A buying guide for the best cheap coffee varieties on the market.
Our Top Pick
The company behind the original pour-over cone and paper filters also makes coffee to go in them. Melitta grinds its 100% Colombian coffee very finely in order to extract as much flavor as possible during the pour-over process. Many consumers who have posted Melitta coffee reviews on Amazon praise the rich flavor that results (and note that the coffee also works in regular automatic-drip machines). In one review, a consumer warns that the finely ground coffee slows down the brewing process with a manual brewer, but this allows more coffee flavor to come through. Another consumer points out that the fine grind means you don't need to use as much coffee to get a full-flavored cup, which can save coffee drinkers money -- and yield a far more pleasing brew. In our blind taste test of coffee made in the standard ratio of 2 tablespoons per cup of water, panelists deemed Melitta 100% Colombian (starting at $5.99 for an 11-ounce can, Amazon) much too strong and bitter, despite its mild aroma. When milk was added, one panelist detected a note of fruit.
In a separate blind taste test, experts describe the same fruity tones and mild aroma noted by our panelists but conclude that the flavor is mild as well, yielding a cup that is on the weak side, although they don't specify how it was prepared. The expert tasters also identify a caramel flavor and a light body.
Coffee drinkers posting Melitta reviews on Amazon fall in the middle: They agree with the experts about the lack of bitterness in the brew, but they also don't find it thin. They call this a flavorful medium roast ideal for drinking black, rather than mixing with milk, flavored syrups, and other additives. Melitta reviews by consumers also praise the low acidity, which is kind to sensitive stomachs. The coffee is made from sought-after arabica beans grown at high altitude.
Whatever any tasting panel might say, many coffee drinkers posting Melitta reviews declare the 100% Colombian brew superior to other canned coffees, finding it rich, smooth and easy to drink.
Folgers, along with Maxwell House, dominates the market for low-cost, home-brewed coffee, so it's no surprise this coffee has many admirers. Consumers posting Folgers Black Silk reviews are generally happy with the darkest blend in the brand's lineup. Many people have gotten used to drinking darker coffees at coffee shops in recent years, and find the usual supermarket brands insipid in comparison. According to reviews, consumers see this canned coffee as a way to get premium coffee taste at a very low price.
Consumers posting Folgers Black Silk reviews at the website of regional retailer Meijer say this brew has a strong coffee flavor that is bold and rich, making it particularly good if you're a coffee drinker who adds milk and sugar to your morning cup -- the coffee taste still comes through. In a blind taste test, our panel preferred this blend with milk, which created a smoother flavor and muted what one taster described as a lingering chemical aftertaste.
Folgers markets the Silk blend (starting at $7.64 for a 27.8-ounce canister, Amazon) as a relief to the bitterness and acidity in some dark roasts, which can be rough on the stomach. In Folgers Black Silk reviews at Walmart, consumers attest that the coffee is indeed smooth and not bitter, perhaps surprising for a brew this full-bodied. Be warned, though -- this pick is for dark coffee lovers only. While our normally premium-coffee-drinking panelists didn't find it too strong, several reviewers commenting on Amazon who habitually drink medium-roast coffee don't care for this blend; one says it tastes sort of like sludge.
Folgers Dark Black Silk comes ground in a canister, in individual-serving packets, and in K-Cups for Keurig pod coffee makers.
For many years, A&P supermarkets had three coffees under its own label that customers could grind in the store. The medium blend, Eight O'Clock Original (starting at $4.98 for 12 ounces of whole beans, Amazon), is still earning fans after more than 150 years, according to Eight O'Clock reviews. Consumers posting reviews on a leading consumer-product testing site -- including one who has been drinking the coffee for decades -- enjoy being awakened by its aroma and the richness of its flavor. They find the coffee an excellent value that approaches the quality of premium blends.
In Eight O'Clock reviews at Amazon, consumers say the original blend is not strong or bitter and suits people who are not turned on by dark coffeehouse brews. They find that it has a sweetish edge to it and is hearty without being over-roasted. According to an older writeup at Coffee Review, however, Eight O'Clock Original falls on the darker side of medium roast. The site's experts give the coffee a high rating in a blind taste test, noting a pungent richness. More current reviews from consumers on the same site seem to suggest that recent batches don't live up to this standard.
Several Eight O'Clock reviews by both consumers and experts mention that the original blend has a chocolate-y undertone and rave about its smoothness. While it seems to hold up to the addition of milk and sugar, it is probably best for people who drink their coffee black. Our tasting panel found that much of the coffee taste was lost when milk was added. They noticed that the coffee had a sweetness to it and they couldn't detect any aftertaste.
Eight O'Clock Original comes in vacuum-sealed bags of whole beans or ground coffee.
