The Best and Worst Coffee Beans at Trader Joe's


[Photo: Liz Clayton]

We've been down these aisles before, in our 2012 guide to Trader Joe's coffees. And once again, the allure of these stores' festive ways have drawn us in, like a wayward ship to a rocky shore. They've got the food-lover's number here: Poutine! Pretzels stuffed with peanut butter! Limited-time only pumpkin-flavored oatmeal! Why not buy some coffee while you're ducking in (or in the case of New York City, while you're waiting in a 30-minute line that snakes throughout the entire store and onto the street)? For those who wish to add a tropical twist to their coffee shopping, we offer you this year's updated advice on what to buy—and what to skip—on the TJ's coffee bean shelves.

Best Bet:

100% Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee
Package claims: "Medium Roast, Balanced Body"
Bean appearance: Medium dark with burnt tips and moderate oiliness
Price: $19.99 for a 13 ounce can

Leaving aside the question of why someone who wants to spend $19.99 on 13 ounces of coffee isn't using that cash to visit their best local roaster, we decided to try two of the company's higher-end selections, TJ's Kona and this Jamaica Blue Mountain. Done up in a nice gold foil reminiscent of '70s wallpaper to let you know it is fancy, this coffee from the esteemed Jamaica Blue Mountain region comes off quite well. It's mellow and smooth without too much distraction from roast-imparted flavors. That said, the coffee's essential flavors are still a bit uniformly presented here: a rich, baker's chocolate backbone with a little bit of honey to it, without too much acidity or dynamism. If you've got to pick a showoff coffee from TJ's, though&emdash;this one's your guy.

This Coffee is Fine:

New Mexico Piñon Coffee
Package claims: "Unique combination of the finest arabica coffee beans and piñon nuts slow-roasted by hand one batch at a time"
Bean appearance: Comes preground
Price: $6.99 for a 16 ounce can

This novelty coffee is a TJ's repackaging of an Albuquerque, NM coffee made with New Mexico pine nuts (don't mistake them for any of the other kinds). Perhaps because home grinders might not take kindly to piñon debris, this coffee's offered pre-ground, and once unsealed offers a beguilingly sweet, herbaceous, but almost chocolaty flavor. Though there's an air of not-super-freshness, the flavor combination is interesting here, and somewhat on the lighter side due to the coffee being cut with pine nuts. The herbal side is tempered a little once brewed, but the uniquely sweet and smooth flavors of the piñion will likely appeal to those who like a bit of tropical-herbal-creamy-nut in their coffee, without reaching for some yet-to-be-invented flavor of creamer.

Smooth and Mellow Blend
Package claims: "Medium brown 'American' or 'City' roast...acidity is light, the flavor is well rounded"
Bean appearance: Mixture of medium- and medium-dark-roasted beans, some oil
Price: $ 6.49 for a 14 ounce can

Though the constituent parts of this blend aren't named on the can, the aroma of this coffee is promising from the beginning: deep red fruits and a sweet, caramelly scent waft upwards. In the cup, it is indeed mellow, if a bit stale and pleasingly not too roasty. The aftertaste has a slight orange note to it, with a little bit of that sugar-burnt sweetness that comes from a darker roasted bean.

100% Kauai
Package claims: "Rich, dark chocolate, lighter in acidity"
Bean appearance: Medium-dark roast, slight oil presence
Price: $6.99 for a 10 ounce bag

In which Trader Joe's takes on the traditional hallmarks of single origin coffee packaging and presentation—but from a weird producing origin, Kauai—and gives it a whirl. Instead of coming in a can, TJ's 100% Kauai shows up on the shelf in a typical 10-ounce foil coffee bag (bedecked in surfboards, of course), and the back panel is full of information on the history of coffee in Hawai'i as well as the Yellow Catuai variety of coffee popular on Kauai and even an explanation of roasting to achieve a specific flavor profile. Do they succeed? The coffee itself brews up pleasingly enough (we liked it better than the Kona!) but as with most of these TJs offerings, lacks much character. We get a bit of chocolate body and mild yellow tropical fruit sweetness on the finish. If you drink your coffee with milk and sugar, this is worth a go.

Skip These:

Hand-Picked Kona
Package claims: "Medium Roast, Rich & Smooth"
Bean appearance: Medium-dark, somewhat oily
Price: $19.99 for a 13 ounce can

Kona coffee is often found at places like airport gift shops, meaning the collective impression of its flavor is usually going to be one of slightly-stale, slightly-roasty, "bold" coffee. Trader Joe's rendition is no exception. It's not offensive, but you could find a balanced blended coffee with a lower price tag basically anywhere. Save those dollars for another container of peppermint bark pretzel slims.

Limited Edition Maragogype Coffee From Nicaragua
Package claims: "Medium Body, Rich Aroma"
Bean appearance: Large Maragogype beans, dark and oily
Price: $ 8.99 for a 13 ounce can

Every now and then TJ's does something in line with current coffee trends and highlights a specific region...or in this case, a specific variety of bean from a country, the maragogype bean, known for its peculiarly large size—which can actually present challenges in roasting evenly. Luckily TJs prefers to roast their beans a LOT, so these show up as low-density, lightweight beans that produce a sort of thin, grassy flavor. Could have potential, but not in this particular execution. Go with the Jamaica Blue Mountain instead.

Ultra Dark Roast Blends Dark Sumatra
Package claims: "A distinctly earthy flavor and a velvety chocolate finish"
Bean appearance: Very dark and very oily!
Price: $5.99 for a 12 ounce can

Trader Joe's knows their coffee customers, and those customers by and large are fans of dark roasts. And if anything's going to bring its character to the foreground even in an "ultra-dark" roast, it's coffee from Sumatra. A favorite of some for its assertive, intense, funky characteristics, Sumatran coffee is popular among those who like the combination of those inherent flavors with the burnt-sugar sweetness of a long, dark roast profile. TJ's rendition is resoundingly woody, overwhelmingly roast-heavy and a bit reminiscent of the coffee you'd get in a diner or cafeteria. But it's one of the cheapest coffees they have: sort of a Six Buck Chuck.

Do you have a favorite Trader Joe's coffee? Share your recommendations in the comments below.