Cheap coffee has its, uh, well ... non-losers
One recent day while panel sampling a flight of craft beers courtesy of Old Chicago, it was remarked that I should write a column about the best cheap coffees. The kinds of coffee your parents have possibly been drinking since the 1970s. The kind of coffee that often isn't even available in whole bean form because what's the point, it's probably stale anyway.
So I set out on a mission. I would buy a bunch of cheap coffees and endure them each for my morning coffee. I would note these coffees and then, eventually, rank them according to my own very subjective tastes. The requirements I put in place were simple: the coffees must be under $10 per pound and must be purchased as packaged drip grounds. Not included are specialty brands like Gevalia, Starbucks or even Dunkin' Donuts.
The contestants: Folgers' Classic Roast! Maxwell House French Roast! Chock Full O'Nuts! Cafe Bustelo! Cafe Du Monde! Eight O'Clock Original! Community Coffee!
The results, in order of ranking:
7. Maxwell House. Hey, no. Nope. Nuh uh. If you are ever going on a long, long journey away from civilization on foot, and you are going to take coffee with you, this is fine to take. Not because it's good, but because… well, imagine you walk for three years into the wilderness. Your clothes are in tatters, and you're at the end of your supplies. You manage to make a meager fire using your last match; you know the end is near. You make this coffee, filtering it through one of your socks. You are briefly comforted by the fact that this coffee's quality is the same as it was when you first tried it when sampling for an F5 article years ago.
6. Folgers. My old nemesis. When last we met, I was but the learner; now I am the master. This is the coffee most likely to be found in my parents' machine, when I visit home. This is the brew that introduced me to coffee. Have you ever seen the movie "Biloxi Blues," when the guy loses his virginity to a prostitute? Drinking this coffee makes me feel like that character might feel, going back to visit that same prostitute a lifetime later.
5. Eight O'Clock Original. I didn't hate this, but I didn't love it. It was very smooth and smelled great. The aroma, however, was a whole lot better than the taste. I wouldn't pour this out if it were handed to me for free at a church luncheon, but then there's the weird question of how I got to a church luncheon and what I was doing there. Why don't I remember getting here? Why is everyone in pastels? Best to enjoy just the coffee and figure out what's going on.
4. Cafe Du Monde. This is a guilty pleasure. I love this junk. Make a cafe au lait with this stuff and you cannot go wrong on a Saturday morning. It's a love it or hate it sort of thing — it's coffee with chicory. You don't want to drink this on its own; it needs to be presented correctly… as a basic brew, alone, it's a little weird and perhaps even tobacco-y.
3. Cafe Bustelo. This one should have an asterisk, because I made this the way you're supposed to make it: Cafe Bustelo is best in Cuban coffee. Made in a moka pot, shocked with some brown/raw sugar and with milk. It's damned good that way, and I'd rank it higher but when brewed normally it's a little bitter and acidic; it lends itself (like Cafe Du Monde above) to a specific sort of coffee and when enjoyed otherwise is a little weird.
2. Chock Full O'Nuts. This is diner coffee. When I think of diner coffee, this is the sort of taste; something that's kind of stale but still familiar and comfortable when served in one of those earthenware mugs by a waitress named Flo. You don't have to worry about insulting anyone by doctoring it with milk and sugar because no one cares. I'm not offended by this coffee.
1. Community Coffee. I'm not saying this is good, but I have certainly paid a lot more for coffee I've liked less. I would be pleasantly surprised if diner coffee were this good and not terribly disappointed if this were the basic brew at a specialty coffee place. It's got a nice, smooth sweetness and I would highly recommend that places like Jimmie's Diner replace that nasty crap they're currently serving with at least something of this quality.
That's enough of that. Keep in mind that nearly every day after doing this in the morning, I would go to some local coffee place to remind myself that I still liked coffee. I'm not saying you have to spend a lot of money to get good coffee — you don't. Any of the top five here are certainly passable. Dunkin' Donuts makes great beans, but I left them off the list as they are viewed by some as a specialty coffee — which is ridiculous. And Starbucks beans, in my opinion, wouldn't be at the top of the list if included as they are often just too burned for my taste. It's all subjective. Except Maxwell House. That's awful.