$5 Coffees; Coffee Consumption for the Financially Conscious Consumer

In a deliberate attempt to seperate myself from the media, I will avoid citing the word that starts with an “e” and ends with an “conomy” as my motivation for writing this piece. I’ts not. I would have written this article in times of fiancial surplus and positive social malaise. This morning, a friend and I went to a bakery for breakfast and got some coffee. Just your average, run of the mill drip. The baker assured us it was “the best Rwandan coffee,” and I was skepical no doubt. Once in the car, my friend told me it tasted dark, heavily roasted, and a little burnt. Having some experience working in a bakery, I can see why people are hesitant to spend money on coffee from a non-coffee shop, even if a shop can throw down a region name or details about the purveyor, precisely because it isn’t a coffee shop.

Anyone who knows me personally knows that my father and I are good friends. Despite our close relationship, we don’t always agree. Not just about my career, but my hobbies as well, and coffee in particular. Let’s just say, he is a man who loves “good” coffee, enjoys the $5 cup, just as long as his son the barista is paying for it. Generally, he goes for the $1 McDonald’s coffee. My dad is a penny pincher, and so am I. But, he is also a man who likes to prove a point.

I am obsessed with value, it is a personality trait. I am happy to dish out money for what I want, just as long as I believe it is good quality; it has to be something I feel is “worth it.” Yes, I believe $4+$1 tip for coffee from an artisan roaster is not unreasonable; you are paying for top quality, freshness (generally), possibly a brewing method of your choice, knowledge (use your barista as a database) and the atmosphere. You can find amazing coffee at about $3 a cup or so, but my rule of thumb is, make sure you pay at least this much. Hopefully, you get what you pay for. Anything below that makes me suspicious; good things come at a premium, but how much is appropriate? What is my limit of value  (monetary vs. quality)?

Then, there is this little realm of coffee that I lovingly consider the “add-on.” Basically, this is coffee that is mass brewed through a semi supervised/skilled process at eateries, bus stations, service centers, etc. It is “average” to “low” quality that ranges anywhere from $1.50-$3 a cup. We all get it if we need the caffeine or just something quick. Most people are not going to these kinds of establishments expecting good coffee.

My father LOVES this world of coffee, I am indifferent. My old man raves about how good his coffee from McDonaldDSC03412s is, and “it only cost me a dollar.” For him, it is the best value because he doesn’t see a big enough differentiation in quality between a $1 or a $3 or a $5 cup. We came into a conversation the other day about how much I spend on roasted coffee versus his Maxwell House. “But it’s Arabica” “The lowest quality you can get” “If I want flavor, I just put in an extra scoop” “An extra scoop of over-roasted…” It went on like that for a little while. Essentially, he doesn’t think coffee should be expensive, and he has low expectations. I want coffee to be cheap but I have exceedingly high expectations.

Over time, I have started to change my stance. This is only referring to “add-on” coffee. Honestly, it is never very good, or atleast I am yet to be wowed by things in this category. Today was no exception. The “add-on” was more expensive than a McDonalds $1 coffee, and it unfortunately tasted about the same; dark, over-roasted, and burned. Sure, we bought it because of the convenience and that cost extra. I am only talking about flavor. But I realized I am paying about $3, three times the cost, for essentially the same quality coffee.

Sometimes when I am out and I just want coffee, I have this glimmer of hope that I will find good, cheap coffee at the next “add-on” shop I go into. So far, no good. I spend two to three times more than my dad’s standard of $1, and it isn’t any better. Maybe he’s got a point, to some extent.

You win dad; whether I pay $1 or $3, it’s about the same. There seems to be a certain price-value-quality threshold one must exceed in order to enter the realm of “good coffee.” Until then, I am going to start saving my money, not pay triple the price (albiet a relatively cheap margin), and pay for the cheapest “add-on” I can get.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Sam says:

    Nice post! A few thoughts:

    1. Who’s charging you $3 for a batch brew?

    2. I’ve found 7-11’s lighter coffee to be completely acceptable in a pinch. Much better, in fact, than cups I’ve had prepared by some very good specialty/3W roasters. I can’t bring myself to go to McDonalds for any reason though.

