Does Expensive Coffee Taste Better?

You can buy coffee at a local gas station or spend a lot on a third-wave coffee shop. But does expensive coffee taste better, or just a waste of money?

Does Expensive Coffee Taste Better
Paying more for your daily caffeine does not always guarantee a better cup of Joe

What used to be a practical drink to help you power through your busy day developed a complex culture all its own. As the public's knowledge of coffee increased, so did its price. But, unfortunately, paying more for your daily caffeine kick isn't always a guarantee of getting a better cup of Joe. 

What Makes Great Quality Coffee?

There is good coffee and bad coffee, but where you purchase it doesn't always determine what you will end up drinking. Plenty of hole-in-the-wall diners serve coffee that's a whole lot tastier than the stuff you find for sale in world-famous coffee shops. So, what actually makes coffee taste good?

Let's Talk Beans

coffee beans
The best beans usually grows in poor soils and at high elevation

A lot more goes into making a damn fine cup of coffee than just high-quality beans. However, if you can't get the beans right, you'll never drink anything better than a mediocre brew. From where the coffee plants grow to how the growers process the beans after harvesting, everything affects the taste.

The best beans grow in poor soil and at high elevation. These are challenging conditions not only for the plants to survive but also for the workers who need to tend them. A more skilled workforce and lower-yield harvests mean that growers need to sell these beans at a higher price.

Even after the coffee beans are picked, dried, and stored, the work is far from over. 

At The Roasters

Most growers sell their green coffee beans to third-party roasting companies. These roasters can be multi-national corporations or small independent businesses. The largest buyers tend to get the first choice of beans and considerably better prices than those making smaller purchases. 

After buying the unroasted coffee beans, corporations roast in huge batches using highly automated machinery that focuses on batch after batch consistency. On the other hand, independent roasting companies depend on much smaller manual machines that require expert roastmasters who can adjust the roasters to take advantage of the characteristics of particular coffee beans.

Poor roasting ruins even the best beans, and skilled roastmasters have the capability to bring out the best in mediocre ones. 

At The Cafe

interior of a coffee shop
Older beans can go rancid easily if they are stored improperly

From the moment the beans arrive at your local cafe, the quality of the beans is slowly deteriorating. Beans are at their best just after roasting and will retain their quality for up to two weeks, but many coffee shops don't have the turnover to sell coffee that quickly. In addition, older beans can go rancid if improperly stored. 

Even if you manage to buy coffee within a few days of roasting, it's critical to prepare the coffee correctly. Unfortunately, many coffee shops employ untrained baristas who are not knowledgeable when it comes to coffee brewing fundamentals like water temperature and extraction rates.  

But good baristas are still at the mercy of factors beyond their control, including what type of water the cafe uses, the grinding and brewing equipment, and how the equipment is maintained.  

Final Word On Does Expensive Coffee Taste Better?

Perfectly harvesting, drying, storing, transporting, roasting, grinding, and brewing great beans will produce better-tasting coffee than not-so-great beans. That ideal cup of coffee will probably be much more expensive as well. But with so many steps that folks must flawlessly execute from plant to cup, there is a good chance that you are simply overpaying for ultra-premium coffee from a cafe. 

FAQs About Does Expensive Coffee Taste Better?

Does an expensive coffee maker taste better?

You have already read about the importance of water temperature and extraction rate when brewing good coffee.

Generally, coffee makers that are better at consistently controlling these factors and give you the ability to adjust them do cost more. So, yes, more expensive coffee makers generally do make better-tasting coffee.

Does the quality of coffee beans affect the cost?

While the quality of coffee beans influences the taste of coffee you drink, their wholesale cost doesn't greatly affect how much you pay at the coffee shop.

Unless you are ordering a cup of super exclusive coffee like Geisha coffee that can cost over 1000 dollars a pound, the cost of the beans represents only a tiny percentage of the price you pay for a cup of coffee. 

Author

  • Jared Bernstein worked in the food industry for decades, starting as a barista in high school. He graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC and worked in some of the city's top-end restaurants. When he isn't writing about cooking or historical recipes, he's probably hanging out at a classic diner or cafe.