Whether you think Trader Joe's is a quirky wonderland of delicious snack foods or the seventh circle of hell, you have to respect the staggering amount of coffee they're peddling. We counted 30 varieties on a trip, which made us wonder which were drinkable and which were nothing more than gussied up Folgers in goofy, colorful tins. There are a lot of options. But which belongs in your coffee maker?
To determine the best of the best, we rounded up a small klatch of baristas in Portland, Oregon and hosted a proper cupping based on guidelines we've learned from the fine roasters over at Coava. We acquired irregular heartbeats and weird cravings for cheap cigarettes in the process, but we're confident we did the good work of sorting the gold from the chaff so you'll never have to suffer through another burnt, flavorless cup of grocery store coffee again. Without further ado, here's every variety of Trader Joe's coffee, ranked from worst to best.
Editor's note: Trader Joe's changes its offerings seemingly every five minutes. If you don't see your preferred beans, it's likely they weren't on offer at the time of this experiment.
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You're better off steeping some pennies in a cup of hot water than brewing a cup of this "ultra dark roast." Unless, of course, you actually live in the Bay Area, in which case you don't have any pennies to spare for such a sad experiment. Now that's dark!
29. Fair trade organic Guatemalan
This bitter "extra dark" roast is so organic that it contains overwhelming notes of the bug spray that dripped off the workers who labored over harvesting it. No word on whether said bug spray was organic, though.
28. Joe's Dark
We haven't heard much from Trader Joe's founder Joe Coulombe since his retirement from the company in 1988. The red wine-and-cigarette ash flavor of his signature dark roast leads us to assume he's since locked himself in a study somewhere, chain-smoking Dorals and downing bottles of Two Buck Chuck.
Unlike its darker counterpart, Joe's signature medium roast allows more subtle notes of burnt carpet and bum wine to join the party. And what a party it is!
The initial aroma had strong notes of bowling alley couch, while the actual flavor had an acrid tang that goes down just right when you chase it with a drag from a loosely rolled American Spirit.
25. French roast
A lifetime supply of this no-bullshit French roast, which is as bitter and sassy as its namesake, would be a great gift for the estranged aunt of yours who calls a bottle of Diet Pepsi, a Virginia Slim, and a fistful of lottery tickets "breakfast."
24. Costa Rica Tarrazu
The experts in our tasting klatch were able to find a slight trace of nuttiness to the finish of this mostly dull cup of Costa Rican coffee, but a lingering taste of fresh asphalt quickly ruined whatever joy was to be found in this cup.
23. Shade Grown
The bird-friendly growing method of this espresso blend is admirable, but the burnt-toast finish it left in our mouth was too close to the olfactory hallucination associated with brain tumors for comfort.
Anyone who's spent hours nervously chugging coffee in the waiting room of an auto-repair shop will feel right at home with this understated dark roast, which is defined by a pleasant flavor void with subtle enough burnt bottom-of-the-pot taste to remind you you're actually drinking coffee.
21. French vanilla
The overwhelming vanilla scent of this roast's aroma was enjoyable in small doses, but the sour chemical finish tasted more like lotion a divorced middle school teacher would wear than coffee. Trader Joe's flavored coffee game is respectable, but you can definitely do a lot better than this.
20. Zambia AA Small Lot
Trader Joe's approach of over-roasting beans in hopes of evoking heady flavors -- in this case it's a "heavy body with a sweet, round finish" -- has never been more apparent than it is with Zambia AA. Like a regal Victorian home ruined by an unforgivable paint job, we know there's a good bean hiding under this roast's underwhelming notes of toasted dust and sour candy.
19. Organic FT Café Pajaro Blend
Whereas the Zambia was sullied by a heavy hand with the roasting, the smoky finish and heavy body of Café Pajaro tasted like Trader Joe's finally figuring out how to make the aggressive "THIS IS COFFEE" flavor common to their darker roasts work for the greater good of the bean.
An incredibly average brew in the grand scheme of things, but the light notes of caramelized sugar and campfire dirt that lingered on the tongue were nice deviations from the tastes of ash and oil we experienced with the bottom of the Trader Joe's proverbial barrel.
