If you're looking for a standout among blended coffees, you may be disappointed. Blends, the best-selling type of ground coffee, contain beans from at least two regions or countries. Of the 24 ground caffeinated blends we tested, none was excellent or very good. But a careful shopper can choose a good combination of taste and price.
There's slightly better news for decaf drinkers. Although none of the ground decaf blends we tested scored better than Good, several performed at least as well as their caffeinated brand mates: Allegro Organic Decaf Blend Medium Dark, Peet's Decaf House Blend, Caribou Daybreak Morning Blend Decaf, and Bucks County Decaf Breakfast Blend. That's quite a feat, because the decaffeination process can harm flavor.
What makes a great cup of joe? We looked for smoothness and complexity, with no off-flavors. The beans should be neither under-roasted nor charred, and the brew should have at least moderate aroma and flavor, and subtle top notes. Some sourness and bitterness are desirable, too, to keep the coffee from tasting bland. For a rundown of terms, see The Jargon of Java (available to subscribers).
All coffees consist of arabica or robusta beans, or a combination. Arabica beans are more expensive and tend to make better coffee. And as with wine grapes, where the beans are grown makes a difference.
So perhaps it's not surprising that blended coffees scored lower than several 100 percent Colombian arabica caffeinated brands tested for our March 2009 report. We rated three of those Very Good: Eight O'Clock 100% Colombian (a CR Best Buy), Caribou Colombia Timana, and Kickapoo Organic Colombia. Ten 100 percent Colombian coffees rated only Good (though none rated Fair), so pedigree is no guarantee of quality.
For discerning drinkers, especially those who like their coffee black, only a very good cup will do, so we recommend the above Colombians over the blends we tested. Milk, sugar, and flavorings may camouflage the defects in coffee we judged Good, but may not help coffee that's only fair.