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Are expensive/gourmet coffee beans worth it?

I'm not very knowledgeable when it comes to coffee. I only recently started occasionally drinking coffee because it's available free at the office. They use a couple different varieties of Starbucks preground.

Now I'm noticing that there are tons of "gourmet/specialty" beans available at Whole Foods and similar stores. Do these beans taste significantly better than lower priced, more generic types? Which matters more, the bean or the brewing method?

My complaint with most coffee is that it tastes too watery and lacks a lot of flavor. Again I don't know a lot about coffee in general but just wondered if maybe one of these specialty/gourmet coffees would taste a lot better than whatever I've tried up to this point.

Obviously it would be easy enough to just buy a coffee machine and try all these different beans, but if the general consensus is that they are overpriced, then I guess I won't waste my time and money.

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  1. Beans matter, roasting matters, grinding matters, brewing matters. There is no "general consensus" about beans. Just like with anything else it's a matter of personal taste. Find a non-Starbucks coffee shop and then try a variety of coffees (not necessarily on the same visit), all prepared the same way. You'll either find one that's more pleasing to you or you'll conclude that coffee isn't your cup of tea.

    1 Reply
    1. re: ferret

      Totally agree. Your cup will only be as good as the weakest link in the chain.

    2. I'm sure there are CH's far more knowledgeable on this. I tried roasting my own and knew inside of 1 hour I was over my head to do it right. I buy coffee all sorts of places (markets, deli's, box stores, 7-11, you name it). The only place I feel like I've gotten my money worth is at a roaster house. All they do is roast beans all day and night. They are selective about what they buy to offer customers and they want to turnover the product. The guys I go to in NJ are generous with sample tasting and steer me in the direction I'm comfortable with for taste and price. Any chance you have a local roaster or two in your area?

      12 Replies
      1. re: HillJ

        I'm curious. What kind of roasting apparatus did you use? Did you try more than one batch?

        1. re: grampart

          I borrowed a friends setup (about five years ago) and tried a small batch in my backyard. I was following their directions to the letter and thought yeah this is pretty cool until the roaster started to go from great aroma to "J" did you burn leaves in the backyard from the neighbor. It was like a smoke signal that made the rounds, I got calls from nearly every neighbor on the hill I sit on. So, okay I finish the batch, cool down, ready to grind...it tasted awful. I blamed myself and never tried again.

          Gave me greater appreciation for the two roasters nearby.

          Do you have some advice, grampart?

          1. re: HillJ

            I also started with a hot air roaster (iRoast2) that I purchased from Sweet Marias. Very noisy, made it very difficult to hear the all-important 1st and 2nd cracks. I used it regularly for over 2 years until it crapped out, but I was turning out some very nice coffee with an occasional disaster. I then bought a Behmor 1600 drum roaster also from Sweet Marias.
            http://www.sweetmarias.com/sweetmaria...
            What a difference! Very quiet and easy to use. I've roasted well over 100 pounds of various beans and only had one failure when I blew a circuit breaker in mid-roast. A very bad thing! It has a pretty good smoke suppression system, but roasting in the house is not a good idea unless you prefer very light roasts.

            1. re: grampart

              I can't imagine roasting in the house. I was outside at the time of my only attempt. But from what you've described, you have it down! That's great. I never got that far. :)

              1. re: HillJ

                It takes a real commitment. I treat it like a hobby. Downside is what a picky pain in the ass I've become when it comes to 99% of the "outside" coffee I drink.

                1. re: grampart

                  Oh I could def see it spoiling you. That's why I go to the roaster. I can buy a cups worth of beans if I want to and try a new to me brew without any hassle and if the roaster isn't busy he'll brew me a short cup and let me sample. So, I know when I'm better off letting someone of skill do the driving :)

          2. re: grampart

            Oh forgot to mention this was hot air roaster, home model. Looked like a popcorn popper. Similar to this model:http://www.sweetmarias.com/sweetmaria...

