New coffee champs supreme

“New look, same great taste,” reads the slogan on Eight O’Clock Coffee’s packaging. Consumer Reports begs to differ.
The brand’s 100 percent Colombian product, a favorite from CR’s March 2009 report, delivered less flavor in its most recent tests. The magazine’s expert taste testers brewed more than 1,000 cups of coffee and found two new winners.
The new Colombian champs are Gloria Jean’s Colombian Supremo Medium Roast and Newman’s Own Organics Colombian Especial Medium Roast. They offered fairly complex, well-balanced flavors that the experts found stronger and fruitier than the flavors of most others they tested.
Watching caffeine? New England Coffee Decaffeinated Colombian was judged better than most caffeinated coffees, including Starbucks Colombia Medium. Eight O’Clock, the former favorite, had a mostly woody taste. (Think wet Popsicle sticks.) And Colombian coffees from America’s best-selling brands, Folgers and Maxwell House, scored only Fair.
The 23 coffees CR tested included three Colombian K-Cup products. Those products require a coffeemaker that can accommodate a K-Cup container, a type of single-serving coffee packaging. K-Cups were found to be more expensive per 6-fluid-ounce serving than traditional packaged coffee and were only Good in tests — and may be best enjoyed with milk and sugar to mask the off-notes.
CR also tested four Ethiopian whole-bean coffees, which have a taste that someone accustomed to standard blends might find unusual. Its two picks from that group, Caribou Ethiopia Finjal Organic Medium and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Light Roast, a CR Best Buy, had very complex, well-balanced flavors.
Packaged-coffee prices have been creeping higher over the past year, with J.M. Smucker (Dunkin’ Donuts, Folgers and Millstone), Kraft (Maxwell House and other coffee brands) and Starbucks raising prices.
How to choose
If the cost of morning java matters more than getting the ultimate taste, there’s good news. Wal-Mart’s Great Value 100 percent Colombian Medium scored on par with the Starbucks Colombia Medium for a fraction of the price. It also had, for the same price per serving, a stronger, fruitier aromatic character than the Folgers and Maxwell House 100 percent Colombian coffees, which was judged only Fair. Here’s some advice:
— Consider your taste. Colombian, the most common type of coffee sold, can be fairly strong in flavor and intensity of aroma, with moderate complexity. Ethiopian tends to be more complex overall, with a fair amount of bitterness, though not enough to detract from enjoyment. The K-Cups tested, all Colombian, were generally not very complex and included more off-notes than the coffees judged Very Good.
— Weigh freshness against convenience. Grinding coffee at home is less convenient but results in a fresher cup. K-Cups are convenient and easy to store, but CR judged those unimpressive.
— Choose a good coffeemaker. The Cooks CM4221, sold at JCPenney, was among the models from CR’s December 2010 report that reached the 195 to 205 degrees F required to get the best from coffee beans and avoid a weak or bitter brew. At $40, it was a CR Best Buy.
— Keep up the maintenance. The taste will suffer if the coffee machine is not routinely cleaned, no matter what kinds of beans are used.
The high cost of fueling up
People complain about the price of gas, but you might be surprised to learn that fueling with coffee can be four times as expensive as buying a gallon of gas. These examples show the costs of 12 ounces of coffee. Some were brewed at home; others were bought already brewed. Prices for tested products are averages. For Dunkin’ Donuts, CR used the prices of small and medium cups to get the average cost for 12 ounces. That would add up to $18.03 per gallon. Money goes a lot further with home brews.
— Tested Colombian coffees (traditional packaged): 33õ
— Tested Ethiopian coffees: 72 õ
— Starbucks Via Ready Brew Colombia: $1.24
— Tested Colombian K-Cups: $1.31
— Starbucks brewed: $1.50
— Dunkin’ Donuts: $1.69

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