Coffee may be the perennial global runner-up compared to tea, but it’s still one of the most consumed beverages in the world, especially in the Americas and Western Europe. And unlike its leafy competitor, there’s less obvious variety in coffee, which can make it more difficult to find the one you like.
While the difference between a green tea and an Earl Grey would be immediately obvious to even the most unseasoned palette, varieties in coffee often come down to much subtler tasting notes — tasting notes that you might not even notice depending on your brewing method. That’s why we’ve rounded up some of the best ground coffees, which you can check out below. But in order to make your choice easier, it’s important to first clarify a few terms.
Light Roast vs. Medium Roast vs. Dark Roast
The biggest deciding factor when shopping for coffee grounds is the roast. There are three main kinds: light, medium and dark. Before coffee gets ground and put in a bag, it starts off its life as a fruit, which looks a lot like a cherry. The coffee is processed and then roasted, and the amount of time spent roasting alters the flavor.
Dark roasted coffee grounds are strong and bold, while a light roast is milder but more complex. And a medium roast is, well, somewhere in the middle. Lighter roasts tend to be favored by specialty roasters, who want you to be able to taste the subtle differences between coffees that darker roasting can often neutralize. That’s not to say dark roasting doesn’t have its place. Espresso and French Press are prized for their boldness, and a darker roast helps achieve that strong flavor.
You can actually tell the difference between a lightly and darkly roasted bean just by looking at it; a dark roast will be almost black in color, and typically has something of a glossy sheen. A true light roast is more of a light brown, and sometimes even almost a tan color with nearly no shine. One big misconception in the light vs. dark roast debate is that there’s a big gap in caffeine content. The bold flavor of dark roasts leads many to assume that they’d have more caffeine, but the truth is a dark and light roast will have comparable caffeine content.
Which Region Is Best For Ground Coffee?
There are also growing regions to consider — coffee is grown in what’s called the coffee belt, which consists of countries that are roughly grouped along the equator. Asian, African, South American and Central American coffees all have their own profiles. But many of the options below are house blends, rather than single-origin, and are selected to create a widely palatable profile.
While buying whole bean coffee and grinding it at home will garner better results, a quality burr grinder is a substantial investment, which is why many people favor the convenience of ground coffee. That’s why we’ve picked out some of the best ground coffees, which you can check out below.
1. Lavazza Classico
As far as widely available grocery store coffee goes, Lavazza hits the sweet spot between flavor and value. It’s often cheaper than comparable offerings from Starbucks, but it’s smoother and slightly sweeter than the often burnt flavor of the offerings from the most famous coffee chain. Lavazza was founded in Turin 1895, and upholds the high standard of Italian coffee in a budget-friendly way that anyone can enjoy. Classico is Lavazza’s basic medium roast, and its smooth, non-bitter profile is great for your morning cup.
2. Peet’s Big Bang
BEST MEDIUM ROAST
Peet’s may be the first big coffee chain, but the Bay Area brand approaches coffee with as much care as specialty roasters. For example, every bag of Peet’s is stamped with the roasting date and “freshest by” date, so you can ensure you get the most flavorful possible cup. Big Bang is one of the brand’s medium roasts, and it’s described as a “blast of tropical fruit,” which helps balance Peet’s typically stronger and slightly acidic flavors.
3. Kicking Horse Coffee Grizzly Claw
BEST SPECIALTY ROASTER
Kicking Horse may be based in the Great White North, but the brand trades Canada’s signature politeness for a little rudeness, with a variety of slightly surly blends like “Smart Ass”, “Half Ass” and their signature “Kick-Ass” blend. This option is “Grizzly Claw,” which is a good option if you’re looking for a flavorful dark roast with notes of dark chocolate and roasted hazelnuts. It’s sourced from Central and South American, and all of Kicking Horse coffees are Fair-Trade certified and USDA certified organic.
4. illy Classico
Most people associate canned coffee with bargain brands like Chock Full O’Nuts and Don Francisco’s, but illy, which also comes in cans, is often at the higher end of the price spectrum for grocery store coffees. The almost 90-year old Italian brand was founded in Trieste, and it’s such a standard-bearer for quality that many bakeries and cafes will proudly advertise illy’s distinctive lower-case logo. Classico is robust and rich and is roasted with espresso in mind. However, it works well with other preparation methods, too.
5. Cafe Du Monde Coffee Chicory
The story of New Orleans coffee is as interesting as the flavor. The story goes that New Orleans, having been placed under siege by Union troops, stretched the lifespan of their coffee supply by adding chicory. This was inspired by French troops, who had done the same during the Napoleonic wars. The legendary Cafe du Monde, in operation in the French Quarter since 1862, has kept this tradition alive by canning coffee with chicory and making it widely available outside Louisiana. Serve it cafe au lait style with some hot milk.
6. Stone Street Coffee Cold Brew Reserve
BEST FOR COLD BREW AND FRENCH PRESS
Middle to top-shelf ground coffee tends to be really fine, while the cheaper canned stuff is usually a coarser grind. But that doesn’t mean that finely ground coffee is objectively better. If you use a French Press, then it’s very important to use coarsely ground coffee. The metal mesh filter doesn’t catch smaller granules, which means that using a fine grind will result in overly bitter and chalky coffee. That’s what makes Brooklyn-based Stone Street so great. They coarsely grind their coffee, making it ideal for cold brewing or French Press. This option is a Colombian coffee that is dark roasted while maintaining sweetness and smoothness.
7. McCafé Premium Medium Roast Ground Coffee
Yes, you read that right, we’re talking McDonald’s coffee. When you hear “fast food coffee,” you probably imagine some burnt swill that’s meant to be gulped as quickly as possible. McDonald’s is the exception. It’s as cheap as you’d expect but tastes a whole lot better than other budget canned coffees. No, the flavor profile isn’t going to be the most complex, but their medium roast is smooth, bold and not at all bitter. Plus, the 24-ounce canister will last you a long time.