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For the economical foodie, Trader Joe's is an aisle-after-aisle dilemma of love and hate. Staples and tastily flavored gimmicks are so cheap, but other items...raise an eyebrow here and there as to true quality. Where better to put this heart-wrenching conundrum to the test, then, than in the coffee aisle? Conveniently located next to the sample station, the coffee department at my local Trader Joe's boasts more than a score of enthusiastically decorated canisters. Need something ultra-super-dark that might also be fair trade organic? Sure! What about an extra-dark blend of Peruvian decaf? They can probably do that for you. Want something mysterious in a can that costs half as much as everything else on the shelf? You got it!
We sampled a selection of the most festively packaged, theoretically premium, non-decaf, non super-maximum-dark-French-roast beans on Joe's shelf. (They sell most of their brightly-decorated coffees in whole bean, which is nice, though with the level of oily roastiness that they seem to favor, I think I'll be needing to buy my coffee grinder an apology bouquet of flowers sometime soon.) Here are the findings, bearing in mind the selections at your local Trader Joe's may...or may not...vary seasonally.
Costa Rica Tarrazu
Package claims: "Well-Balanced, Silky Smooth Finish"
Bean appearance: Very dark and oily
A sturdy coffee from a well-enough pedigreed region. "It's got that 'breakfast coffee' feel to it," said one of my tasters (before breakfast, I might add) though we both found the slightly bitter, overly roasty tones with roast-driven sweetness on the finish to be a detraction. A slight fruitiness creeps through the darkness into a heavy mouthfeel, but the intensity of the roast masks any subtlety you might be looking for. That said—totally drinkable. Do you like milk in your coffee? You might start to.
Colombia Supremo Coffee
Package claims: "Mild Acidity, Distinct Caramel Like Flavor"
Bean appearance: Dark, slightly uneven roast, not too oily
Straight down the middle! Sturdy and drinkable, mild in every way, neither burnt nor bright. No nuances or fruity-tooty notes stand out, but nothing disagreeable occurs either. It's almost like nothing even happened here. One might even say it tastes like...coffee. Feel free to serve this one!
Organic Fair Trade Shade Grown Ethiopia
Package claims: "Medium Bodied, Floral Aroma"
Bean appearance: Medium dark roast, slightly uneven, not super oily
Not what I think of when I first think of Ethiopian coffees—it's fruitless, lacking in hints of anything except a highly talented group of coffee blenders who aim at a flavor profile that's completely inoffensive. You can serve this, and drink it, and if you like to tell your friends about all the feel-good adjectives possible to throw in front of a coffee...you can do that with this one too!
Costa Rica Peaberry
Package claims: "Citrus, Ripe Fruit and Brown Sugar Notes"
Bean appearance: Small and round, not too oily and dark
If you squint your eyes and serve with a brown sugared grapefruit, sure—I can see Joe's flavor notes as a complimentary idea here. But peaberry coffee—an anomalous growth of one bean (seed) instead of two inside a coffee cherry—offers a rounded bean, which is said to roast more evenly and sweetly. Luckily this isn't roasted as darkly as most TJs beans, but the sweetness isn't too present. Where do you store the milk, again?
You Could Do Better
Fair Trade Bolivian Blend
Package claims: "Sweet, Caramel Flavor, Delicate Acidity, Textured Body"
Bean appearance: Dark and oily
A characteristically nondescript Bolivian melange; we lost the advertised "delicate acidity" completely, staying stuck on the roasty-sweet-cloying finish and overwhelming sense of bread or toast. This tastes very much like semi-stale food service coffee that you'd put a lot of sugar into...except it is already so burnt-sweet. Pass.
Bali Blue Moon
Package claims: "Clean and Smooth, Sweet Chocolaty Finish"
Bean appearance: Medium dark, uneven bean to bean
Pungent, stale and earthy, even the prettiest name or packaging doesn't turn this tropical trick into something you're going to want to drink. Yeah, they're right about the chocolaty bit on the back end of the sip, but that doesn't really make up for the ripe (in the gym clothes sort of way) overtones of this coffee. Might be better with milk.
Trader Joe's Joe
Package claims: "No Frills"
Bean appearance: Not incredibly dark or oily, but a melange of roast levels
Not sure what scared me off first—the strong, rough, vaguely defective aroma upon opening the foil seal—or the $4.99 price tag (about half that of everything else on the shelf). This advertises itself as a truly workaday coffee, that you can serve as coffee. Which, to be fair, is a lowball claim this coffee lives up to. I shudder to think what happens when all the mediocre coffees at Trader Joe's roastery are relegated to "only good enough to blend in the Joe's Joe" coffee, but perhaps you need something affordable for a care package to someone you don't care that much about. Skip.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop later this year.