Cafe Bustelo Review
Originally roasted and sold door-to-door by Cuban immigrants, Cafe Bustelo (starting at $3.79 for a 10-ounce can, Amazon) is meant to be drunk as cafe con leche or cafecito, which is sweetened with dark sugar as it brews. Cafe Bustelo reviews indicate that the Cuban-style coffee has earned a following outside the Hispanic market, as well, among coffee drinkers who favor super-dark brew. It's finely ground to be used as espresso. One consumer who has tried it that way and has also put it in an automatic drip pot suggests on Amazon that it tastes best when made with a French press. We used an automatic coffee maker in our blind taste test, and our panelists declared the coffee acrid when they drank it black -- like gas station brew that's been sitting on a hotplate, one said. The strong taste was tempered by the addition of milk.
Some people mention in Cafe Bustelo reviews that they grew up in or near a Hispanic neighborhood and have a nostalgic fondness for this coffee. Others, such as this consumer who posted a review at CVS, simply enjoy strong, bold, dark coffee and appreciate the bargain price.
A blogger at Slashfood declares Cafe Bustelo better than many pricey premium blends. Folks who like the dark roast of Starbucks but not the price have become fans, according to Cafe Bustelo reviews on Amazon and Miami Culinary Tours. While this coffee is dark, it's also smooth and lacks bitterness, coffee drinkers say. Our panelists noted the spicy aroma.
Cafe Bustelo comes finely ground in either a can or a brick. It is also available as instant coffee, and there's a decaf version for people who want the bold, dark flavor without the kick.
In the marketing war of Dunkin' Donuts vs. Starbucks, Dunkin' is aimed at the average joe, whereas Starbucks is generally seen as an elitist brand. Dunkin' Donuts coffee reviews indicate that plenty of people see themselves on the Dunkin' side of the divide but can't get fully behind a coffee they find so unequivocally mediocre.
Overall, the Dunkin' Donuts coffee reviews we read appear pretty evenly split. On the plus side, some consumers who have posted coffee reviews at Costco like that the Original Blend is a mellow, medium-roasted coffee, without the burnt aftertaste that darker coffeehouse blends sometimes have. It is an easy cup of coffee to drink, without harshness or bitterness, according to reviews. That's exactly what our panelists liked about it in a blind taste test, in which it was declared the runaway favorite. The panel also noted the coffee's rich aroma.
At Coffee Review, experts also call the coffee sweet and aromatic but say some of that gets lost as you drink it, and it has no lasting flavor. Likewise, one coffee drinker who posted a Dunkin' Donuts coffee review at Walmart finds the brew flavorful but on the weak side. Many others comment that the Original Blend has no heft to it. If that's something you want in a coffee, you won't find it here.
The people who aren't so crazy about Dunkin' Donuts Original Blend (starting at $8.99 for 16 ounces, Amazon) repeatedly cite that lack of oomph as the reason. One consumer posting on Epinions calls it acceptable -- fine for people who like a blah sort of brew. Another Dunkin' Donuts coffee review on Epinions deems the Original Blend better than most grocery brands, although not by much; the reviewer says there are better coffees out there for the same price.
Dunkin' Donuts Original Blend is available as ground coffee or whole beans in vacuum-sealed pouches of various sizes, as well as K-Cups.
Other Products We Reviewed
Seattle's Best, which has been owned by Starbucks since 2003, recently renamed its coffees based on how dark they are, using levels from 1 to 5. Level 4 (starting at $6.59 for 12 ounces, Amazon) is a dark roast that consumers posting Seattle's Best coffee reviews find hefty and bold, although many report that it tastes burnt and leaves an acrid aftertaste. Commenters at StarbucksMelody.com do appreciate that the levels make it easy for people to choose a coffee even if they're not educated on the different kinds. (People who liked the old Henry's Blend seem to have transitioned into Level 4.)
Seattle's Best does not specify on the bag or on its website the type of beans that go into making Level 4, aside from the fact that they are organic and Fair Trade -- attributes cited in favorable Seattle's Best coffee reviews. The product description of the coffee on Amazon does say that it is made from arabica beans, sourced from a number of locations in Indonesia and South and Central America.
Many dark coffee drinkers like this brew for its bold flavor, judging by Seattle's Best coffee reviews on Amazon. They say it is full-bodied, smooth, and balanced. A consumer who posted a review at Drugstore.com appreciates that, despite the fact that it's strong and deep, it is not bitter or acidic, and doesn't upset her stomach.
Like its Starbucks parent, Seattle's Best Coffee elicits many remarks about its brew being over-roasted. Some consumers posting Seattle's Best coffee reviews declare that Level 4 is no better than dark supermarket coffees that cost considerably less. Although you could do much worse than to buy this coffee, you can probably do better.
Seattle's Best Coffee Organic Fair Trade Level 4 comes as ground coffee or whole beans, in 12-ounce vacuum-sealed bags.