The Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Coffee 


You drink a lot of coffee, more so than anyone else you know. If you were blindfolded, do you think you’d be able to tell whether you were sipping a cup of coffee that costs a dollar versus $20? What exactly is the difference between cheap and expensive coffee?

Cheap and expensive coffee is different in the following ways:

  • Origin
  • Scarcity
  • Certifications
  • Flavor

In this article, we’ll delve deeper into the above four differences between inexpensive coffee and costlier java. If you want more of the good stuff, we’ll also share some tips for sniffing out high-quality coffee no matter where you like to buy your beans. 

Let’s get started!  

The 4 Ways That Cheap and Expensive Coffee Are Different

Origin

Where does your coffee come from? According to a 2021 article from Investopedia, the answer is any one of five countries. Those countries are–from most to least prevalent–Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia.

Investopedia estimates that between 2019 and 2020, Brazil produced upwards of 58 million bags of coffee, each of those bags a sizable 60 kilograms. This tells us that more than likely, the coffee beans you grind every morning before work come from Brazil. 

If they’re not from Brazil, then the coffee beans more than likely originate in Vietnam. The Investopedia article cited a USDA stat that mentioned that Vietnam was on par to produce 32.2 million bags of coffee between 2019 and 2020. Each bag was also 60 kilograms.

Ethiopia, despite being a prevalent producer of coffee in Africa, is the lowest on the list. You can expect that Ethiopian coffee is among the rarest. Paying to get Ethiopian coffee beans or grounds imported to you would likely cost more than doing the same with Brazilian beans. 

Scarcity

How available is your favorite coffee? The rarer it is, the scarcer the coffee beans and thus the more expensive. 

You might recall the post from our blog about Kona coffee, which is regarded as some of the most expensive coffee around.

Scarcity is one of the biggest factors. Kona coffee beans come from Hawaii’s Kona Coffee Belt, a small stretch of land. Between the limited growing radius, the high labor costs, and the importation fees from Hawaii to the rest of the country or the world, Kona coffee can cost you $20 to $60. 

When a type of coffee bean is more prevalent, its price is reasonable. That’s because the supply is higher, which means that most customers who want that type of coffee can get it. Since the demand of a product is supposed to inform its price, that’s why other types of coffee are much cheaper by comparison to Kona coffee. 

Certifications

When you walk into your favorite small café, do they proudly display all the coffee certifications they have? 

For instance, a café’s coffee beans can be UTZ certified. Back in 2017, the Rainforest Alliance and UTZA merged, and now it’s UTZ. To be UTZ certified, farms must pass a series of standards, with more of these standards added over a span of four years. 

If a café has fair trade coffee, that coffee was produced to meet certain labor and sustainability standards. The café follows the standards of Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade America, or Fairtrade International. 

The United States Department of Agriculture or USDA started a National Organic Program for coffeemakers. Conditions for growing the coffee beans require no soil erosion and no use of herbicides and synthetic pesticides. If a coffee grower wants to plant a non-organic crop near the organic coffee crop, they must create a buffer.

When a café takes the time to get certified, you now understand how very little of the certification relies on them. Instead, it’s the coffee farmers and harvesters who follow strict requirements to meet the certification criteria.

Further, despite that the certifications themselves are free, coffee farmers and producers have to be audited not only once, but periodically as well. The audits cost money to do.

Thanks to these certifications, customers can walk into a café and buy coffee with assurance knowing that it was produced using fair labor and isn’t damaging our planet. Certified coffee usually comes with a higher price tag than uncertified coffee.

Part of it is to offset the audit fees, no doubt, and the rest is because you’re paying for what’s essentially a stamp of high quality. 

Flavor

The last factor is arguably the most important, and that’s how the coffee tastes.  

Using the logic that inexpensive coffee is generally lower quality, the coffee beans might not grind smoothly, or their flavor might be harsh. You could find yourself drowning the coffee in milk and cream to bring out sweet flavor notes that otherwise don’t exist.

