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Favorite light roast coffee brand? (high and low)

I apologize if this question has been asked before, but a few minutes of searching didn't turn much up.

After years of being brainwashed into thinking that coffee could only be good if it was roasted into oblivion, I've realized I much prefer the nuance and complexity (and ok, probably higher caffeine) of a good light roast coffee. I don't know a huge amount about coffee roasting, but I'm given to understand there's a sort of second coffee renaissance underway, where some local shops are barely roasting to first crack, and sometimes not even that far. Where I live in New Mexico, there aren't a lot of choices for city roast, let alone lighter, so I think it's time to turn to the interwebs.

My current two:

High end: best I've found so far is Intelligentsia. After my many years on the dark side, there's an almost unbelievable level of complexity in here. Heavy emphasis on in-season, lots of variation from varietal to varietal, but I've always enjoyed that differences from bag to bag, always balanced, interesting, and deeply satisfying. The downside is the price tag: my local shop charges about $14 for a 12 oz. bag, which pushes it into special occasion territory.

Low end: ok, I'll say it, in a pinch, Dunkin' whole bean ain't half bad. The beans from the supermarket aren't worth it, both expensive (over $10 for 12 oz.) and often not especially fresh. But a full pound of whole bean from a Dunkin' store runs south of $8 here, and while it doesn't have anywhere near the nuance of Intelligentsia, it certainly ain't bad for less than half the price. Main gripes are the too-high acidity and sometimes a vaguely ashy aftertaste, but both of these tend to be relatively negligible, especially if I haven't had Intelligentsia in a little while.

So, fellow Hounds, where do you get your light roast beans? I've read a couple of good reviews for Gevalia...any others? Old stalwarts, new upstarts, let's have 'em!

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  1. Ouch. Not a lot of light roast fans out there? Or did I just post at a weird time?

    Well, let me ask it a different way:

    Any opinions on Terroir? How about Blue Bottle? I think they each have a bit of variance in roasting style based on the specific beans...any experience with their milder roasts?

    1 Reply
    1. re: finlero

      I love Jim's Organic Ethiopian, the one they do light roast. Spendy, rich and earthy, delicious.

      Ethiopian Yirgacheffee Konga Coop, not the other two Ethiopians they sell. http://store.jimsorganiccoffee.com/se...

      Dunkin Donuts uses the absolute lowest quality beans on the market, I think it was CI that tested various beans. You couldn't pay me to drink their coffee.

    2. Does Stumptown mail order? I'd check there. And also, I'm an evangelist for home roasting beans. I use a cheap popcorn popper. It's cheap and easy!

      1. So quick follow-ups on the above

        Stumptown - yes, they have an online store. Do you know if all their coffees are lighter roasts, or do I need to cherry pick, so to speak?

        Jim's Organic - good call, I've had other varietals in the past, will check the Yirgachefee out.

        Dunkin' - yes, I know it isn't remotely chowish, but hey, you like what you like. All I know is that as far as brewing at home, for my personal tastes, they purvey some most reliably inoffensive coffee on the market. Balanced, never burnt, never too acidic. Again, nothing fancy, but I'll buy it preferentially over 90% of the more expensive coffee I've tried. Additionally, I should probably say I'm a, um, "recovering Bostonian", so maybe my decade there just gave me the sickness...

        As a side note, forgive my ignorance, but what is CI?

        6 Replies
        1. re: finlero

          "CI" is Cooks Illustrated.

          About Dunkin', I've never been a fan, but your remark about the store beans as opposed to the supermarket ones makes me suspect that freshness is a factor. I think most coffee fans can agree that an average fresh bean beats an old excellent bean.

          Also, I've had Intelligentsia beans from cafes that serve them and more often than not they seemed very deeply roasted. What are the light-roast Intelligentsia blends that you favor? I also do not favor "burnt"-style roasts.

