It all depends what you mean by the best coffee. In blind taste tests Maxwell House whups Starbuck's butt almost every time. In branded taste tests, Starbucks always wins.
If you want the brand that makes you feel like you "made it" go with Starbucks. If you want coffee that tastes the best, take a swing over to coffee review and look for the best tasting coffees in your flavor preference (light roast, dark roast, espresso, organic, etc.).
Peets is gaining national distribution and they have made dark roasts an art form. Buck's County in PA has some great coffees as do other roasters. Green Mountain has some great coffees and they roast for Newman's Own Organics. One of the Newman's Own coffees just got rated best among several coffees tasted in Eating Well magazine.
One of the challenges Starbucks has with quality is their size. I remember a few years ago McDonalds considered putting shrimp on their menu. They found out that there are not enough shrimp in the world to meet their need. Starbucks has some great coffee, especially in the Black Apron line just launched, but it seems that quality is slipping in their more broadly distributed coffees.
In general, though, Starbucks buys great beans. I tend to find fault with how they roast them more than with the beans themselves. I like to drink coffee for the coffee taste. Like great cuts of meat, who has them cooked well done? Roasting, especially charring the coffee, overwhelms the taste of the bean. Perhaps that is why Starbucks sells more milk by volume than coffee.
Don't get me wrong - I love what Starbucks has done for the industry. I just don't enjoy drinking their products. And even though I speak 8 languages, I prefer to order coffee in English. I mean, where else does tall mean small? Clearly some tall minded marketing monkey cooked that one up. Maybe they are trying to create a new language - Starbonics. :wink:
You just can't get great coffee in the grocery store. Some of that stuff, if it's bagged, can be over six months old! Some of the binned stuff can be just as old.
If you're into good coffee, find a good local retailer and give them your business... you're more likely to go away happy. At our shop we never let a bean leave the store that is more than ten days out of the roaster!
Anyone who tells you there is only one way to do something is a. selling you something b. looking for a second term in the White House c. just lacks imagination. d. some of the Above. e. all of the Above. f. none of the Above.
Oxygen is the cause of stale coffee. If you can keep the coffee in an oxygen free environment, you can keep the coffee fresh up to 3 months before a skilled taster can notice the difference and 6 months before an ordinary palate can taste the difference.
After roasting you put the coffee in nitrogen flushed bins while they degass and then put the whole beans into packages with a one way value to enable degassing to continue and high package integrity (no leaks) then you can get fresh coffee in a supermarket. Not many companies go to this trouble, but some do. So the observation that there is a lot of old coffee in supermarkets is true. But it is not universally true.
If you have a neighborhood roaster, changes are they do not have the technology to degass in nitrogen flushed bins or the packagers and film to keep coffee fresh. They have little choice but to sell coffee shortly after it is roasted to keep it fresh. They also probably do not have the space to hold more than 10 days of inventory.
There is more than one path to great coffee. Not everyone choses one of them. But there are more than one.
As far as pre-ground goes Maxwell House is by far the best. As far as whole bean all I have access too is Millstone. Which if bought whole bean and then ground just before brewing is slightly better than pre-ground coffee. All in all the only way to get good coffee in the cup is to buy freshly roasted coffee and consume it before it can go stale. That's why I am going to start home roasting. I am not satisfied with the mass market coffees. Too many corporations have been taking advantage of the American coffee ignorance, an ignorance I once had! However thanks to forums like these and other internet resources many Americans (like me) are discovering all the wonderful things that coffee can contribute to our lives. Not to mention our taste buds!
My family is from Knoxville, TN which has a local food production company called "JFG". They make peanut butter, mayonaise, jelly.... all kinds of stuff. They also make coffee and my parents and siblings are sold on it! Everyone they serve it to switches over to JFG as well.
I don't drink regular coffee, just espresso, so to me...It's Weak! But, when I HAVE to drink coffee, that brand is pretty good.
Yeah, there's more than one way to do anything I suppose. But I could hardly call anything that's prestaled in a staling room gourmet.
My entire point is this: coffee that's produced in a huge factory and left to sit around for god knows how long is a different animal than something thats tended to by someone who has an intrinsic care for what they're producing, and an aim to do it as well as possible. Buy a fresh roasted bag of coffee and taste it, and then tuck it away in your cupboard, freezer, or whatever for six months and taste it again. Anyone could notice the difference, even my old aunt blabby and she's missing her entire bottom jaw and her tongue.
If you live in any moderately sized city in the US chances are there's a local independent roaster or roaster/retailer that's cranking that stuff out fresh and tasty... find em, and make pals.
To find a local roaster... start with the www.transfairusa.org. They have a listing of companies that serve Fair trade certified coffees. I don't know if they are a roaster, but here is one in your town from the transfairusa site.
207 S. Old Woodward Ave.
Birmingham, MI 48009
Try the yahoo yellow pages search on Pontiac, Dearborn and some of the other larger towns around. There is bound to be a roaster. There is one in Frankenmuth. I think I met them at the SCAA conference a few years ago. Nice folks.
And as far as supermarket coffee goes - beware the deception masked in incomplete truths. Just like the devil - instead of telling a lie, some folks tell a lesser truth. Stale coffee is stale coffee - no lie there. However, a can of (stale) Maxwell House sitting on the same shelf as a bag of (fresh, nitrogen flushed, well packaged) Peets does not make the Peets coffee stale. The same goes for Newmans's Own Organics, Gavina Bros and dozens of other roasters who have grown and become successful because of their commitment to bringing quality coffee to market. If you don't have great coffee on the supermarket shelf, drop a card with the store manager asking for it.
If by "supermarket brands" yu mean thgins along the lines of Chock Full 'O Nuts, Maxwell House, Folger's etc. I'd say that the "8 O'Clock French Roast" whole bean is the best of the bunch. It was originally an A&P grocery store brand but was available widely in chain grocery stores other than A&P's.
I agree that Starbucks roasts too dark and I'll reaffirm that there's no cachet for me in that brand name but I've A/B compared whole bean Starbucks that was fresh ground and brewed in the office in a Bunn coffee maker to pre-ground Maxell House and Folger's. The Starbucks totally blew away those two even though it wasn't all that great.
When I first tried Millstone many years ago it wasn't bad but when I tried it again in a pinch it was middle of the road at best.