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Nov 29, 2010 09:59 AM

Intelligentsia Coffee By The Pound - Can Anyone Explain Its Prices?

Howdy All,

When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, I had a wonderful pot of French press coffee from Intelligentsia - a Kenyan variety that Alinea served.

So, being eager to buy some of this coffee, I checked out their website - and I'm in utter disbelief at the prices.

As a comparison, the Whole Foods coffee I get is $11 for 1.5 pounds - and it is excellent stuff.

The Kenyan variety from Intelligentsia is $29 for a freaking single pound! Huh??!!

If you get the generic "dark roast", it's still $16 for a pound.

Please help - what am I missing here?

1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

Intelligentsia Coffee
53 W Jackson Blvd, Chicago, IL 60604

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  1. Why does anyone have to explain their prices? Whole Foods obviously has economies of scale that a small purveyor can't match. And Intelligentsia purports to be single-origin as opposed to a blend of coffees, so it isn't "cut" with a cheaper bean. As with any premium product, it is what it is. If you like the Whole Foods coffee then stick with it.

    13 Replies
    1. re: ferret

      Umm...generally, stuff that comes from Whole Foods is thought to be fairly premium. Not exactly cut from the same cloth as Wal-Mart!

      1. re: Combination

        First of all, that's a load of hooey. Just because Whole Foods sells it doesn't mean it's distinguishable from whatever your local grocer sells, quality-wise.

        Second of all, unless you're comparing a single-origin coffee between the two then it's not a direct comparison. Look at it this way, you can buy blended whiskey for $10 a bottle or a single-malt for $25. You may enjoy both but there are definitely reasons why one is more expensive. Ditto coffee. Some people, myself included, will find a reasonably-priced blend that works for them. Others enjoy the premium single-origin coffees.

        And you were at Alinea. Would you expect them to serve you Folger's?

        1. re: ferret

          Folger's? You kidding?! I expected Sanka, of course! (yes, that's a joke.)

          1. re: Combination

            About 10 years ago, I had occasion to visit Intelligentsia Coffee's business office, which is where they roasted their beans as well. I was unfamiliar with their coffees at the time. The female owner of the company offered me a cup of coffee and I tried the Kenyan. She had no cream or sugar to offer me so I drank it black. It was the finest cup of coffee I ever drank and I immediately bought a pound of it to take home. I believe it was then almost $9 per pound, but it was well worth the price. I also drink single-malt scotch and pay at least $30 per fifth for that. I agree with ferret on both the coffee and my single malts.

            Intelligentsia Coffee
            55 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL

          2. re: ferret

            Very on-point, ferret.

            I'm not much of a snob (in that I am perfectly content with DD or McD in the absence of really good coffee), but fresh Intelligentsia beans are substantially better tasting than most of what you'd get at a chain store like Whole Foods.

            1. re: ferret


              Let's try something much closer to an apples to apples comparison. My apologies for not doing that in the first place.

              Kenya Peaberry Kirinyaga Kil from Johnson Brothers Coffee Roasters is $14.95 a pound. It rates a 94 on

              Do you really think Intelligentsia is twice the quality of this stuff? It's certainly twice the price. Here, have a look-see.


              1. re: Combination

                Is a Shelby Cobra 100x better of a car than a BMW 3-series?

                To make this more relevant, I'm sure the ~$30 Intelly is not twice as good as the ~$15 Intelly. If that's the answer you're looking for.

                1. re: Combination

                  Not to split hairs but it's 12 ounces for that price, so it's $20 for a pound. And, again, I'm making no judgment as to whether it's "worth" the asking price, I'm just saying there are likely rational reasons for it.

                  1. re: ferret

                    I'm not familiar with the details of Johnson Bros sourcing though I see they mention fair trade on their website. Intelligentsia practices "direct trade" which involves actual collaboration with individual farmers for each single origin coffee and that costs. Their approach not only leads to high quality coffee but also better quality of life for the farmers who supply them. I had a chance to watch the Intelligentsia barrista who won the world barrista championship again this year and the clear connection of his final drinks to the farmer who supplied the beans was pretty striking. I find the quality of the coffee and of their business model worth the extra few bucks ... you may not. Happily the coffee business has diversified so everyone can weigh their own priorities when choosing a coffee.

                    1. re: Siun

                      I find this thread of real interest. I have been buying whole beans, grinding and brewing for over 30 years since I discovered Somethings Brewing off of Diversey years ago. Now local coffee roasters are all over the place. Up in the northern suburbs we have Casteel's in Evanston, Newport's in Bannockburn, and yes, Whole Foods. I love them all and their most expensive coffees, fair trade and all, does not exceed $13.00 a full pound except for Blue Mountain and real Kona.

                      When I go to any of these places I look to see which are the most recently roasted and I am not disappointed. That being said, whenever I have the opportunity to buy 12 oz. of Intelligenstia's coffee I back away. For the most part it cannot be fresher than beans roasted that day. How many people can honestly say that they can tell the difference between the same bean roasted by Whole Foods or Casteel's roasted that day or Intelligensia roasted whenever? I will buy a bag of Intelligentsia's coffee and see if I can honestly say that their coffee is better for my taste.