            1. re: HillJ

              The SO started roasting his own about a year ago, after having honed his grinding (Baratza Vario) and brewing (Rancilio Silvia) skills for a couple of years. We have a Fresh Roast 500 and he is routinely turning out superior beans. But then again he is a mechanical engineer :-). Planning on adding a Hot Top drum roaster to the mix in March. Roasting at home has kinda ruined him for most other coffee, even the good stuff referenced in the OP. But it is definitely a commitment, and he threw out multiple batches in the beginning.

              1. re: grayelf

                One more thing which you may already know: there seems to be general agreement that you need to let the roasted beans rest for a couple or three days, so grinding and brewing freshly roasted beans might not provide the optimum taste.

                1. re: grayelf

                  From Sweet Maria's site.....
                  "Resting refers to the step after home roasting a batch; coffee brewed immediately has so much C0-2 coming off it that it prevents good extraction or infusion of water. Also, certain characteristics are not developed immediately after roasting, such as body. A rest of 12-24 hours is recommended, or up to 3-5 days for some espresso coffees.

                  1. re: grayelf

                    Thanks for all the fun information, graye. As I said I only attempted roasting once and haven't tried it since but I have been made aware of a great deal more information about the process through the roaster I buy beans from. He and his partner are very generous with samples and educational moments!

              2. re: grampart

                i have used an air popper for small batches. Not something I would recommend on a regular basis, but a fun hobby. Otherwise I love using The Bean Coffee Company as well as our local roaster. The Bean Coffee Company roasts when the order is placed and their regular sales offers keeps their prices pretty reasonable for fresh roasted coffee

            2. You get what you pay for as long as you know what you are paying for. There is ok cheapo coffee. Better coffee costs more as the basic beans cost more. It can get crazy with hype. I remember the first pot of Jamaican Blue Mountain. It was fine but I recall wondering what all the hype was about especially given the price of the pot. In addition to the beans, technique matters a lot too. Dumping pre-ground in your Mr Coffee won't get you any better coffee. But sometimes that's what you need to do if you are in need of caffeine first thing in the morning and it sounds like you are not at that stage yet. So the simple answer is maybe.

              1. We brew coffee daily using either an electric percolator or stove top percolator with the least expensive beans we can find. We then hand grind them daily in an Arcady mill.

                We use Wegmans ,8 O'Clock, or Portorico.com beans.
                We only buy the portorico.com beans when they are on sale,and freeze a dozen pounds at a time.

                When I see those display racks of dispense your own beans I wonder how fresh they are.

                I'd rather go for the vacuum sealed bags or fresh beans from portorico.com.

                Buy a percolator !!!

                1. I think a burr mill grinder plus any decent brand of fresh coffee beans will give you a much better tasting coffee right off the bat, without having to spend even more on gourmet brands.

                  You can get varying levels of strength from the beans simply by trying out different grind settings, and the amounts you prefer to use, until you find the combo you like best.

                  My coworkers and I were partial to the simple old electric percolator pot. No filters or extra parts to fuss around with, and easy to clean.

                  Pretty much everything at Whole Foods is overpriced, so it wouldn't surprise me the least if they were jacking up the cost of their coffee beans. Their store brand of spices for example is made by the same company that makes World Market's store brand spices, only World Market's are like $1-$2 less per bottle.

                  1. I recommend you pass on the Blue Mountain that is largely counterfeit, and the beans extracted from elephant shit. If you could observe the price of a sack of Arabica beans in Central America, you would understand how Starbucks makes billions. Coffee was cheap before gringos re-invented it. Find a roast you like.
                    P.S. I realize my proletariat summary will be dismissed by the Palm Court tea crowd.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: Veggo

                      jamaica (from whence comes blue mountain has no elephants; i do not understand this post!

                      1. re: betsydiver

                        Maybe the poster is referring to Kopi Luwak (civet poop) or Black Ivory coffee that is passed through elephants digestive system.But both these varieties come from Asia not Jamaica.
                        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Iv...

                        1. re: betsydiver

                          Note the comma. Two different coffees referred to.

                        2. re: Veggo

                          I meant two types of expensive coffee, from 2 different parts of the world. sorry.