          1. re: Bada Bing

            Hunh, the only dark-roasted Intelligentsia beans I've seen are in their so-called "El Diablo" dark roast blend, and their espresso; everything else I've tried appears to have barely been roasted to first crack. I'm currently finishing a bag of "Organic Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dama Cooperative", and it's light as can be.

            Totally agree that freshness is a thing with Dunkin'. Even from an actual DD store, my first pot of the week often tastes noticeably better than the last.

            CI, aha. Their ratings sometimes frustrate me. They can be absolutely spot-on with my tastes, and they can be about as divergent as could be. I started taking their advice with a grain of salt after I saw two different CI taste test results (maybe one from CI and one from ATK?) for cooking with wine; one said the quality of the wine made almost no difference, one said you were destroying your food if you didn't cook with an expensive bottle.

            1. re: finlero

              Perhaps it's a relative darkness issue. We used to have a wonderful cafe here that got Intel. coffee in fresh twice a week. The House Blend was pretty dark but not overmuch. Then the one time I went into an actual Intelligentsia cafe in a Chicago visit, I got whatever they were pouring as the daily special and it was so strong (maybe not so dark as sheerly strong) that I ended up tossing it away. It's hard to imagine that a place at the level was reckless in preparing its coffees, which is something I've noticed at some Starbucks, where clearly there can be great variation in how strong one place or another makes a given coffee.

              I'm not dissing the Intelligentsia business, though, and I'd be elated if another cafe here opened up featuring their coffees.

            2. re: Bada Bing

              As I recall it, freshness wasn't the decisive issue in the CI report . They found they were the lowest quality beans,, lots of "quakers," and the worst roasted beans, some glaring defects all around. Here's an intro describing what that means: . http://www.cooksillustrated.com/taste...

              1. re: mcf

                Actually, the OP also says don't bother with the Dunkin' supermarket beans, which is what CI tested.

                Perhaps Dunkin' uses exactly the same beans in their storefronts as they sell in the supermarkets, but I wouldn't bet on it without further information. And then the freshness factor would again be in play.

                Again, I'm still not a fan of their coffees from the few times I've tried them in stores--a bit thin and actually too-light-roasted for me, even though I do like relatively light roasts.

                1. re: Bada Bing

                  The last time I bought it while driving long distance, I threw it out after a taste or two. I love coffee more than is rational, but I'm never that desperate for it.

          2. Couple of follow-ups:

            Stumptown - ordered and tried several varietals, wasn't particularly impressed. The whole beans smelled absolutely wonderful, I really was able to discern a bunch of the characteristics mentioned in their pretentious, florid descriptions (and I have no specific problem with pretentious, florid descriptions if the brewed coffee can live up to it). But the great aroma didn't quite translate to a great cup; a lot of the nuance seemed to get left in the bag. I was intrigued that the size of the actual beans was a bit larger than some of the other high-end brands (Terroir, Intelligentsia), and wondered if this that something to do with the aroma/taste dichotomy. Regardless, while by all admissions a good cup of lighter roast coffee, not worth $15+/lb.

            Counter Culture - a little research indicated that along with Stumptown and Intelligentsia, this place in Raleigh, NC rounds out the big three of the so-called Third Wave coffee movement. Prices are comparably exorbitant to the other two, between $15 and $20 a pound; also comparable are the direct trade practices (cool), but thankfully the copy on the bag and the website seems at least a little less obnoxious than the other two. Coffee is excellent, a great light roast with complexity, depth, and gentle acidity. I only ordered one bag, so my data set is limited as compared to Intelligentsia, but I'd put this particular bag on par with the high lower third of Intelligentsia varietals I've tried, which is to say it's outstanding, but not life-changing. That said, it's definitely good enough that I plan to order more and see how they do.

            2 Replies
            1. re: finlero

              coffee bean size has NOTHING to do with taste.
              what are you using to cup?

              1. re: finlero

                surprised you haven't tried Sweet Marias. good resource for coffee in general (their site is encylopedic!)

