Shopping for coffee beans can be intimidating – until you learn what the descriptions and labels mean, and the flavors you can expect from each type of bean.
Best Coffee Brands: The Definitive Roundup
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It is designed to be honest, unbiased and objective, and opinions from both sides of an argument are presented wherever there is disagreement.
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If you want to start a never-ending debate, there’s a simple way to do it.
- Choose a category.
Any category will do: TV shows, beers, new wave bands or rappers – it really doesn’t matter.
- Ask a random group of people which one was (or is) “the best.”
- Sit back, listen to the arguments for a while, and then find something else to do.
Here’s the moral of the story: “the best” is such a subjective verdict that there will rarely be a definitive answer. That’s why music fans still argue Biggie vs. Tupak or Beatles vs. Stones; movie fans still argue about the Oscar wins of Annie Hall (which beat Star Wars in 1978) and Forest Gump (which beat Pulp Fiction in 1995).
And it’s why you’ll never find agreement on the best pizza in town. Everyone has their own tastes and preferences.
That brings us to our list of the “best” coffee brands.
By definition, this list will be subjective. After all, it’s based on our tastes and preferences, not yours. We’ve tried to satisfy most readers, though, by dividing this list into categories. You certainly won’t agree with all of our choices, but if you check out the entries in your favorite category or categories, we’ll all hopefully be in the same ballpark.
Before we get into details, here’s a quick look at how we categorized the best coffee brands.
Types of Coffee
Not every cup of coffee is a good one.
For example, if the beans aren’t roasted or ground properly, or if they’ve gone stale, or if too much heat is used in the brewing process (never boil your coffee!), you’re not going to get a great cup. And needless to say, there’s always the potential of what we’ll generously call “user error” when people don’t understand how to use their coffee maker the right way.
Let’s put those possibilities aside and assume that the coffee is made properly.
That lets us agree on a truism: coffee’s quality depends primarily on the beans used to make it. So let’s talk coffee beans.
Arabica vs. Robusta
Anyone who’s paid attention to coffee ads understands that there’s a difference between Arabica and Robusta beans. You’ll often hear “We only use 100% Arabica beans!” – but if you’ve ever heard ads bragging about Robusta beans, we’d be shocked.
Coffee brewed from Arabica beans is usually smoother and sweeter. Robusta beans produce a harsher and stronger brew, with as much as twice the caffeine. Robusta beans are much less expensive for producers to use, because they’re easier to grow and much more plentiful. Arabica beans are more expensive and, to oversimplify a bit, are considered “premium” beans.
Does that mean the best coffee brands only use Arabica beans? Not exactly.
A few brands focus more on Robusta, promoting their coffee’s strength and caffeine content. Others blend the two varieties to add extra complexity to a coffee’s flavor and aroma, and as you’d guess, to add extra caffeine. Blending is particularly common when making espresso, because Robusta produces more crema.
So we have our first set of categories for choosing the “best coffee brands.” One category will be Arabica, the other will be Robusta. Since most high-quality coffee producers use only Arabica beans, however, we’ll lump them together – with a separate category for Robusta and Robusta/Arabica blends.
Types of Coffee Roasts
Most coffee lovers understand that there’s a difference between roasts. You probably figured that out once you realized that “coffee” was more than just the cup you get with your pancakes at IHOP, or the (usually) horrendous stuff in your company’s break room.
And the more coffee you drink, the more likely you are to develop a preference:
- Light roast: Crisp and bright with a “fruity” flavor, less body and more complexity, more caffeine.
- Medium roast: In a word, balanced; acidity, body, flavor and aroma are all approachable.
- Dark roast: Thicker body and deeper flavor, with less complexity and less caffeine.
Medium-roast is the most popular in America, but each color has its fans. That gives us a separate set of “best coffee brand” categories.
How Do You Buy Your Coffee?
Let’s generalize for a moment. A cup of instant coffee isn’t going to be as good as the stuff you can make from ground coffee with your countertop drip machine or French press. And that probably won’t be as good as the coffee you make after grinding your own beans.
Beans? Ground coffee? Instant? Three very different preferences, and if you add in the coffee you can buy in-person at Starbucks, Dunkin’ or one of the other big chains – we have four more categories to look at. The good news is that all of our top choices sell their coffee as both beans and ground coffee, so whether you’re a “grinder person” or a “pre-ground person,” our rankings by roast color still apply.
We could include even more categories for this rundown of the best coffee brands, like best organic coffee or best fair trade coffee. But we have more than enough to keep us busy, so let’s start brewing up some rankings. We’ll throw in a couple of additional categories at the end.
One final note: almost all of these coffees are sold on Amazon, so they’re easy to find.
Best Light-Roast Coffee Brands
Fresh Roasted Coffee LLC
We like their Organic White Knight Coffee. It’s an artisanal blend made from single-origin, sustainably-sourced Arabica beans, and available in whole beans, drip, fine and coarse grinds. It has a deliciously light taste but more body than you might expect from a light roast, and works particularly well as a cold brew, too.