                        3. Coffee is really really personal. For me i cannot function without a good cup, i often buy from puerto ricam trading co or blue bottle and use my stove top espresso maker.
                          I agree to find a local shop that roasts their own beans, go and try a few different varieties to see if you prefer a dk roast to light, espresso vs a regular coffee and then buy a small amount of those beans.
                          How you make your coffee also really impacts the flavor- not enough grounds with too much water = watery coffee even if you start with awesome beans.

                          1. I agree with others - it's personal preference, but all aspects can matter. I cold brew my coffee, which helps me get more flavor without acidity (which ruins it for me). I find that I have strong preferences for some beans over others, but it doesn't always strongly correlate to cost.

                            1. Beans matter, but it's a couple of items down on the list. There are several other things I'd recommend doing before you start going into more expensive beans, otherwise you'll be wasting your money.

                              Free office coffee is frequently dreadful. Years ago I decided not to drink it, even if it was free - it wasn't worth it.

                              What I would suggest trying in order is

                              - Don't heat the coffee after brewing. This is common in workplace coffee, and will turn even the most lovingly brewed gourmet beans into burnt crap.

                              - Brew at a strength you like (not the person who made the last batch or the instructions for the office coffee maker)

                              - Buy whole beans and grind right before brewing.

                              - find out what type of coffee you like - there's a big difference between dark/medium/light in flavour.

                              I'd put these as the most important, and they'll improve the quality dramatically. Odds are good that by this point you'll have a coffee that satisfies you and you won't need to go further. Beyond this, you get more into preferences and fine tuning, where there's less consensus over what is best.

                              - the water (hard vs soft)
                              - the source of the beans (different areas have different flavour profiles)
                              - style of brewing (drip vs French press, etc)

                              From my perspective, if I buy decent but not pricey whole beans and grind before brewing, using a French press, I get coffee that works just fine for me, and the price of better beans isn't worth it. That's partly because the high end coffee market where I live is *really* expensive, as coffee culture is a fairly new import. I can buy lunch for cheaper than a grande drip at Starbucks.

                              8 Replies
                              1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                to add on to tastesgoodwhatisit's post:
                                often office coffee makers are:
                                1) not kept clean enough to made good coffee. to do it's best the water reservoir of a coffee maker needs to be demineralized periodically, and the "business" parts of the coffee maker should be kept scrupulously clean.

                                and/or
                                2) they are not in good enough mechanical shape to keep the temperature of the water well-controlled.

                                1. re: westsidegal

                                  That bit about keeping your coffee maker clean can't be stated enough. Whether it's at the office, on a cruise, over a friend's house. If you don't keep a clean coffee pot no matter what beans you place inside the maker, that coffee is going to taste horrible. Same with the grinder for the beans-wipe it out!!

                                  1. re: HillJ

                                    so ..... how dear one? 'splain' to me exactly how it's done AND DON'T LEAVE A SINGLE STEP OUT-you know I'm a little thick ;:-/

                                    1. re: iL Divo

                                      You are a doll! Don't ever change :)

                                      Okay, my concoction is hot vinegar water twice through the water reserve in a 50 50 mix and then two passes with cold. I clean the pot in the same mix at the end of every week and let the cleaner sit in the pot for a full 30 mins. before rinsing it. I use a glass scrubber to get every nook and cranny. On the entire machine I take a hot rag and wipe it down. NO SOAP ever.

                                      On the grinder I wipe out all the loose grounds and then run dry white rice (I buy the cheap stuff at the 99 cent store) to get out all the rest of the debris. Shake, wipe again and it's good to go. NO soap ever.

                                      1. re: HillJ

                                        (((HillJ)))
                                        you know I won't-God made exactly 1....

                                        you're so cute " no soap" EVER.......ok got it sheesh! hahahahahahah :)

                                        1. re: iL Divo

                                          hahaaha! I didn't leave a single step out per your request :)

                                          1. re: HillJ

                                            hahahaha :))))
                                            guy you're GOOD and can read precisely too
                                            you're du bom

                              2. Hi, C_S:

                                I think it's worth it, but it can be hard not to be hornswaggled by all the hype. Take it from this Seattlelite, neither Starbucks nor Seattle's Best is all that.

