Trader Joe's -- the veritable staple in the affordable groceries game -- has a seriously large selection of coffee. With myriad varieties, some of which average out to 50 cents an ounce, there's no telling what's behind the relentlessly twee cardboard vessels. So, it was time to get an expert to help differentiate the good stuff from the not-so-good stuff.
After a long, yet incredibly educational morning at Toby's Estate in Brooklyn, I can say that I've learned more about coffee than I ever thought possible. With the help of Allie Caran, head of coffee education at Toby's Estate, I brought in nearly 8lb of Trader Joe's coffee to be ground up, sniffed, brewed, tasted, and meticulously scrutinized for the sake of science and a unanimous love of caffeine.
Foolishly, I tried to schedule the tasting at the Thrillist headquarters, an idea that was gently rejected in favor of the sterile and complex laboratory at Toby's Estate. (We work in a noisy open office where the noise flows like beer, which -- in turn -- flows like water.)
The methodology behind a "cupping," in which coffee beans are ground up and analyzed, is nothing short of fascinatingly scientific... or maybe scientifically fascinating? Each Trader Joe's coffee was precisely weighed out, precisely ground, and precisely poured into little porcelain bowls.
Coffee expert Allie Caran (left) and I stuck our noses in each cup and took in the different scents of the nine varieties of coffee I schlepped from Manhattan to Brooklyn. It was olfactory paradise.
There's actually very little time to think when you're experiencing coffee in such a timely fashion. The water is poured into each cup and you're then told to smell it again, in which a whole new set of aromas jumps out.
Despite the frightening expression on my face, I'm having quite the opposite of a horrendous stroke. I was instructed to not slurp over the cup and to rinse my spoon in cold water between each coffee.
The following notes are what Allie and I had to say about Trader Joe's coffee, ranked from worst to best, and graded on a scale from 1-10 that was then averaged.
9. Bay Blend
AC: Fish sauce, burnt toast, lingering pipe tobacco, roasted cedar. That is just... such an unfamiliar flavor. That fish sauciness... I wish I had better words, I don't want to throw this under the bus. It's just really lingering. 2
JG: Tastes kind of like a bastard version of number two. I didn't taste the initial fishiness I got from smelling the grounds. Definitely some charcoal in there. 1
8. Café Pajaro
AC: Nutty, burnt tobacco, charcoal. Cigarette butts. I found it dry and sour at the same time. 3.5
JG: Oh, that's burnt. This one tastes especially burnt to me. I don't love this one, there's no sweetness and it's this lingering taste that won't go away. 2
7. Italian Roast
AC: Wow, this one was really weird. Fishy, gasoline. I also think there's vinegar, mushroom. Bitter and super dry. 3
JG: This is rough. It tastes like... rubber. I don't love it. 3
6. Colombia Supremo
AC: Rubber and citrus. I really didn't like this. Tobacco, too. 2
JG: I think it's fruity? Sweet and citrus-like. I don't hate it. 5
5. Five Country Espresso Blend
AC: Woody... cocoa powder, smoke, cigarettes. 4
JG: I taste McDonald's coffee. 5
4. Bali Blue Moon
AC: Carbon, nutty, malty, some burnt caramel, cantaloupe, and straw. I didn't mind it and the aroma wasn't too bad. The burnt caramel is the one positive note, but it was dry... no brightness or fruity quality. For a lot of them, they maintain the same flavor. 5
JG: I feel like it tastes milky. It's coating the back of my throat. 5
3. New Mexico Piñon Coffee
AC: Definitely vanilla extract and very alcoholic-tasting. Very thin body, probably because it was pre-ground. It was a pretty thin coffee all around -- you get the flavor right off the bat and not much else. It's for the sweet-tooth person. 4.5
JG: I mean, that's definitely artificially flavored. It tastes like Dunkin' Donuts, but I'm from New England, so I have absolutely no problem with that. 6
2. Organic Breakfast Blend
AC: Dark chocolate, peanuts, slightly fruit... sort of papaya, medium body, dirt. 6
JG: It's acidic to me. I think I would drink this one black. 7
1. Kenya AA
AC: Oh, this one I really don't mind. Red fruit, earthy, chocolatey. It's definitely a Kenyan. Very bright. This is the one that I like the most out of all of them. Definitely my favorite. Noticeably smoother body, there wasn't that lingering dryness as we've experienced. 7
JG: It actually tastes like Toby's Estate coffee. Is this a trap? 9
Cleanser: Toby's Estate Congo Muungano
JG: After sampling all this coffee, ranging on a spectrum from delicious to not-so-delicious, Toby's Congo Muungano was such a breath of fresh air. Dark brown fresh air. It was pleasant, bright, fruity, and vibrant. This isn't the stuff you'll find at a fast-food restaurant or chain coffee shop. It's different, it's alive, it's coffee. Mouth happy. 10