Brace yourself for a classic American paradox. When it comes to coffee, we’re drinking less of it, but spending more on it. The reason is the rising popularity of single-serve coffee brewers. The effect can be seen in the usual ways when brands seek to capture more of a shrinking pie: increased marketing. Starbucks has increased its media spend steadily since 2012, though it still has yet to reach the levels of its East Coast rival, Dunkin’ Donuts. McDonald’s, whose McCafe line disrupted the market significantly when it was launched six years ago, recently took the unprecedented step (for them) of offering their coffee in grocery stores. Even Tim Horton’s, the small guy with a largely regional draw, is bumping up its ad spend. Notably, all four offer varieties in K-cup form.
Which means, taking a stroll down the coffee aisle at the store may take a little longer, as brands look to use packaging and marketing buzzwords to grab that split second of attention that it takes to get you to reach for their product over another. Here is a handy guide to some of the terms you’ll see vying for your attention next time you’re in the market for a bag of beans:
Arabica: If you care about coffee, this is what you drink. Arabica beans are grown at higher altitudes, and have the pleasant - if varied - taste qualities that coffee connoisseurs desire. Their cousins are robusta beans, grown at lower altitudes and known for their bitter unpleasantness. If “buying coffee” for you means grabbing the large tub of Folger’s crystals, odds are you’re drinking a lot of robusta. That’s not to say all brands that advertise “100% arabica” are created equal: Discerning palates can often pick out some robusta filler in the supposedly all-arabica bags. Nor does proclaiming 100% arabica preclude differences in sourcing, roasting and packaging that can affect quality.
Single Origin: While most coffee you buy is from a large geographical region or country, single-origin coffee is said to have been sourced from a much more specific (smaller) area. The upshot is supposed to be cleaner, more pronounced flavor notes shining through the brewed product, a result of the homogeneity afforded it. Starbucks is (go figure) the largest and most famous brand putting these varieties on the shelves. It is sometimes a little difficult to verify a single-origin claim, however. In some parts of the world where coffee is grown, like Ethiopia, certain governmental controls make it a little difficult to know just how “single” is the origin of the beans.
Fair Trade: You can usually put a little more stock in bags advertising fair trade. Simply put, this means the brand has negotiated directly with the farmer to pay a price that allows him or her to live a decent life, while maintaining sustainable farming practices. While debates do exist over the veracity of this claim or its usefulness, most often, this marking should provide some peace of mind that the bag you’re buying is doing some good, especially if it comes from a smaller roaster.
Organic: Producers of USDA Organic-certified products must pass annual inspections of their supply chain and processes to meet the criteria for the certification.
Flavors: Ever wonder how they flavor coffee beans? In many cases, the beans are sprayed with an adhesive chemical soon after roasting (the still-warm beans absorb the chemical better), then sprayed with the desired flavor, then mixed. The base layer of “adhesive” helps the flavor coating stick to the beans. Don’t say you weren’t warned. If you’re jonesing for some French vanilla, you’re probably better off adding the flavor yourself after brewing.
Instant: Instant coffee is made by taking whole beans, grinding them, brewing them, then freeze drying the end product. The result is a soluble substance that can be added to hot water to produce something like coffee. While advances have been made in recent years, instant coffee is basically still stale, old coffee. There’s no way around it.The coffee advertising wars in the U.S. have been a boon for consumers. There are an untold number of varieties and products available to us that weren’t just a few years ago. The more brands compete for consumers’ coffee dollars, the more power those consumers have to weed out unfit products from the marketplace. But as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. It’s up to us to bone up on what we’re buying.