                                My advice is (if you live in a midsize city) to find a local boutique coffeehouse that roasts its own beans, buy fresh-roasted and in small quantities, and try a bunch of different varietals and roasts. IMO, drinkers would be a lot happier if they treated buying their coffee like they do buying produce--fresher the better.

                                Aloha,
                                Kaleo

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: kaleokahu

                                  kaleo-I has you pegged as a Kona coffee kinda coffee drinker

                                2. How high is "expensive"? Graffeo is currently about $16 per pound. I often buy coffee for less, but I won't spend any more than the price of Graffeo.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: GH1618

                                    I buy the half pound bags of Graffeo.Grind up some with my hand held burr grinder. Place in my Bialetti to brew.I really like this coffee. The one thing I notice is when you grind these beans by hand. You can really tell the difference between the Graffeo a much harder bean than the Starbucks.

                                  2. Gourmet coffee? Pulp Fiction was made in 1994.

                                    Unless, of course, you are too young to remember Pulp Fiction.

                                    1. It matters if you take your coffee black.

                                      As you add incrementally more and more stuff to the coffee - be it sugar, milk, cream, etc - the less it becomes an issue.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        I love light cream in my coffee much better than half and half. I was told that was "Dunkin Donuts" secret when they started in business.

                                        1. re: zackly

                                          what's light cream-i know, i should know but don't-inform plz tnx

                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                            Yes! Excellent point! Adding a bunch of cream and sugar to an exquisite expensive coffee obliterates the flavor.

                                          2. In regard to your complaint that most coffee tastes too watery and lacks a lot of flavor I recall a business trip that I had years ago in Britain. It was a mixed group and the leader brought in coffee and said to us "I'm afraid our Italian friends will find this too weak while our American friends too strong". Maybe you'll like an espresso better?

                                            1. It's fun to try them out to see if they are better to your taste buds. Try finding a roaster in your area, it can make all the difference. I find that expensive beans you can get in some grocery stores actually aren't worth it because they've sat on shelves for too long and are dried out and gross.

                                              I prefer South American coffees to African or Indonesian ones. I like pea berry coffees. I also live for 100% Kona coffee. Trader Joes had this giant bean type called margogype, which was good, but too big to fit in our burr grinder. Find your favorite. I will say that I find Starbucks terrible, as their roasts always taste scorched to me.

                                              1. As others have mentioned coffee is a personal thing and it depends how much time, effort and expense you want to devote to the process. In the morning I don't want to work too hard so I use an all in one contraption, a Cuisinart Grind and Brew machine. I buy whole beans @ Costco, usually their Kirkland beans roasted by Starbucks which cost about $5.00#..I prefer strong coffee so I set the machine to grind enough coffee for 12 cups but only fill the water reservoir to the 6 cup mark. It produces acceptable coffee for me, better than Dunkin Donuts but not as good as Starbucks. One thing most people don't mention is the coffee to water ratio which is very important. That's one reason Starbucks flourished. They use a lot of coffee to water. It's not "burnt" coffee, it's strong coffee. You should start by using 2 tablespoons ground coffee for each 6 ozs. water then adjust more or less until you find a ratio that works for you. PS: Avoid buy anything from Whole Foods. I've worked in the wholesale food industry my whole life and what they charge for food is obscene. I only shop there as a last resort when they have something I can't find elsewhere

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: zackly

                                                  "It's not "burnt" coffee, it's strong coffee."

                                                  Many people feel that Starbucks over-roasts their coffee yielding a slightly burnt taste. I agree that it tends to on the "well-done" side. Strong coffee is not a function of roasting.

                                                  1. re: ferret

                                                    The general rule of thumb is that, with the lighter roasts, you taste the bean. Darker ones, you taste the roast.

                                                  2. If it's watery, it should be brewed with more beans. On the other hand this makes off tastes more prominent.

                                                    Coffee deteriorates when it's exposed to air. Once you break the vacuum seal, the clock starts ticking. The clock goes very quickly on ground coffee; it's best within a day of grinding, if not sooner.