17. Fair trade organic Bolivian blend
Notes of roasted cauliflower and wood-fired pizza aren't exactly what one looks for in a coffee, but the mysteriously savory finish of this otherwise dull medium roast turned out to be one of the most unexpected delights in our entire tasting. It's not a roast we'd recommend for breakfast, but the fact that it would pair wonderfully with cold pizza may be exactly the info a divorced dad would need to invest in a canister of this.
16. Italian roast
Our panel unanimously agreed this one tasted like menthol cigarettes, yet no one was the least bit ashamed of actually enjoying it. Do they still sell Camel Snus in Italy?
15. Organic fair trade shade grown Ethiopian
Synthetic floral flavors and a ham-like finish are strange bedfellows in a bean grown organically in one of the world's most celebrated regions, and it's even stranger that we found this one oddly satisfying after a few sips.
Anyone with fond childhood memories of copping a buzz from huffing the tanning agents at the Wilson's Leather in their local mall (we all did that, right?!) will feel right at home with this Sumatran bean, which was one of the few non-flavored beans on the list that actually maintained tasting notes common to its region rather than, say, the plastic-bag-full-of-ham flavors in the previous entry.
13. Bourbon barrel aged
As an avid lover of bourbon barrel-aged beers, I've tasted more than enough cloyingly sweet clunkers to make wonder whether Trader Joe's could pull this one off. Balance is key when you're throwing a lot of flavors at a coffee drinker's palette, and thankfully the subtle notes of boozy sweetness and a muted sourness to the finish do more good than harm for a bean we assume was destined to become French vanilla in another lifetime.
12. Organic fair trade Wake Up Blend
Joe is back with the "coffee flavored coffee," this time in the form of a bold cup that may as well be a scratch and sniff advertisement for the factory in which it was roasted. There's nothing smooth about this one, but sometimes a hot, wet slap in the face that says "YOU'RE DRINKING A CUP OF COFFEE!" is exactly what you need in the morning.
11. 100% Kona
Anyone who knows anything about this rare Hawaiian bean knows that if you're paying less than $30 per pound, it's probably bullshit -- either it's been stepped on and blended with cheaper beans, sourced from the dregs of this robust region, or it's just plain old. That being said, TJ's offering is without a doubt the best grocery store variety of Kona, with a smooth, low acidity up front and a very faint tang on the finish that's just enough of a tease to trick your brain into thinking it's the real thing. Add an ugly hibiscus print shirt and the dulcet tones of dormcore superstar Jack Johnson to the mix and it'll be almost like you never left the Big Island after your honeymoon was over!
A noticeable theme among TJ's dark roasts is their uncanny resemblance to cigarettes, but even those oh-so-terrible cancer sticks have a way of worming some amount of flavor that triggers a pleasure center or two into your psyche. The low acid French roast tasted more like a re-lit spliff than a drag off a smoke, which is a compliment of the highest order that brought back fond memories of learning how to hand-roll your own from a surly kid while studying abroad in France.
9. New Mexico Piñon coffee
Sort of like the chicory coffee of New Orleans, the Land of Enchantment has quietly upped its coffee game by spiking it with ground up piñon nuts. The result is a delicate balance of sweet and buttery notes that offers a fantastic flavored alternative to more mainstream flavors like hazelnut or Irish cream. New Mexico itself is tragically underrated as far as states go, but until you muster the courage for that sojourn to a place locals half-jokingly refer to as "The Land of Entrapment," perhaps a cup of their finest export aside from cheap sarapes and Hatch chiles will convince you it's worth your while.
8. Select Harvest
No real purist would agree to the slog of tasting all these coffees, but even the least pretentious members of our panel had a hard time wondering why Trader Joe's would blend two beans from such distinct growing regions into one cup. Regardless, it resulted in a taste we could only describe as "upgraded blandness," which consisted of an ultra-smooth flavor up front that lingered ever so slightly with notes of molasses and an enjoyable metallic tingle.
7. Organic fair trade Five Country Espresso Blend
Relative to the staggering number of aggressively bad offerings found in the Trader Joe's portfolio by now, this toasty and nutty blend got high marks for being soft, simple, and inoffensive. If you've ever secretly longed for the unfussy pleasure of in-flight coffee on a cross-country JetBlue flight, a trip to Trader Joe's seems to be the most inexpensive and stress-free way to bring it home with you.