    3. Does your father take cream and sugar? I’ve realized that there’s really a reason why we call them ‘fixings’. Add some cream and sugar to a hot cup of brown garbage and it’ll pick right up to caramel and chocolate. For such people I’m not sure we as baristas should be pushing them towards more expensive coffees. It really won’t make a difference unless they ditch the fixings, which we should be encouraging them to do if we want to sell them better coffee. I’m not quite sure how one goes about that in a non-douchey way though. I’ve actually been thinking quite a bit about that the last couple weeks…

    4. Places like McDonalds and 7-11 have very impressive quality control standards that are strictly enforced. Very smart people choose what coffee they serve. Much more thought, time, and energy has gone into designing McDonalds coffee menu than every Intelli shop’s combined. What you lose in bean quality at McDonalds, something they’d have to fund per cup, you make up for with brew precision and quality, a more or less one time investment. I guarantee they monitor the extraction yield and TDS better than anyone in specialty (myself included unfortunately).


  2. Hey Sam,

    Thanks for the comments!

    1) Off the top of my head, there was a bakery I visited in the bay area that was using SB coffee and I guess they felt they could charge $3 since they went to some special effort. I cannot remember the name, but I guess $3 is the absolute highest I have seen.

    2) I have had their coffee since I am on the road a lot, and you are right, it is not bad at all. And yeah, I have had some appalling cups from “specialty” shops. I didn’t wanna go into to much detail about this, I guess this article was more anecdotal. But yes, I have visited places that do their own roasting (generally smaller shops who are new to the business trying to ride the trend) or unknowns who serve bigger roasters coffee. I am sometimes totally taken aback by their brewing methods/techniques even with potentially good coffee.

    3) He does sometimes. At home when he makes his coffee, no. When I visit him and we go out, he will generally add the accouterments. If I prepare him something or take him to a store I like, I usually request that he doesn’t or splits the cup so he can try it both ways. I couldn’t agree more Sam. I just wrote a piece on Handsome Roasters last month that touched on this slightly. When I was working at one store, I was really adamant about people trying coffee black, and it was as if I was teaching my undergrads the importance of critical thought outside of what they have learned in life up to that point. I almost took it upon myself as a mission to have people atleast try coffee black. But after a while, I realized, you just can’t win em all. I am not against people adding cream or a sugar in very moderate amounts.

    I used to give people my personal cupping notes as a way to get into the “good flavors” of coffee. Some people get really snotty or confused by cupping notes (don’t blame them, I have seen some that make me say wtf). I would approach people pretty lightly and say something like “I really enjoy this cup because it tastes like that flavor you get when you first bite into a crisp apple. But, that’s the great thing about coffee, we all are going to taste different things and find what we like about it. So please, if you would like, I invite you to take a sip black and let me know what you think,” or something that people can really visualize. Being a teacher as well, I am all about how to approach people. Doing it this way I think makes most people pretty comfortable.

    But you are 100% right; good coffee does not need the additions. However, most people do not know or have tried what you and I consider coffee of that tier, and they don’t care to try. People think they NEED cream and sugar to go with their coffee because they probably have been getting bad coffee and thing it is a necessary evil. I also think there is subconsciously developed culture behind using these things (wonder who is responsible for that) in which people think they need it because the public is convinced coffee is a “cheap food” and cannot be gourmet in any way.This is actually going to be a subject of an upcoming article I am writing, so I really appreciate this comment.

    4) Their systems are highly automated and precise, very impressive. I actually am disappointed at how turned off specialty shops are by those kinds of machines. Bunn, Curtis, and Fetco all make really outstanding equipment for brewed coffee. I understand the whole service/culture behind fresh brews and elegance and such, but for the average shop serving up quality coffee to many customers, those are really great options. And yes, those machines are way more consistent than some specialty baristas, bringing us back to that age old argument; man v machine, who will win the chess match lol.

    Thanks for reading Sam and thank you for the thoughtful comments.


    1. Sam, the other day I had a $3 coffee from a small bakery in downtown LA and it was a BUMMER. Made me think of your insight.


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