Misto Box and Angels’ Cup.
  4. Roast Your Own- This is a can of worms I am not quite ready to open yet. I roast my own coffee and lots of other people do as well. At some point I would like to write a post on my personal roasting experiences but for now, Sweet Maria’s is pretty much an unrivaled roasting resource. Check it out and see if roasting your own coffee is the adventure you’ve been looking for.

When the dust settles, it all comes down to what you prefer. You need to experiment and taste a little to find out what you like. If that experimentation starts and ends at the grocery store, fair enough. If you want to experience a little more from your coffee, explore a bit and let me know how it goes.

Do you have a particular coffee you would recommend from the grocery store? Do you have any more specific questions about selecting a coffee from the grocery store I didn’t address? Need a coffee recommendation? Join the discussion in the comments below.

7 Comments

  1. Good article. My first reaction was, predictably, don’t buy your coffee there, but I think you’re right. You’ve got to get people started on the journey.

    Here in the UK, it’s increasingly common to find speciality roasters, such as Union and Grumpy Mule, turning up on the shelves of supermarkets and wholefood stores. We also have some excellent mail order subscription services.

    Thanks,
    Brian.

    • Yes, when I sat down to write these piece I thought to myself, “This is something I need to tread lightly on.”

      It is a real question though, and obviously the coffee aficionado does not need this post. It is for the person who is standing in the grocery store aisle in bewilderment.

      As always, thanks for adding to the conversation.

      John

  2. I would like to see that 45 feet of coffee choices at your grocery store.
    Overherer in CH our main grocery Stores have a smal selection of coffee brands. It seems it works for most people. For better Quality we have to go to the little comestible / deli stores. Ones you get the taste of good quality brands you just can’t go back to the usual stuff.
    Like your view about “Gourmet” Flavored – & Instant Coffee :-) Just great reading your post as always.
    So, better start to look for the prettiest girl at the ball at the first place ;-)

    • Eugen,
      The amount of coffee choices available at the grocer was not exaggerated. I will send you a few pictures. :)

      I think I would like to visit a deli in Switzerland and buy some coffee. I will put that on the bucket list.

      Thanks,
      John

  3. i just bought mccafe coffee in the pods and would like to know how much chemicals are in these pods if any? It was the dark french roast.

    • Wallace,
      That is a great question. Although I must admit I am not an expert on the k-cups and coffee pods, I don’t believe they add any chemicals unless it is a flavored coffee.

      Flavored coffee (whether in a pod or not) is flavored with strong chemicals. Most coffees that are not flavored do not have chemicals added. Since you purchased the dark french roast, I would assume it did not have any chemical that are not already present in all coffees (there are quite a few chemical compounds occurring in all coffees).

      Thanks for you question, I hope that helps.

      John

  4. Hi, I know this article is a year old but it’s exactly what I was looking for. I’ve just gotten into coffee, and while I’m realizing there’s more out there than folgers and Dunkin’ Donuts original, for financial reasons I can’t go to a local roaster. My coffee buying still falls into my ‘grocery’ category, instead of a ‘hobby’ category, and we qualify for grocery assistance right now so I can only buy my coffee with my food card from a grocery store. I’ve tried a couple different brands now and I got some Starbucks last month. I’ve heard Starbucks being called’ Charbucks’ before and now I know why. I got their dark espresso roast, and the beans were black as night and literally smelled burnt. They went through my manual grinder so easily I couldn’t even tell they were in there. It’s like they were just disintegrating. Maybe I’ll try a ‘blonde’ roast next time. I know there’s so much more out there and I have yet to try a cup of fresh roasted beans, but for now I just have to stick with figuring out what style roast I like from king soopers. Coffee aficionados can make fun of me but I’m ok where I’m at right now; I’m truly starting to enjoy my morning coffee instead of just choking it down for the caffeine. Thanks for the breakdown

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