Ground coffee reviews

CHOICE’s expert tasters find some of the best brews at very affordable prices.
 
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01 .Introduction

Coffee-iStock

In brief

  • Fourteen brands of ground coffee tested
  • Our top-rating brands include fair-trade and organic coffees, as well as one relatively cheap supermarket generic brand.

We only tested ground coffee marked as suitable for espresso machines, as this method of brewing coffee brings out its full flavour. Nonetheless, we found more than 30 brands in the major supermarkets – too many to test them all – so we narrowed it down to 14, all made from arabica beans, and one extra to see if price determines quality (see World’s Most Expensive Coffee). 

Please note: this information was current as of December 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


How we test

Our tester brews each coffee in the same way using a Breville ESP8B Café Roma espresso machine. Three experts rate the coffees, giving them scores for the colour and thickness of the crema (the tan-coloured foam on top of an espresso), aroma, flavour, mouthfeel (creaminess or wateriness) and aftertaste. The coffees are presented in random order identified only by numbers, so the experts don’t know which brands of coffee they’re tasting. 

 
 

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Illy Espresso Caffé Machinato

Illy Espresso Caffe MachinatoPrice $6.80/100g

Expert comments

  • “That went down really well.”
  • “Great flavour.”




Grinders Brazil Style Espresso Blend

Grinders Brazil Style Espresso BlendPrice $3.60/100g

Expert comments

  • “Pleasant coffee; not bitter.”








Scarborough Fair Dark Roast

Scarbrough Fair Dark Roast Green BuyPrice $3.50/100g

Expert comments

  • “Earthy flavour.”
  • “Not a strong-flavoured coffee.”







Gloria Jean’s Espresso Bin 18

Gloria Jean's Espresso Bin 18Price $4/100g

Expert comments

  • “Mild flavour; slightly bitter aftertaste.”










República Organic Signature Blend

Republica Organic Signature Blend Green BuyPrice $5/100g

Expert comments

  • “Not the best espresso one will ever have, but above average.”







Woolworths Select Espresso Ground Coffee

Woolworths Select Espresso Ground CoffeePrice $2.40/100gBest Buy

Expert comments

  • “Pretty good.” 



Full results of our taste test are shown in the table below.

Ground coffee table

 

Illy Espresso Caffé Machinato, which comes in a distinctive silver tin at a hefty $69 per kilo, was by far the most expensive supermarket coffee, but also the experts’ clear favourite. Fortunately, however, you don’t have to pay the earth for good coffee. Scarborough Fair and República brands are moderately priced, as well as being fair trade and organic, and both rated very well. The bargain buy, however, proved to be a supermarket generic brand, Woolworths Select Espresso Ground Coffee – see What to Buy, for the experts’ comments on these top-rating coffees.

Surprisingly, the coffees made by top-selling brands Lavazza and Vittoria failed to impress. Lavazza Qualita Oro was dismissed by our expert tasters as “horrible”, while Vittoria Oro was “far too bitter, not a nice coffee  to drink at all”. Kopi Luwak also failed to impress. This unusual coffee was tested blind alongside the other cheaper coffees, but only rated a middle-of-the-range score.

World’s most expensive coffee

Kopi Luwak is an Indonesian coffee renowned as much for its price tag as its rather bizarre origins. It retails for a heady $1000/kg and is made from coffee berries eaten by the Asian Palm Civet, a cat-sized mammal. The civet digests the flesh of the fruit but the coffee beans inside the berries pass through its gut undigested. They’re collected from the animal’s droppings, washed and lightly roasted. It’s suggested the coffee tastes extra good because the civets are fussy eaters and only choose the most perfect berries. Research at the University of Guelph in Canada found the animal’s digestive juices penetrate the beans and break down proteins that give rise to some of the coffee’s bitter flavours.

We included Mandailing Estate Wild Kopi Luwak in our test for the novelty factor, but our experts, tasting blind, didn’t pick it as anything special (see the table, above). It may be the world’s most expensive coffee, but it’s clearly not always the best-tasting.

 

What determines flavour and aroma?

