The Best Coffee You Can Buy at Trader Joe's
Part of Trader Joe's appeal is that you don't get decision fatigue there. Unlike at a typical grocery store where you can be frozen with indecision at the 57 types of, say, ketchup, shopping's easy at Trader Joe's. Many things come in one option, so you grab that one off the shelf and are on your way to see what cool new things are out this month and featured on the end-cap.
Know what's not an option-free zone? Coffee. While they may give us a tightly edited selection of most everything else, when it comes to java, Trader Joe's packs an entire section with offerings. It's practically dizzying — you've got roasts from light to dark, single-origin and batches, small lots and not, fair-trade, shade-grown, organic, etcetera, etcetera.
Shopping for Coffee at Trader Joe's
To be honest, I never thought of Trader Joe's as a place anyone seriously into coffee would go. Don't real coffee snobs want to watch their beans roasted at a locally owned shop where the owner personally flies to a teeny Pacific island to select the beans? I kid. But I'm obviously not a coffee snob.
I'll take a caffeine headache before I'd drink mass-market budget hotel stuff, and gas station coffee gets a wide berth, but for me, coffee serves one purpose: rapid caffeine infusion. I take it with cream and sugar to make it more palatable, and require two cups every morning. Anyone who's ever gotten an email from me before my second cup knows this is necessary. While I prefer espresso style with some frothed milk, I'm too lazy to make that every morning (although I was this close to buying a Nespresso machine after spending two weeks in France where every Airbnb had one), so I make do with Seattle's Best pre-ground and a plain-Jane coffeemaker.
But when I love so much other Trader Joe's goodness, why wouldn't I get my coffee there? The question is, where to start?
So when I was asked to do a ranking — and just happened to be jet-lagged, coming off those two weeks away, and in need of more-than-usual amounts of caffeine — I was happy to tackle the research.
My Trader Joe's Coffee Taste Test Method
There's no subterfuge when you're buying all the coffees, so I straight-up told the guy giving pear samples next to my Trader Joe's coffee station what I was up to. He was nice enough to help me pick a selection of 10 that represented what they had on offer from among more than two-dozen choices. And then he launched into a treatise on the coffees — the types, the origins, the soil, the beans — that made me realize how people must feel when they ask me a simple question about bourbon.
I used their grinder for the eight whole-bean coffees in the batch, taking a couple notes on the smells when I opened each can or bag. At my new friend's suggestion, I used a grind setting one click to the (coarser) left of auto-drip. This would offer more flexibility, he explained, in case I opted to do French press.
Over the next few days I tried two or three a day, making them just like I always make coffee, in a basic Hamilton Beach auto drip. I tried following package recommendations of two tablespoons of coffee per six ounces of water, but found that too bitter, so went with my usual ratio, which worked out to about 3/4 cup of ground beans for an eight-cup carafe. I put a teaspoon of regular sugar and a good splash of half-and-half in every cup. Judge not lest, well, you know the rest.
To rank them, I assigned scores of one to 10, with one being the worst styrofoam cup of auto-body garage coffee you've ever had, and 10 being worth getting out of bed for.
And, drumroll please, here are the results.
1. Cameroon Mount Oku Small Lot Coffee, medium dark roast, $9 for 12 ounces
In the bag (with the prettiest design, by the way), the beans promised butterscotch and maple. And brewed, the promise carried through so well it almost tasted like a flavored coffee (except not, you know, fake). Mellow but with plenty of depth, this cup was a pleasure to drink and the clear winner. It's the first one I drank just to drink when the experiment was over.
Rating: 9 out 10
2. "Red Honey Processed" El Salvador Coffee, medium roast, $9 for 12 ounces
This bag of beans smells amazing, kind of like you'd imagine a pipe in the room where they "go through" after dinner in Downton Abbey. (FYI: The bag description notes that there's no honey involved in this process — it just refers to how sticky the beans are when they're left with a "mucilage" layer.) Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but there were some toffee notes and a nice creaminess once brewed. While I didn't find the strawberry flavors described on the bag, it was an all-around pleasurable cup of coffee.
Rating: 8+ out 10
3. Organic Fair Trade Breakfast Blend, medium roast, $8 for 14 ounces
This blend of South American beans doesn't look all that tantalizing, with a dull brown appearance, but they smell exactly like what you want to wake up to. Once brewed it's a nice fruity, juicy cuppa. The can says mellow and it follows through. It's like a good version of what you'd want to have at a diner. I can kick off my day with this.
Rating: 8- out of 10
4. Organic Fair Trade Shade Grown Ethiopian, medium dark roast, $10 for 13 ounces
The Trader Joe's crew told me they loved this coffee. The beans had a hint of cherry to me, while my new coffee friends found citrus and the can says floral. After brewing, it grew on me — once past the initial whiff of wet tobacco. It had the sweet spot of acidity, giving it a little interest, but not so much to be a speed bump in my caffeine infusion. It's an enjoyable cup.
Rating: 7+ out of 10
5. Organic Sumatra, medium dark roast, $7.50 for 13 ounces
These beans come from volcanic soil and look dark and rich. The smell was a hit of chocolate-laced smoke. The can says smooth and earthy, and once it's brewed, that's about right. It's pleasant and super easy-drinking, without a trace of bitterness. If anything, it was a little too easy to drink.
Rating: 7 out of 10
6. Organic Fair Trade Five Country Espresso Blend, dark roast, $9 for 13 ounces
These beans reminded me of a tobacco barn — in a good way, with the sweet, mellow perfume of a bunch of dried tobacco leaves hanging in a wooden building. I've yet to meet a coffee whose brew completely lives up to the nose, but this did maintain a nice toasty, maltiness in the cup. There was some bitterness in the finish that kept it from being better. I think I'd like this better as a candle than a drink.
Rating: 6 out of 10
7. French Roast Low Acid Dark Roast, $8 for 13 ounces
The first whiff of this was sort of a Paris cafe in a can, but from a few years ago when people still smoked indoors. Once brewed, it wasn't much of anything. I mindlessly threw a cup back while dealing with a Gmail Situation (hi! Your storage is full and you can't send or receive emails!) and nothing about it was noticeable. It does the job but is entirely forgettable.
Rating: 5 out of 10
8. Instant Coffee Packets All Dressed Up with Creamer and Sugar, $2 for 10
I had to try this one just for fun. These pre-sweetened, and flavored with "mocha flavor" packets of freeze-dried ground coffee beans are more of a liquid candy complete with corn syrup than a coffee. That's not to say it's bad — it does a good job at what it's meant to do. These would come in handy in a situation where the alternative was no coffee, or really awful coffee.
Rating: 5 out of 10
9. Organic Fair Trade Cafe Pajaro Blend, extra dark roast, $8 for 13 ounces
This coffee will wake you up with just a whiff! The beans from Nicaragua, Peru, and Mexico are — as promised — extra dark, and were so pretty, deeply shiny, and oily. Something was lost in translation to the cup, though, where any promised chocolatey sweet undertones were overridden by an unpleasant burnt taste. I'd drink it in a pinch, but would prefer to give it a pass.
Rating: 4 out of 10
10. JOE Light Roast, ground, $4 for 14 ounces
On the nose from the bag, the beans were plasticky and we didn't get much better from there. After brewing, if I concentrated, I could get some malty chocolate undertones but mostly it was something to get down for the caffeine. The bag said exceptionally smooth, and I guess it wasn't not smooth? I'd reserve this for caffeine emergencies.
Rating: 3 out of 10
Do you buy your coffee at Trader Joe's? What's your favorite bag or can? Discuss in the comments below!