By that same logic, higher-quality coffee would feel smoother and have a naturally more appealing taste that doesn’t need a lot of amending. 

While it would be great if it exclusively worked like that, you know it doesn’t. Sometimes you pay a premium for coffee only to find that it’s not quite as tasty as you had expected. Likewise, you can sometimes strike gold with cheap coffee that boasts an incredible flavor. 

For the most part, though, you get what you pay for. That applies to coffee as it does a multitude of other products. 

And no, it’s not just in your head that the more expensive coffee usually tastes better. The coffee beans that go into your cup are grown in mountainous regions where harsh conditions force the coffee beans to develop deeper, more nuanced flavors. 

It takes longer to grow coffee beans at higher altitudes than it does lower ones, about nine to 10 months for the former versus four to six months for the latter. Those extra couple of months make all the difference, as does the altitude and the temperature, as higher altitudes are colder. 

Tips for Buying Higher-Quality Coffee

Now that you understand what makes coffee cheap versus more expensive, you’re more fervent than ever in your search for high-quality coffee beans. Here are some tips to find the delectable coffee you crave.

Stop Buying Coffee at the Grocery Store

Your grocery store’s coffee aisle is filled to the brim with bagged coffee beans from every brand under the sun. Whether you want to spend only a couple of dollars on your bagged beans or you have a higher budget, there’s something for you.

There are better places to buy coffee, especially if you’re after the quality stuff. We recommend starting with your favorite coffee shop. If not them, then check the roasters in your neck of the woods.

Sure, it’s one more stop on grocery day, but the extra effort is worth it. You can usually buy coffee beans from a café or a roaster compared to ground coffee from the grocery store. There’s nothing wrong with ground coffee if you use it right away, but remember, upon being ground, the beans release their flavor. The longer you wait to brew ground coffee, the more flavorless it is. 

The freshness will make a big difference in your morning cup of coffee. Try it for yourself and you’ll never buy your coffee at the grocery store again. 

Buy the 100 Percent Coffee Labels

Another factor when shopping for high-quality coffee is sniffing out labels. On some bags of grocery store coffee beans or grounds, you’re likely to see a label that reads 100 percent [type of] coffee, such as 100 percent Arabica. 

The label means that whatever is in the bag of coffee grounds is from that same varietal, not a mix of two varietals such as Robusta and Arabica. This ensures that your cup of coffee is purer so it will taste delicious. 

Look for the Roast Date

Another label you must scope out is the roast date. This isn’t an expiration date, but rather, the day in which the café roasted the coffee beans. You want to brew the coffee ideally as close to the roast date as you can for the maximum depth of flavor.

Some cafés will add a small statement to the roast date telling you how long you have to brew the coffee. For instance, the bag might read “Please drink this coffee within a month of the roast date.”

Buy One-Way Valve Bags

To maximize freshness, coffee roasters might store coffee beans in one-way valve bags. The design of the bags prevents oxygen from getting in but allows for gas to release. 

Other methods of coffee bean storage such as rustic tin cans might look appealing on a store shelf, but they’re doing nothing to keep your coffee fresh over the long term. 

Check the Place of Origin

Here’s our last tip for buying high-quality coffee: look for information on the place of origin the beans were roasted. This tells you a lot more about what kind of flavor you can expect. If the coffee beans are more expensive, the place of origin will clue you in as to why. 

Final Thoughts

Cheap and expensive coffee is different in many ways, diverging in areas such as the number of certifications, the place of origin, scarcity, and flavor. We must reiterate that cheap coffee is not always tasteless just as premium coffee isn’t always the best thing since sliced bread.

To find the best coffee for you, don’t be afraid to shop outside of your local grocery store. Check cafés and roasters. Drink your coffee within its recommended freshness period and buy coffee beans in one-way valve bags. Even if your coffee is cheap, these tips will help it taste fantastic! 

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