                                                    If you only drink a little coffee the whole foods bins are probably a pretty good source. Near my house, they mark the date that the bin was filled. If you don't drink coffee often, you won't be able to use a larger container before losing a lot of the flavor. Especially so if you run it through the store grinder.

                                                    1. yes they are worth the price if coffee is brewed properly-
                                                      ground at home/office

                                                      1. I've only been drinking coffee on a regular basis for the past few years. Prior to that, I'd have a cup if I went out for breakfast or maybe an espresso after dinner. I was OK with Dunkins coffee, then moved on to Starbucks where I could get a darker roast or Americano. Now I mostly make it at home since it's cheaper and I can choose the beans I want.

                                                        We have a George Howell coffee shop near me and whenever I'm there, I get the drip of the day. It's a nice way to try several different varieties of beans. I've also bought small amounts of beans from Whole Foods since they roast in the store and I can buy as little as I want to try it out.

                                                        For my taste, I tend to prefer beans from Africa. The Ethiopian Yirgacheff beans at George Howell have been fantastic. WF also carries some beans from Kenya which also taste great. I've now found a roaster near my work, so I pick up beans from them as well. In my opinion, the beans do matter, but how you brew can also affect the taste and body of the cup. I'm still experimenting with my brew method and came to this board just to ask people what they use to brew their morning coffee!

                                                        1. If your coffee is usually too weak, that sounds more like a brewing problem than a problem with the beans.

                                                          Brewing matters. The quality of the beans matters. How long ago the beans were roasted matters. How long ago the beans were ground matters. The water matters. Your personal tastes matter. There's no one surefire path to a perfect cup of coffee. That said, there are some perfectly good reasons to buy more expensive beans.

                                                          Note that there are several reasons a bag of coffee might be expensive. Some are more expensive due mainly to reputation and low availability. These tend to be the most expensive - the Jamaican Blue Mountain beans, Kona beans, beans slightly digested by elephants or civet cats. Try em if they interest you, but there are definitely better values in premium coffee. Instead, I suggest looking for beans that come from a well reputed source and were roasted in the last few days before purchase, What you're paying for here isn't really rarity or an especially expensive crop, but quality control and care in handling. I'm a fan of Intelligentsia's offerings and find them well worth the mark-up, but I prefer lighter roasts - your preferences may differ.

                                                          Basically, I'll echo what others have said - find a good roaster and try small bags of their various offerings. And work on your brewing, since no coffee will taste right if you're not able to brew it to your preference.

                                                          1. 100% Kona beans: 1 lb for $28.95 (great quality)
                                                            Keurig k-cup: 1 lb for $25-$35 (poor quality)
                                                            Local roaster: 1lb for $12.95 on up (great quality)

                                                            Price isn't always reflective of the quality.

                                                            1. i can only speak from my own experience.
                                                              i learned to love coffee when i was living in Berkeley and the ORIGINAL peets was within walking distance from my apartment.
                                                              since that time, to my palate, coffee is "supposed" to taste like peets. i think that sometimes, when it comes to flavors, there is some kind of imprinting that happens.

                                                              if i had learned to love coffee when i was living in new york, years earlier, maybe i would be seeking out the flavor profile of Chock full o' Nuts instead.

                                                              also,
                                                              1)i like coffee that has been brewed using a drip system, NOT a percolator system. the higher heat of a percolator system changes the flavor immensely.
                                                              2) if the beans are fresh and freshly ground, i can appreciate the difference in flavor as can MANY coffee drinkers.

                                                              3 Replies
                                                              1. re: westsidegal

                                                                Back in the 1980s I really liked Chock Full O' Nuts coffee, but from the 1990s it somehow changed, and wasn't as good any more. I wonder what it was that was changed?

                                                                1. re: Tripeler

                                                                  CFON was sold in 1999 to Sara Lee. Are sure it was before then?

                                                                  1. re: Tripeler

                                                                    i left new york in 1966.
                                                                    when i returned 1987-1989, nothing seemed to taste the same.

                                                                2. For those of us in Philly and New York (and increasingly other places)who know about La Colombe, a definitive 'Yes.' Check out the website at lacolombe.com. This is exceptional.