Gingerbread gets a bad rap due to the obnoxiously #basic status of its cousin, pumpkin spice, but we're here to tell you that not all seasonal flavors are created equal. Rather than gussy up a bland, meaningless flavor (seriously, do you even know what pumpkin tastes like by itself?) with sugar, spice, and everything not nice, Gingerbread creates a vibrant and tangy cup of holiday goodness that's never too sweet to turn away even the most staunch of anti-flavored-coffee crusaders. If you can't bring yourself to drink it, the least you can do is brew up a pot in lieu of that disgusting "Holiday Cheer"-scented Yankee Candle you fire up every December. Can you drink a candle? Well... don't answer that. Just use this instead!
5. Colombia Supremo
From its aroma down to its finish, Colombia Supremo stood out as the first cup in our tasting that had a pure, unfettered essence that stood in defiance of Joe's obsession with roasting the smithereens out of their beans. This one could easily go toe-to-toe with more expensive offerings from heavyweights like Stumptown and Blue Bottle, although the lack of freshness was a slight knock that kept the hints of chocolate and fruity acidity from leaping out of the cup like they normally would at twice the price.
4. Lys Kaffe
From the Wes Anderson-inspired packaging, right down to the thin and viscous first sip, Trader Joe's crack at a Norwegian light roast is by far the quirkiest, most uncharacteristic coffee in the lineup. Considering their love of dark roasts, it's slightly ironic the packaging itself alludes to how the roast "brings out the nuances of the brew," which is cause for concern that Joe has something to hide. As advertised, the beans' origins of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania provide gentle suggestions of wine and berries, both of which may have been lost if the roaster had left these cooking for even a small amount longer. Aside from looking cool on your shelf, this is a fantastic choice for daily consumption that won't reprogram your tongue into thinking that light coffee is weak and useless.
3. Wintry Blend
If you're a Trader Joe's shopper who's still on the fence about flavored coffee, it's time to take inventory of your cart and have a long, hard look at your life. You claim to be too good for this iconic, once-a-year offering dusted with peppermint and spices, yet you're buying enough peanut butter-filled pretzels and General Tso's chicken to survive at least three concurrent Snowpocalypses? Please. The jig is up, my friend. Just succumb to the lowbrow garbage world of flavored coffee -- it's much more fun, and the cool, smooth, semi-sweet finish of Trader Joe's Wintry Blend is the perfect gateway drug. Sooner or later you'll be experimenting with peppermint mocha flavored creamer and the divine alchemy of mixing hot chocolate with coffee, but fear not: Wintry Blend moves fast, and just as soon as you're ready to hook it to your veins directly, it'll all be gone.
It was an absolute delight to find a central American coffee that had all of its bright, crisp, and nutty characteristics intact after worming its way through the TJ's supply chain. This bean was a tad darker than the super-light offerings we're used to from boutique roasters in the Pacific Northwest, but the beans still had that lightly buttery aroma that comes to life when you send beans from Coava or Upper Left through the grinder. This is a well-rounded cup that's mellow through and through, making it a fantastic pick for a daily drinker that'll keep the caffeine shakes at bay every morning.
1. Kenya AA
Some of the best beans in the world are sourced from the plateaus around Mount Kenya, but it takes a deft touch with the roaster to keep the rich flavors of cocoa, wine, and citrus that make them such a hot commodity intact. Can Joe be trusted to not torch them into a sad, smoky memory? After several cups of Kenya AA, one of the highest grades of the stuff on the market, we can say with certainty that he can.
With a bold, chocolatey body and a light tingle of citrus and red wine that coats the tongue ever so slightly, it's safe to say this is the most pure-to-form coffee you'll be able to find anywhere amongst the colorfully packaged wares of Trader Joe's. After spending some time with this excellent bean, the effort expended in grading the others felt was mentally relegated to learning the truth about The Matrix: we can go back to being happy and dumb with an inferior product, but now that we know this exists, why would we? We'll leave you now with that same knowledge of a choice so monumental you never expected it to go down in the aisle of your quirky neighborhood grocer: Do you choose the cheap and burnt beans of comfort, or the rare and classy beans that will challenge everything you thought you knew about grocery store coffee?
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Pete Cottell is a hardened coffee industry veteran who moved to Portland purely because they don't believe in dark roasts here. Follow his screeds against chain-smoking yokels who prefer to have the flavor torched out of their coffee @VanifestDestiny.