Coffee talk

John Stossel

5/4/2005 12:00:00 AM - John Stossel

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."

 "Yes!"

 "The best coffee will . . . certainly not be the cheapest," Kappler said. "We don't look at the price."

 That statement would have been more convincing were it not for the fact that overall, her coffee didn't do very well. Half the testers listed it as "bad."

 "None of these coffees were brewed the way we do," she said. "So the result is not going to be . . . as good as it could be."

 Really? Our brewing was supervised by Kevin Sinnott, author of "Great Coffee: The Coffee Lover's Guide." If he isn't brewing it correctly, who is?

 Still, kudos to Kappler for taking the test. Rich Bertagna, the Folgers representative, backed out. He said he couldn't because other testers smelled of perfume. (This must explain why there is never any odor in coffee shops.)

 On our unscientific test, Starbucks came in first. A close second went to, surprise, the Sam's Club brand, Marques de Paiva. Oren's came in a distant third, closely followed by Nescafe, the instant coffee. The most expensive brand, the $12 a pound Dean & DeLuca's, ranked second to last, and dead last was Folgers, America's best seller.

 When I confronted Bertagna about that, he said, "Well, every morning millions of Americans enjoy waking up with Folgers for the great taste and value." At least Folgers is relatively cheap. Our test confirmed what coffee specialists told us: Coffee is a matter of individual taste. Expensive doesn't necessarily mean better.