You can get lost sorting through the offerings from Peet’s, the famed coffee brand that’s been operating out of the San Francisco area for fifty years. But their brand of coffee that’s worth finding if you’re a light roast fan is Colombia Luminosa Breakfast Blend. Luminosa means “bright” in Spanish, and that pretty much sums up the taste of this medium-bodied Columbian/Ethiopian blend that’s somewhat sweet and a little bit nutty. You can buy it for drip, press or espresso, and of course you can purchase the beans. (We’ll stop adding that qualifier now; all of these brands sell their whole beans as well as ground coffee.)
Kicking Horse Coffee
This company has been around for a long time, and we don’t think it’s gotten the attention it deserves. Hola Light Roast produces a light and acidic coffee with a creamy body, with the nice caffeine punch you’d expect. The 100% Arabica beans are organic and fair-trade, grown in Central and South America with sustainability practices, and the grind is perfect for drip or pour-over coffee.
Honorable Mention: Starbucks Veranda Blend Light Blonde Roast
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Best Medium-Roast Coffee Brands
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters
No matter which Green Mountain variety you choose, whether it’s single-origin, a blend, a flavored coffee or a decaf, you can count on good coffee. We happen to love their medium-roast Nantucket Blend, which is a flavorful and complex full-bodied blend of African and Indonesian Arabica beans, with a hint of French roast. We also like the fact that you can buy this coffee in single-serve Keurig K-Cup pods as well.
Café Don Pablo
Café Don Pablo’s Subtle Earth Organic Coffee is on the darker side of medium roast, but don’t be put off by that. It’s an artisanal roast made from organic (and holistically-grown) Honduran Arabica beans, medium-bodied with a rich yet mild flavor and low-acid content. There’s a wealth of grinds to choose from, too: drip ground, French press, pour over, cold brew and espresso, in addition to their Subtle Earth whole bean coffee. We’d particularly recommend this one if you’re normally a fan of medium roasts, but want to put a manageable bit of variety into your coffee diet.
If you didn’t expect Dunkin’ Original Blend to make our list, you probably didn’t grow up in the Northeast where there was a Dunkin’ Donuts on every street corner. There’s a reason this company has grown nationally in such a big way, though, and it’s not because of their bagels or even their donuts. Let’s be clear: this smooth, mild medium-roast isn’t going to be celebrated by aficionados who can sip a cup of coffee and tell you everything about the beans’ sourcing. It’s simply and predictably delicious, not too acidic and not too strong – and it tastes just like the coffee you buy in their stores. Available in K-Cups, too.
Honorable Mention: Seattle’s Best Coffee Medium Roast
Best Dark-Roast Coffee Brands
Big Island Coffee Roasters
Many coffee lovers swear by the Arabica beans grown on the slopes of the Big Island’s Kona Districts in Hawaii. And one of the very best is the Kona Moon dark roast produced by Big Island Coffee Roasters. Smooth and chocolate-y, this is a balanced dark roast which isn’t overly powerful, just completely enjoyable. Available grinds are drip and French press (or, of course, whole beans.)
Hawaii Coffee Company
Is it a coincidence that so many great dark roasts come from Hawaii? We’re not sure, but this company’s Lion Coffee brand produces an outstanding dark French roast which is one of the most intense we’ve found. Have you ever had a cup of coffee and thought “this would have been great, but I think the beans were a little burnt?” Lion’s 100% Arabica dark roast is on just the right side of that equation – incredibly dark and powerful, but never over the line.
Kicking Horse Coffee
The aptly-named Kick Ass Dark Roast didn’t earn its moniker from being certified organic, fair trade or roasted with sustainably-grown Arabica beans from Indonesia and South America, although those are all great qualities. Kick Ass got its name from being bold, smoky and earthy, sweeter than you’d expect and low-acid to boot. They also make a really good Grizzly Claw dark roast that’s slightly less powerful with more chocolate-y decadence.
This one isn’t quite as intense, but it has some extra added benefits. Super Coffee’s dark roast ground coffee is enhanced with B, D and E vitamins and antioxidants for immune support, focus and clarity. They’ve also added the amino acid L-theanine, which also supports clarity and focus as well as calmness and better sleep. The coffee itself? It’s dark and delicious. Super Coffee doesn’t sell beans, but does offer ground medium roast with mocha, hazelnut and vanilla flavorings added – and of course, their trademark ready-to-drink coffee (reviewed below).
Honorable Mention: Community Coffee Signature Blend Dark Roast
Best Robusta Coffee Brands (100% Robusta or Robusta/Arabica blends)
Death Wish Coffee Company
This company grew from a small shop in upstate New York into a nationally-known coffee brand, thanks to its “world’s strongest coffee” marketing and its “money back if it’s not the strongest coffee you’ve ever had” guarantee. That’s part marketing, but largely truth; Death Wish is made from a slow-roasted blend of fair-trade Robusta and Arabica beans (all USDA certified organic) to have twice the caffeine as other dark roasts, but with a surprisingly-smooth flavor.
