Given up on the idea of buying top-quality coffee from the supermarket? In fact, there’s no reason your local store can’t provide you with a decent brew at a decent price. We explain what to look for.
Those of us who are serious about coffee probably stopped buying it in supermarkets a while ago. Although most stock a wide range of coffee, from instant to whole beans, it hasn’t been easy to find speciality brands. Often the best option has been to grab a bag of beans when you were in your favourite local third-wave coffee shop enjoying your brew of choice.
For many of us, a cup of freshly brewed coffee is a daily ritual and we want it to taste great – but we also want convenience and value. So can you really drink a home-brewed coffee produced to perfection with a supermarket product? We at Caffeine know it is possible, and we’ve created the following guide and tips to ensure that you produce a killer cup of coffee in the comfort of your own home.
Read on to find out what to look for – and what to avoid – when you’re trying to choose the right coffee to add to your trolley.
1. Strength and flavour
You’re standing in front of the coffee shelf, deciding which bag looks the most enticing and wondering which blend will give you that satisfactory hit of caffeine in the morning. Here it’s important not to be fooled by the pretty packaging and poetic descriptions. If the bag doesn’t inform you of a few basic things, it may be because they’re trying to hide something.
Unfortunately, you can’t get a feel or a taste of the coffee itself before purchasing, so as a supermarket consumer you really need to rely on a few key things. Look for flavour notes on the packaging (hints of caramel, floral scents, fruity undertones) but beware of words such as full, rich and deep – you risk getting an over-roasted coffee with an ashy or bitter taste. Check to see if it states its country of origin – Colombia, Ethiopia etc – and a specific area within that country if possible. This means the producer has a clear idea of the journey the coffee has made.
One thing you should completely disregard is the strength scale or number. There is no standardisation across brands and, in many cases, this gives little to no indication of the quality of the coffee. We’d also recommend not plumping straight for a darker roast, as heavy roasts often mask the inherent flavours of the bean.
Our top tip is to put your nose by the perforated valve, squeeze the bag and try matching the smell to the flavour notes. You should get something more complex than just a burnt smell.
2. Fairtrade: a good deal?
Many coffee bags on supermarket shelves prominently display logos such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and Direct Trade. This is may be a key factor in your buying decision, since the image these logos portray is one of kindness and humanity. As consumers, we can’t do much to ensure food producers are treated reasonably, and buying Fairtrade products helps mitigate our guilt over that. But it’s important to remember that a coffee or other product with a Fairtrade symbol (or similar certification of ethical standards) isn’t necessarily of better quality. In fact, most of the world’s best coffees have no form of certification to their name.
3. Whole or ground?
It is generally best to buy whole beans because they will keep the delicious aromas intact for longer – you’ll be gaining access to the full flavour range of the coffee. If you need to upgrade your home set-up to make this feasible, a hand grinder is the perfect first step. We recommend the Porlex Tall Hand Grinder (£55, hasbean.co.uk), which gives a consistent grind for a relatively low price tag and a bit of elbow grease.
If you’re ready to commit and invest a bit more, consider an electric burr grinder, which offers greater consistency and flexibility for your preferred brewing method. If you’re brewing filter coffee (V60 to cafetière), we recommend the Baratza Encore, which you can find for around £140. If you need a fine espresso grind, we recommend the Niche Zero (£500, nichecoffee.co.uk).
The easy option of buying ground is always tempting, but we think it should be avoided if possible. Once coffee is ground, it begins to oxidise, releasing flavours and aromas as the structure of the bean is broken down; the coffee should be brewed almost immediately to maximise flavour. Most supermarket ground coffee will give the consumer no indication of when it was ground. Buying whole beans allows you to grind specific amounts and maintain the rest of the bag’s goodness. You may spend a little more – but you’ll be able to enjoy that good coffee time and again.
4. From shelf to kitchen
The way you store your coffee is crucial – poor storage could be the reason why your morning brew lacks flavour and depth. In our experience, packaging instructions often tell you to refrigerate or freeze the coffee for freshness. However, this can do more harm than good: cold temperatures create condensation, and storing coffee in these places also means the beans absorb aromas from other items in close proximity – and nobody wants their coffee to taste like last night’s bolognese! Storing coffee in a cool, dry place in an air-tight container is the best way to retain the flavours of the roasted bean.
We also advise you to ignore “best before” dates – which give no indication of freshness – and instead find bags that have a “roasted on” date. Aim to drink the coffee within three to four weeks of that date for the best drinking experience.
5. Best supermarket brews
We’ve rounded up our favourite supermarket brews that are guaranteed to elevate your morning cup for a reasonable price. We’ve broken it down by supermarket so that wherever you shop, you should be able to find something to please.
By far the widest selection of speciality coffee
- Union Gajah Mountain Sumatra and Liberacion Guatemala; £5.50 for 200g (£2.75 per 100g)
- Grumpy Mule Sumatra, Colombia and Peru; £4.75 for 227g (£2.10 per 100g)
- Roastworks The Espresso; £5.50 for 200g (£2.75 per 100g)
The only supermarket to stock east London’s Modern Standard
- Modern Standard Momentum Blend; £4.50 for 227g (£1.98 per 100g)
- Taylors of Harrogate Praline Especial Brazil and Cacao Superior Colombia whole beans; £4.50 for 227g (£1.98 per 100g)
Stocking high-grade competition coffee from Grumpy Mule
- Grumpy Mule Organic Ethiopia Shakisso; £5.25 for 227g (£2.31 per 100g) ,Organic Colombia, Sumatra and Bolivia; £4.65 for 227g (£2.05 per 100g)
Asda and Morrisons
The fewest options but still a couple of good coffees from Taylors
- Taylors of Harrogate Praline Especial Brazil (Asda only) and Cacao Superior Colombia whole beans; £4.49 for 227g at Asda, £4.50 for 227g at Morrisons (£1.98 per 100g)