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The Value of a Great Cup of Coffee

If you were at a Safeway store in Rapid City sometime in the past couple of weeks, you may have seen me skulking toward the checkout line, hunched over suspiciously, with something hidden under my coat. No, I wasn’t shoplifting. I was just buying cheap coffee.

Most of you know that I enjoy really good food. That also extends to what I drink, including coffee. Only recently I discovered a new “Money Script” that I had about coffee. I guess you could call it a “Coffee Script.” It had two parts: "You’ve got to pay a lot of money to get good coffee," and, "You can’t buy good coffee at Safeway." After reading these pink coffee makers reviews, I decided to buy one, to save me a little money in the long run.

I recently discovered irrefutable evidence that those two scripts are dead wrong. Even though it has been painful, I have accepted the truth and begun to change.

The bursting of my coffee money scripts came at the hands of Consumer Reports magazine and a website called rateitall.com. Consumer Reports tested 42 varieties of various brands of coffee. Their choices for the three best coffees were: First, Caribou, an expensive brand from a chain coffee shop; second, plain old inexpensive Eight O’Clock coffee that is available in grocery stores, and third, the coffee served at Dunkin’ Donuts.

As I processed this information in light of my “coffee scripts,” the pain got worse. The coffee ranking dead last in the survey was the prestigious Starbucks. Just above it were the Millstone and Seattle’s Best brands.

Once I had worked through the difficult emotions associated with uncovering and revising my coffee money scripts, though, I began to appreciate the good news. Not only does Eight O’Clock taste good, it’s one of the cheapest coffees available, selling for half to a third the price of the premium brands. On my next visit to the grocery store, then, I overcame my previous beliefs and reached for the Eight O’Clock coffee. We now proudly feature it here at KFG’s dining room.

However, while I was persuaded that 8 O’Clock was the best grocery store coffee, I was not convinced it was better than fresh roasted coffee from a local company like Dunn’s or Black Hills Coffee. Neither was Michele Powers, my financial planning assistant, who is a coffee aficionado.

We tested 8 O’Clock against Dunn’s fresh roasted Columbian. Michele’s verdict was that Dunn’s won hands down and she wouldn’t hesitate to pay three times as much for it. As for me, I noticed a difference, but not one worth three times the price.

What makes a good cup of coffee, of course, is bound to be subjective. True coffee connoisseurs could debate endlessly over the finer points of dark or medium roast, robusta or arabica beans, and whole bean vs. ground.

The point is that it makes sense, whether buying coffee or anything else, to pay attention to what works best for you instead of assuming that if you spend more you will automatically get something better. It’s a matter of value.

There are times when a higher price does mean a better value. Sometimes, though, the only thing you get for a higher price is a higher price. The important thing is to keep an open mind and decide whether something is a good value to you. Your assessment of value may be completely different from someone else’s.

When you do find a great value, go ahead and enjoy it. Let it warm your heart—or as the case may be, your stomach—like a great cup of coffee at a bargain price.

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4 Responses to The Value of a Great Cup of Coffee

  1. Cindy Zay January 11, 2006 at 4:25 pm #

    RICK,
    I was really interested in that article as I love good coffee but have given up drinking it much because it is hard to find what suits my taste. I have never liked starbucks and have always known that Dunkin Donuts was the best. My problem is I still can’t make a good cup. Any recommendation as to the best coffee maker? My experience is unless I make 8 cups it doesn’t taste good and that seems wasteful if I only want one cup. Have you seen or heard anything positive about these new pots that make one cup at a time? Cindy

  2. Richard S. Kahler January 12, 2006 at 8:17 pm #

    Cindy,

    I use a Cuisinart that is a 12 cupper, but it has a special setting for when you are brewing 4 or less cups. I’ve read that you need a 1200 watt, or greater, coffee maker to make really good coffee. I think the Cuisinart is between 1000 and 1200. We also use a Cuisinart “Two to Go” at the office that gets constantly good reviews by clients. And, it gets a thumbs up from Michele, our in-house coffee expert.

  3. Bob Allman January 14, 2006 at 11:13 am #

    Rick,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article in the January 12th edition of the Rapid City Weekly News. No question that Starbuck’s coffee is pedestrian at best.

    Thinking you might enjoy some highlights of my decades old java journey I offer the following.

    First, drip coffee benefits from a machine that brews at the proper temperature. 205 degrees is what you need to properly extract the oils and solids from the ground bean but unfortunately the vast majority of drip makers run in the low 190 range. I was fortunate to pick up one unit that a popular internet coffee forum (http://www.coffeegeek.com/) membership had tested as providing optimal brewing temperature. Sadly the Melitta Clarity has been discontinued. I actually bought one for my personal office as well as another for my co-workers.

    Second, buying whole beans and grinding them in an inexpensive blade grinder for your drip maker just before brewing provides a quantum leap in taste over the use of bulk pre-ground coffee. Local purveyors such as Dark Canyon, Black Hills, and Dunn Brothers provide a variety of fresh roasted whole beans so there really is no excuse 🙂 My favorite is Costa Rican Terrazu, an outstanding varietal bean, and the standard for use at my office. For years I’ve bought from http://www.cw-usa.com/coffee-beans-varietals.html where a fresh roasted 5 pound bag will run a bit over $32 plus UPS.

    Third, as with drip coffees, stay away from Starbucks for espresso drinks. Locally the only chain worthy of consideration is Dunn Brothers with several small local coffee houses also providing good espresso based offerings. Poor barista operation giving sour or inadequately extracted espresso plus burnt microfoamed milk adds up to charred lousy taste at best. But a good set up and technique at home or office will best all of these establishments! Over the years I progressed from inexpensive thermocouple espresso makers to a full blown semi-professional boiler unit. And with espresso making having a top notch burr grinder is every bit as important as a good machine and fresh beans. Dark Canyon sells the Silva Ranchllio machine which is a great entry level espresso machine to be matched with a Rocky grinder. There are several outstanding retailers with internet sites who sell the semi-pro and pro units. I’ve had excellent service from http://www.chriscoffee.com/

    My “gold standard” for espresso is Joshua’s Malabar Gold which I get here: http://www.malabargoldespresso.com/ . Other blends such as Intelligencia Black Cat also have strong followings. I have converted numerous folks over the years to not only Terrazu for their drip coffee but Malabar Gold for espresso. My next door neighbor became an avid convert and we now order jointly to ensure a fresh supply is always on hand.

    Now I rarely drink straight espresso. My preferences are for a breve (espresso laced with half n half) and a modified caffe latte (triple shots of espresso with an equal amount of microfoamed skim milk). Others prefer the traditional cappuccino (one third each espresso, steamed skim milk, and microfoamed milk) or latte (shot of espresso with a large amount of steam milk in a bowl style cup). My neighbor and his wife are mochaccino fanatics (chocolate syrup in espresso with optional steamed/microfoamed milk).

    Bottom line in all this is that in a quest for a great cuppa you’re absolutely correct that price isn’t an indicator. But further there is a whole world of exceptional taste beyond grocery store pre-ground coffee! Take the plunge and you’ll never go back.

    Best!

    Bob Allman

  4. Cindy Zay January 16, 2006 at 10:34 am #

    Thanks for all the tips on coffee and coffee makers. I am now on the quest for the perfect coffee maker(also the perfect purse)This info will help.