Brew a Cheaper Buzz with the Best Budget Coffee

By Elizabeth Sheer,

While single-estate coffee beans and cold-brewed coffee may be all the rage in coffee culture, frequenting your local hipster haunt gets expensive pretty quickly. The alternative, of course, is brewing in the comfort of your own kitchen. Whether you choose to grind the beans yourself or prefer the convenience of pre-ground coffee, you can enjoy a high-quality cup o' joe without the lines or the coffee shop markup.

Related: Best cheap coffee makers

We invited a panel of tasters to sample some of the best-rated cheap coffees, each bearing a price between 11 cents and 22 cents a cup.

Folgers Black Silk is the darkest roast in the brand's lineup. Online reviewers have noted that its flavor is dark and rich without tasting burnt or bitter and that the coffee taste comes through even after milk and sugar are added. Our tasting panel agreed that Folgers has a "rich coffee aroma in the can" and tastes "bold" and "strong, but not too strong." With the addition of milk, the coffee "tasted smooth" and was "less acidic." Without milk, our tasters said it left a "bitter" or "chemical" "aftertaste that lingers." One taster said the color was good. Folgers Black Silk is available in K-Cups, single-serving packets, and canisters of pre-ground coffee. A 27.8-ounce canister starts at $7.64.

Eight O'Clock Original is a medium roast blend that's been around for more than 150 years. It was originally A&P supermarkets' store brand, but the mellow yet full-bodied flavor has earned a reputation of its own. This is a very middle-of-the-road coffee, which probably adds to its appeal, and online reviews suggest it's best enjoyed black. Our tasters described an "initial sweetness" and "medium acidity," and all agreed it left "no aftertaste." With milk, though, they determined it was a bit too mild and "not enough of the coffee taste comes through." Eight O'Clock Original coffee starts at $4.98 for 12 ounces of whole beans.

Café Bustelo is a dark-roasted, Cuban-style coffee that our panel decided had a "spicy aroma" in the can. It's traditionally enjoyed in drinks heavy on the milk and sugar, such as cafecito and café con leche, which may be the best way to drink this coffee. When tasting it without milk, our panelists deemed it "acrid" with a strong aftertaste; one taster said it was reminiscent of "gas station coffee that's been sitting on a burner all day." Fans of super-dark coffee might choose Café Bustelo for the bold flavor of a coffeehouse drink with add-ins. A 10-ounce can starts at $3.79.

Melitta coffee is extra-finely ground for use with the brand's manual, pour-over cones and paper filters but can also be brewed in an automatic-drip coffee maker. We used the latter method in our tasting, but the former may be preferable. At $5.99 for an 11-ounce can, Melitta 100% Colombian is more expensive than some other budget coffees, but less is required per cup, thanks to the finer grounds. Perhaps because our test used the same measurement for Melitta as for other coffees, the panelists found that it tasted "too strong" and "bitter" and showed a lot of acidity, although with milk it had a taste that one panel member described as "fruity." Another taster said it had a mild aroma. Using less per cup is a money-saving strategy and may also be a path to enjoying this coffee, because the brew would be less intense. Online reviewers said the smooth and nutty flavors of the 100% Colombian brew appealed to them.

Dunkin' Donuts Original Blend is proclaimed by its producer to be a premium coffee. And at $8.99 a pound, it comes closer to a premium price than the others we tested. Our tasters agreed it presents more of an "aroma than the others," calling it "very mild" and "smooth" and comparatively less bitter. This was the winning coffee with our panelists because it tasted "light" and "not acidic at all," and left no "lingering aftertaste." Interestingly, online reviews for Dunkin' Donuts coffee were more mixed than those for the competing brands in our test, which confirms just how subjective taste is. Some online reviewers found the lightness extremely pleasant and the taste mild and sweet. Others considered the lightness the brand's downfall and termed it insipid.

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Our panel conducted a blind test, with the tasters unaware of the coffees they were drinking. All habitually drink premium coffee, and the brands included in the tasting were unfamiliar to them. The coffee came from freshly opened containers and was prepared in a Mr. Coffee coffee maker. Each pot was made with 2 tablespoons of pre-ground coffee per cup of water and then transferred to a thermal container to maintain a consistent level of heat. Each coffee was tested with and without the addition of milk.

A note about coffee: The longer coffee beans are roasted, the darker and bolder the flavor. American coffee drinkers traditionally prefer lighter roasts but recently have taken a liking to the darker, stronger brews common at Starbucks and other coffeehouses. People who drink their coffee black may enjoy the subtle flavors of a light roast, while more intense flavors may hold up better in a coffee drink with added milk and sugar.

Related: Cheap coffee grinders

Aside from roasting, much of the flavor of coffee comes from the type and quality of the beans. Arabica beans are widely considered to have the best flavor but are expensive due to the care needed to cultivate them. The Eight O'Clock, Melitta, and Dunkin' Donuts coffees discussed above use only arabica beans. Many of the cheapest coffees use robusta beans, which are easier to grow and contain more caffeine.

For the best flavor and freshest brew, experts recommend grinding whole coffee beans just before brewing. A cheap coffee grinder may cost extra, but it's an effective way to elevate a common cup of coffee and approximate that premium taste.
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