Coffee berries (known as cherries), which contain the coffee bean, are the fruit of several species of small evergreen shrub. They’re grown commercially in Australia, but the world’s biggest producers of coffee are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia. The fruit is usually picked by hand and the beans separated from the flesh of the fruit after drying or by a wet fermentation process, followed by washing with fresh water. The dried beans are sold as “green coffee” (coffee beans before they’re roasted).

  • Arabica coffee comes from the species Coffea arabica. This is the best coffee for flavour, but the plants are delicate and require careful cultivation. All coffees on test are made from arabica beans.
  • Robusta coffee, from Coffea canephora, lacks the great flavour of arabica coffees but is cheaper because the plants are less susceptible to disease and produce higher yields. Some brands of ground coffee (not included in our test) include robusta blended with arabica beans, but robusta is used more by manufacturers of instant coffee.

Espresso coffee has a more concentrated flavour than coffee brewed by other methods. Espresso machines force hot (but not boiling) water through ground coffee under pressure. This produces a shot of dense black coffee covered by crema, a foam of finely dispersed oil droplets (rich in aroma compounds) and tiny bubbles of gas (mostly residual carbon dioxide from the coffee ground).

Freshly roasted and ground beans definitely make the best coffee.

  • More than 800 different chemical compounds contribute to the alluring aroma of good coffee.
  • The flavour and aroma of coffee depend ultimately on the genetics of the plant, where and how it’s grown, and how the beans are harvested and processed. But most of the compounds responsible for the aroma are developed during the roasting process.

Keeping coffee fresh in the packet

Unfortunately, roasted coffee is highly perishable; the aroma molecules can evaporate, and be quickly degraded by oxidation. Worse, the aroma of ground coffee deteriorates even faster than that of roasted whole beans. Another problem is that roasted coffee continues to release carbon dioxide gas after roasting, so if it’s packed too soon the bags can burst.

Coffee manufacturers have adopted different technological fixes for retaining freshness with differing degrees of success, as reflected by our scores.

  • Top-scoring Illy Espresso Caffé Machinato is sealed in a can under pressure of nitrogen to prevent oxidation. In reality, the coffee is far from fresh as it’s roasted and ground in Italy, but this clever technology is clearly a successful strategy for retaining a “fresh” aroma and flavour.
  • The other brands that scored well are packed in airtight bags fitted with a one-way valve that releases carbon dioxide while preventing oxygen or moisture getting into the bag and spoiling the aroma of the coffee.
  • Most of the brands that fared poorly use older technology, in which the coffee is vacuum-sealed as a “brick”. This can’t be done before the roasted coffee has released its carbon dioxide, so some aroma is lost even before the coffee is packaged.

How to store coffee at home

  • Once you’ve opened a packet of coffee it’s best stored in airtight tins or jars to minimise loss of aroma and damage from exposure to oxygen and moisture. Most experts suggest keeping it in a cool, dark place, such as a pantry.
  • If you have more than about a week’s supply, divide it into one-week quotas and store the rest in the freezer. Take one out when you need it, but don’t open it until it’s warmed up to prevent moisture condensing on the coffee.
  • It’s never a good idea to store coffee in the ordinary fridge because moisture gets in every time you open the jar to use some.

Coffee concerns

Coffee is a labour-intensive crop grown mostly by small farmers but marketed by big corporations via middlemen (sometimes referred to as “coffee coyotes”) who cream off much of the profit. Farmers often get little return for their labour, and the problem has been compounded by big fluctuations in the international price of coffee. Fairtrade certification protects small farmers from large price fluctuations and guarantees them a reasonable return.

Agricultural practices introduced in the 1970s have boosted production, but at the expense of the environment. Coffee was originally grown under the shade of trees that provided a habitat for many animals and insects, but many farmers have switched to “sun cultivation”, in which coffee is grown under full sun with little or no forest canopy. This method gives higher yields but causes environmental degradation and requires greater use of fertilisers and pesticides.

Picking a coffee that is certified organic, as well as either Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance certified, means the environment and workers are treated well.

How much caffeine do you consume? See our caffeine calculator.

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