Folgers, Maxwell House, and Starbucks are America's best-selling ground coffees. But all three were iced by Eight O'Clock Colombian coffee in our taste tests. As for Starbucks, it didn't even place among the top regular coffees and trailed among decafs.
Our tests of 19 coffees also show that some of the best cost the least. At about $6 per pound, Eight O'Clock costs less than half the price of Gloria Jean's, Peet's, and other more expensive brands.
Like your joe without all the caffeine? Dunkin' Donuts and Millstone were the front runners among the decafs. But Folgers Gourmet Selection Lively Colombian came in close behind and costs up to $3 less per pound. But even the best decaffeinated coffees couldn't match the best regular brews in our taste tests.
What we tasted
Our coffee experts focused on 100 percent Colombian — a best-selling bean — for regular coffee. Most of our decaffeinated coffees are a blend of different beans.
What makes a great cup of Colombian? Lots of aroma and flavor, some floral notes and fruitiness, a touch of bitterness, and enough body to provide a feeling of fullness in the mouth. Woody, papery, or burnt tastes are off-notes.
Weeks of sipping and swirling confirmed that even 100 percent Colombian coffee and its Juan Valdez logo don't guarantee quality. Our trained testers unearthed other surprises:
Still so-so after all these years
Chock full o'Nuts and Maxwell House have pushed coffee that's "heavenly" and "good to the last drop" since 1932 and 1907, respectively. But off-notes, little complexity, and, for Chock full o' Nuts, variable quality put both behind Eight O'Clock.
When boutique isn't better
Midwest-based Caribou and Kickapoo beat an array of larger players among regular coffees. But Bucks County Coffee, from Langhorne, Penn., tasted only OK, and Peet's, from Berkeley, Calif., was burnt and bitter, despite costing $14 per pound. Peet's, Archer Farms, and Kickapoo also varied from batch to batch.
None of our decaffeinated coffees had more than 5 milligrams of caffeine per 6-ounce serving. But among regular coffees, Caribou and Bucks County had roughly four times the caffeine (195 milligrams) of some of the lowest-level brews. Medical experts say up to 600 milligrams per day is probably safe for most and can help keep you alert. But heart patients and women who are pregnant or nursing should stay below 200 milligrams, which might mean sidestepping those brands among the caffeinated coffees we tested.
How to choose
Several of our top coffees could save you $25 to $70 per year over pricier brands even if you drank just one 6-ounce cup per day. Here's what else to think about:
Consider how you take it
Coffees judged very good taste fine black. Milk and sugar can improve a mediocre coffee, but not even cream is likely to help the lowest-scoring decafs.
Choose a good coffeemaker
The best coffeemakers from our January report reached the 195º to 205º F required to get the best from the beans and avoid a weak or bitter brew. A top Michael Graves model costs just $40.
Consider grinding for fresher flavor
Even the best pre-ground coffee can't beat the best fresh-ground when it comes to taste. One top grinder from our January report, the Mr. Coffee IDS77, costs only $20.