Illustration: Allison Corr

For all the coin I spend at Starbucks (now that I’m back on the caffeine wagon), you’d think I would just take some of that $$ and invest in a proper Thermos to cart my home-weekend coffee to work. But before I’m about to make such a life-altering (and possibly money-saving) decision, how can I be sure that I’m making the best at-home, supermarket-purchased coffee? After all, for years my go-to has been Eight O’Clock, but why have Folgers and Maxwell House been around so long? Also easily available at the grocery store (or even the drugstore, I bought a bunch at Walgreens): Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonald’s McCafé.

There was only one way to settle this, obviously: Make a batch of various supermarket varieties and serve to some of the biggest coffee-addicts I know—my co-workers—and see which one they consider best.

Let me tell you, there is nothing that will make you friends at work faster than making people drink a bunch of less-than-gourmet coffee at 3 in the afternoon. The space between my ears is still buzzing. My tongue feels numb, like all of my taste buds are fed up and have gone on strike.

Yes, as it turns out, supermarket coffee (for those of us used to high-octane fresh brew) may be less-than-stellar, especially when consumed black. Some of the brands tested were much less palatable than others, but as one taster put it: “I’d rather not have coffee than drink any of these.” The office coffee aficionado that I drafted into this project stated firmly, “If I didn’t like you, I’d be really mad at you right now.” Fair enough!

Photo: Karl Gustafson

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Let’s start with the benign: People didn’t hate the Dunkin’ Donuts, but didn’t really love it either. “Good strong aroma, not a strong flavor, doesn’t really have much.” Personally, I found it a bit tinny and metallic-tasting (Dunkin’ Donuts, however, won our blind taste testing of best to-go chain coffee).

More palatable, and maybe a little surprising, was Folgers, which many people seemed to like due to its familiarity. “It tastes like bottomless diner coffee… comforting.” Another agreed, “It’s in between gas station coffee and grandma coffee, and I love gas station coffee.” At this, our coffee aficionado shuddered, and accused the Folgers of tasting like “watered-down soggy, sweet cardboard.” Another taster agreed, calling it “watery bean juice.” The coffee expert then tried to school me on the difference between Robusta beans and Arabica beans, wherein Folgers and Maxwell House likely fall toward the former, and Starbucks toward the latter. She said that “a good bean will have noticeable flavor shifts” when cream is added, which is fortunate for me because I found it hard to drink any of these without cream, frankly.

Of all the supermarket coffees, people liked Maxwell House the most. They said it was “darker, richer… actually resembles coffee.” This love wasn’t across the board, though, as one person noted, “it still doesn’t have flavor” but “it doesn’t have flavor in a different way though.” Another taster said it tasted like buttered popcorn, while another slightly enthused, “This is totally passible with cream if you don’t care what you’re drinking.”

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But even that faint praise stands far and above the reaction to McDonald’s McCafé. Our batch tasted straight-up sour, burnt, and frankly, not good at all. You’d also think that Starbucks would fare well—and it did stand out, but just by being much darker than the rest, even though the beans were the mild Pike Place roast. Tasters described it as very earthy, leathery, darker, thicker, but not necessarily better than the more palatable Maxwell House.

Photo: Karl Gustafson

Winner: Maxwell House

I really wasn’t expecting to take the giant blue tub home with me to become my at-home coffee, but it looks like that’s where things are headed. Also, I’m going to ask my coffee expert friend about roasting my own beans and performing at-home pour-overs (her preferred method), which should hopefully make my domestic coffee adventures even more flavorful.

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