Do you pay big bucks for "better quality" coffee? Maybe you spring for Dean & DeLuca's beans, which cost $12 per pound. Well, wake up -- have someone give you a blind taste test -- because you're probably wasting your money.
Fancy coffee companies do take great pains to make sure their coffee beans are "better." "Specialty beans are roasted and ground for this important test, the cupping," intones a video the Specialty Coffee Association of America sent me. In the cupping, "experts" "sip small portions of the brewed coffee and judge its taste, body and aroma."
What they approve is later sold by companies like Dean & DeLuca, Starbucks and Oren's Daily Roast, which cost plenty. Compare their prices: $12 and $10 a pound to the $5 a pound for Folgers, America's best seller, or $4 for Marques de Paiva, sold by Sam's Club at Wal-Mart, and even less for instant coffees like Nescafe.
Now, if coffee is available for less than $4 a pound, why spend three times that? Does expensive really taste better?
We ran a taste test. We invited people to sample the six brands of coffee I mentioned but didn't tell them which was which. We asked them to grade each coffee "bad," "average" or "great." Then I sat down with some of the tasters, most of whom had clear preferences. "Coffee's the most passionate and romantic beverage," said one; another compared coffee to "fine wine."
Some testers, like Mister "Fine Wine," could indeed identify their favorite. His was Starbucks, which did well on our test. In fact, even a woman who told us she hated Starbucks liked it when it wasn't labeled Starbucks. "I don't know, maybe I'm pickin' the wrong coffee," she said.
Remarkable things happen when you take off the label. Taryn Cooper discovered that her preference was instant coffee. "That's interesting, because like I feel like instant coffee is kind of sacrilegious," she said.
We invited the six coffee companies to send representatives to watch and/or take our test. Only Folgers and Oren's said yes, and only the Oren's rep, Genevieve Kappler, actually had the guts to go in front of a network television camera and announce to the world which coffee she preferred -- when that coffee was identified only by number. Would it be the brand she's paid to hawk or a competitor's? She waited nervously as I told her the result:
"You only picked one as the best. You think it was yours? . . . The one you liked best was -- Oren's. You picked yours."
"The best coffee will . . . certainly not be the cheapest," Kappler said. "We don't look at the price."