                                                                  However, the freshest coffee I ever had was in 2003 on a small farm about four hours north (by boat) of Manaus, Brazil on the Rio Negro. The farmer grew coffee in his back lot and had roasted about 40 pounds of fresh beans that morning in a 6-foot roasting pan over an open fire. His wife ground some of the beans by hand in a mortar and prepared the coffee while their son went to the sugar cane field about 100 yards away and chopped a few stalks. After trimming and running the cane through a press, the cane juice was added and I can't recall ever having a richer, fresher cup of coffee. It just doesn't get any better than that.
                                                                  CP

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: Chefpaulo

                                                                    I think the amazing location and fabulous experience probably contributed hugely to the sensation as open fire ground beans and cane juice sounds objectively inconsistent.

                                                                  2. I find the most important thing is that the beans are very freshly roasted. If you don't have a local roaster then I recommend: http://redbirdcoffee.com I usually prefer Sumatra.

                                                                    Get those beans, grind in a burr grinder, and then brew. I use a Bialetti stainless steel moka pot, but aero press is also supposed to be great.

                                                                    You will never be able to drink office coffee again though.

                                                                    1. Peets.That is all! It can be expensive but for me I will spend on the things I love and save on other things:)

                                                                      1. I will second the recommendation for La Colombe. Preferring a dark roast that doesn't have a burnt flavor, their Corsica blend is fantastic. Supposedly it is the blend that Daniel Boulud uses in his restaurants. I drink it black, but friends who like weaker coffee usually add milk and they also think it tastes great. I mail order a 5 pound whole bean bag and immediately divide it up into 10 mason jars which I vacuum seal. If you buy it regularly, La Colombe will give you a discount code that just about covers shipping costs.

                                                                        If I run out and need coffee in a hurry then it's a trip to Costco for Starbucks French Roast. Being from the SF bay area, I'm theoretically a Peets fan but I find their dark roasts have a burnt flavor.

                                                                        1. If by lower-priced, generic types you mean the really low-end which probably uses Robusta beans, then the answer is yes.

                                                                          There comes a point at which the manner in which you prepare the coffee matters much more than the beans you use. For example, a Starbucks pour-over tastes much different than a Starbucks drip coffee.

                                                                          On the other hand, if you spend $60 / pound on a very high quality Kona peaberry, it would probably be hard not to notice the difference in flavor and smoothness.

                                                                          1. Take a look at the websites CoffeeGeek and HomeBarista (HB for espresso, techniques and machines) for lots of info and good forums. CG has info re the whole process- growers to auction lots/ professional tastings to grade the auction lots/ boutique roasters with tasting notes of many coffees by independent tasters/ DIY roasting/ storing, grinding and brewing methods to achieve best results.

                                                                            Lots of quality info and quality beans to try and see for yourself. Interesting to compare your tasting notes to the "professionals". I've found many nice coffees thru CG. Also, watch for "roasted on" dates vs "best by" dates and get fresh ones.

                                                                            Good Luck and enjoy.

                                                                              1. re: grampart

                                                                                Indeed, although it may be difficult to build a base of loyal repeat customers.

                                                                              2. All people who truly love coffee are experts in the coffee they love. Millstone Columbian Supremo is a good middle priced quality coffee that I like. It is available at Sam's Club at a lower cost than you will find elsewhere. Store it in the freezer except for a small container that you keep in the cupboard near your grinder. Don't grind it until you are ready to make a fresh pot. Enjoy!

                                                                                3 Replies
                                                                                1. re: condie

                                                                                  Storing coffee beans in the freezer is generally not a great idea. Here is one (of many) sources:
                                                                                  http://www.coffeeam.com/coffee-storag...

                                                                                  1. re: Science Chick

                                                                                    That is good information. I appreciate it. That article also indicates that if the coffee is to be kept longer than two weeks, freezing it is okay one time only. Repeated freezing, however, is bad news. Thanks again.

                                                                                    1. re: condie

                                                                                      Yeah, that what keeps me from getting the large batches at Costco. We just don't go through it fast enough to keep it stored reasonably well.