And in this corner…Biohazard Ground Coffee, which also bills itself as the world’s strongest coffee and has the 100% Robusta pedigree to back it up. This dark roast contains 928mg of caffeine per eight-ounce cup (there’s about 100mg in the average cup of coffee), so it’s as powerful as you’d expect. It’s also relatively smooth and definitely not as bitter as you’d think. Just know what you’re getting yourself into first; that caffeine number is not a joke.
Honorable Mention: Cannonball Coffee Maximum Charge
Best Espresso Coffee Brands
Direct from Italy, where the Arabica and Robusta beans are blended and roasted, we present Lavazza’s Gran Espresso and Super Crema brands. Each is designed for preparation in espresso machines, by a company with four generations of expertise. The Super Crema is 60% Arabica and a balanced medium-light roast, creamy and sweetly aromatic. The Gran Espresso is 60% Robusto and a rich, full-bodied medium roast. Both are absolutely terrific. (If you prefer an even darker espresso, their Espresso Barista Gran Crema is also excellent.)
We’re sure we don’t have to spend much time singing the praises of rich Cuban-style coffee. Café Bustelo is the go-to brand there, with their dark-roast El Original Espresso Ground Coffee among the most bold and flavorful you’ll find. Bonus points: it’s not as expensive as most Latin-style coffees, and it’s also now available in K-cups.
Best Ready-to-Drink Coffee Brands
Here’s an option you may never have considered to be “coffee.” You’ve certainly seen Starbucks Cold Brew sold just about everywhere, and brands like Nitro have grown in popularity – but most people think of them as energy drinks rather than “coffee.” Let’s change that.
No sugar, just one gram of carbs, 10 grams of protein, a full 200 milligrams of caffeine – and terrific coffee taste. Super Coffee is made with organic Colombian Arabica beans, MCT coconut oil for health benefits, zero-carb monk fruit sweetener instead of sugar, and lactose-free whey protein to supply a creamy consistency. It’s healthy, potent, comes in four flavors (black, vanilla bean, mocha and maple hazelnut) – and it’s delicious. It’s also a perfect drink for keto dieters.
Chameleon Cold Brew
It’s not as “good for you” as Super Coffee, but it’s organic, low-calorie and zero fat (the vanilla and mocha flavors do contain about ten grams of sugar). This brand’s ready-to-drink coffees taste clean and fresh, largely because of the distinctive Texas hill country water used to brew them.
Best Instant Coffee Brands
If you’re more of an instant coffee type of person, whether it’s because of time-constraints, lifestyle or allergies to kitchen appliances, you don’t have to settle for the Maxwell House, Folgers or Nescafé that fill grocery store shelves. These days, there are a number of instant coffee brands which come pretty close to the taste of freshly-brewed. Among the best:
- Mount Hagen Organic Instant Coffee: A great medium roast made from 100% Arabica beans – rich, bold, organic and very tasty.
- Canyon Coffee Instant Coffee: Brewed from hand-picked Ethiopian beans, this is another medium roast which is well-balanced with a complex and yummy flavor.
- Waka Coffee Quality Instant Coffee: The first two are quite expensive; Waka’s instant is much more reasonably priced; it’s a smooth and bright medium roast made from Arabica beans.
Best Coffee Shop Brands
A list of the “best coffee brands” wouldn’t be complete without at least a brief nod to the coffee drinkers who don’t brew their own, relying instead on the expertise of baristas at their favorite haunts. For obvious reasons, we can’t list individual – and outstanding – coffee houses in each city, so we’re focusing on the best national chains.
- Starbucks: One of our favorite comedy bits is from curmudgeon Lewis Black, who rails about seeing “a Starbucks across from a Starbucks.” That’s obviously an exaggeration, but not by much; these ubiquitous shops have set the standard for many years in America, not just in number of locations, but also in quality, variety – and doing as much as anyone to popularize high-quality coffee (and needless to say, latte) in the nation’s culture.
- Dunkin’: Love it or hate it, there’s no question that this chain’s immensely-popular brew is one of the top-sellers in the U.S. And the primary reason is that the quality is very good and very consistent.
- Peet’s Tea and Coffee: With 200 locations and growing, this West Coast-based chain is now found in major metropolitan areas all the way to New York and Miami.
Other regional chains with outstanding coffee and /or coffee blends:
- Midwest: Dunn Brothers Coffee, Coffee Beanery, Caribou Coffee, Biggby Coffee
- West Coast: Dutch Brothers, Blue Bottle Coffee, Seattle’s Best
- South: PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans
Obviously, the field is wide open for the giant chains in the South and other regions – but with the way that high-end coffee chains are proliferating, it probably won’t remain that way for long.