              2. I can never resist talking about coffee! I used to order from Stumptown as well. They are very good at getting certain roasting profiles, but they ARE super expensive. I roast at home in a popper and get my green beans from sweet marias like many others do, but if you don't want to go that route, I suggest to keep trying local roasters/coffee shops There has to be at least one! Check yelp if you haven't already? That way, you can decide what you like as far as blend, origin, etc and get really fresh stuff, which is what is most important.
                I don't know how you are brewing, but never slack on the method you use to do so. Buying great coffee is a waste if you don't use a great method of making the actual coffee.

                1. After years drinking Empire Coffee from Empire Coffee and Tea in NYC, I moved and shipping didn't make sense money-wise.

                  I tried TJ's French Roast for a while but it turned out to be puppy love. So I searched Cooks Illustrated. I was really surprised at the result: The coffee I grew up watching ground at the end of the checkout at A&P. Yes, friends, it's Eight O'Clock Coffee Original. It's actually smooth, balanced but richly flavored. And it's a stunning value. It ain't Empire but it's also not burnt Starbucks or blah Dunkin D. (and by the way, hasn't everyone noticed that the reliable and grossly ubiquitous drive through cup a' joe from Dunkin Donuts has become extremely unreliable? It's often just plain weak. The franchises are obviously trying to cheap out on coffee beans. The DD quality control is non-existent. Another brand gone south. I'm sad to say that when you're on the road, McDonald's Newman's coffee might be a better choice. Anyone have thoughts? I have no love for DD but I do have a sort of contempt for Micky D's although I'm not too proud to drink their coffee in a pinch.)

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: poesis

                    I have to back up the Eight O Clock coffee suggestion. It's my go-to blend for weekdays and I splurge on whole bean varieties for my weekend cups.

                  2. Ooh, neat, this thread finally took off. A few responses to various things:

                    "what are you using to cup?" - when it's just me, I brew with a paper-filtered cone, after using a not-very good Krups hand grinder. We live at 7200 feet, where water boils at a near-ideal 198 degrees F, so this method is a snap. When it's more than just me, we have a Cuisinart grind and brew with a thermal carafe which, while by no means perfect, gets the job done.

                    "coffee bean size has NOTHING to do with taste" - I don't profess to be a coffee expert, but intuitively speaking, this would seem blatantly untrue. I'm not saying bigger is always better, nor am I saying it's always worse, but I am saying that if bean size had "NOTHING to do with taste", it would be basically the only farmed substance in the world for which this were the case. Am I somehow missing your point?

                    More on Dunkin' - I actually don't particularly care for coffee brewed at DD either, I agree it's entirely too weak. Now that I think about it, I must add more beans per cup than they do in their stores, because my home cup has more body than theirs.

                    Eight O'Clock - interesting. At one point, Consumer Reports (another dubiously reliable testing site) listed them as their favorite supermarket brand, and both the price and ubiquity are certainly right. When I last tried them, I was still head over heels for extra-dark-roast coffee, so I need to give them another try.

                    Sweet Marias - thanks, this is an awesome site, will dig in...

                    Roast at home - already on the docket for the new year, I've been wanting to give this a try.

                    1. One more follow-up: home roasting and Sweet Maria's are awesome!

                      After research here, on the SM's website, and a few chats with stalwart hound and home roaster PinchOfSalt, I bought the i-Roast2: http://www.sweetmarias.com/sweetmaria... It took a few batches to get the hang of the machine, but I seem to have it pretty figured out now, and there's no arguing with the combination of control, freshness, and (longer term) affordability. I've been focused on Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea so far, but I'll be excited to branch out and try other regions. Plus I'm already looking forward to a DIY holiday gift season.

                      PinchOfSalt also added the very helpful suggestion of buying a couple of airtight glass jars so you can have one batch of coffee ready and another resting.

                      Thanks Chowrin and Jemon for the suggestion, it's a terrific fit for me.