                      I should also mention another fine local roaster - Stiver's coffee.

                      1. re: dlpens

                        Please let us know what you think of the Intelligentsia bag.

                        Just like those super-select single malt whiskey blends, maybe Intelligentsia should start placing the coffee inside one of those wooden boxes, with a certificate signed by the farmer who harvested it!

                        Never realized coffee could be so esoteric!

                        1. re: Combination

                          When I started drinking individual varietals I had no idea of the number of different varieties would become available locally. I have tried ordering "special" coffee on line and have always been disappointed. I learned to love Celebes and Sumatra beans right off. I have tried any number of different beans including Jamaica Blue Mountain and real Kona. They may be great and smooth etc. but for the price I cannot rationalize a steady diet of those beans. Stivers Coffee has been bringing Jamaican Blue Mountain beans to local farmer's markets, Ravinia in particular, and once in a blue moon :) I pick up a 1/2 pound. It is beautiful but at $32.00 a pound it is not a real "value" drink. It is an indulgence for many.

                          If you want fresh roasted coffee you either roast the beans yourself or do the next best thing - buy from a local roaster. I suggested to my wife that I should try roasting at home but I did not care for her suggestion in response. I try to buy only 1/2 pound bags at a time as I can buy fresh coffee everyday. I am close to or pass by Casteel's and Newport all of the time. That makes a BIG difference. I will look for some Intel coffee today and report back in a day or 2. I will try to be objective. I have also been collecting wines since 1970 so tasting liquids and comparing is something I am used to so we shall see.

                          For everyone's information, Casteel's has an outstanding number of varietals and blends available. Newport has a much more limited menu. And Whole Foods does a wonderful job roasting and has a nice selection available everyday. I just wish that they would bring back the Costa Rican beans - I have not seen them in quite a while.

                        2. re: dlpens

                          We've pretty much beaten this topic to death. The fact of the matter is that all of the small roasters offer some sort of "prestige" beans. Even the large ones - notably Starbucks - offer high-end beans. Starbucks prices are off the chart and the per-pound cost is easily over $30. Casteel, which used to be our go-to brand, also has offerings in the high teens and up. Maybe it's limited quantity, maybe it's high demand for the "best" beans. So what? If the demand drops to zero nobody will carry them, so obviously there's a small segment of the market who seeks it out.

            2. A few points.

              -The price quoted ( 29) represents one of the highest on the menu.
              -Every Tuesday you can buy any pound and get 2 bucks off. Often you will get a free
              coffee as well.
              -The real comparison here should be wine. You do not compare Grand Cru Red Burgundy and Cabernet from Australia. Same goes with coffee. It's all about terroir. I have yet to have coffee as consistently deep and complex as the CI coffee.
              - And lastly under the (duh) bullet point( meant with humor ;-)) The cost of everything has gone up over the last 5 years. As commodity prices continue to go up the cost of sourcing everything will go up. Look as the cost of a decent steak over the last 5 years as well. Plus, the dollar has been getting consistently hammered during that span as well.

              2 Replies
              1. re: La Canasta

                I would also argue that the perceptible difference between two types of coffee will vary with preparation method used.

                Throw single-origin Intelligentsia into a Mr. Coffee and it will, by and large, not taste much better than a blend from Trader Joe's*. If you run both through a Clover machine (speculation, as I've never had Clover-brewed TJ coffee) or pour-over device, then the nuances will really come out.

                *A great low-budget alternative, if you ask me.

                1. re: Bone Thug n Hominy

                  Well different machines require a different level of groundness. The higher quality beans should show no matter what brewing devise you use. I agree that if you're going to spend up for beans you should spend up for a brewer that supplies the proper water temp but high quality beans aren't going to drop down to the level of average beans just because of the brewer. Again, the proper analogy here is wine is takes time to be able to pick up the nuances that high quality coffee's deliver. Beginner wine drinkers may love a over oaked shiraz just as beginner coffee drinker may thing a dark roast coffee is special. ( I'm over generalizing here but you get the point.) Single origin coffee is about subtly and nuance that you just don't get from other coffee.

              2. with Intelli beans, they give 10% + more than fair trade to the farmers.
                as people are becoming less selfish, the idea of value shifts.

                1. It doesn't have to be Intelligentsia to be delicious. Price should be reasonable. For instance, @ Devour Cafe in Galena, we use Verena Street Roasters from Dubuque, IA, and the Kenya AA is outstanding or virtually no different from Intelligentsia's roast. A bean is a bean a roast is a roast... if perfected on each point of the industry, which I believe occurs with our associations, there is no reason a lb of any coffee should be $29.Its brand association only... Hello!

                  Small humble cafes treat you better. Suspenders and haberdashery don't make the flavor any better.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: devourcoffee

                    You can buy stuff in Iowa for less than you can can in Chicago? Color me gobsmacked. (and you may note that the original post was from 2010 - who knows what factored into the price at that time).