Coffee is like all forms of cooking — quality ingredients trump fancy equipment. Case in point: The pour-over method might be the best cup of coffee you can brew at home, and all it requires is a kettle, a grinder, and patience. And good coffee beans. The most important thing about your beans is that they’re freshly roasted. You want to use them within a few days after they came off of the heat. With many of us still limiting our trips out of the house because of the coronavirus, coffee bean subscriptions can be the perfect solution. Whether you’re looking for an upgrade over the supermarket stuff or single-origin beans from halfway around the world, subscription services make that simple to find. They even help you figure out what you want.
As a longtime journalist with stints at Serious Eats and Men’s Journal, I’ve tested dozens of different coffee beans and coffee makers. For this story, I found the eight most popular online bean delivery services, signed up and ordered samples. I tasted each brand’s beans using the pour-over method and with an automatic drip machine that is certified by the Specialty Coffee Association. Here’s what I learned about each.
With more than 400 different coffees available (from 54 local roasters spread across 38 states), Trade is a smart option for java geeks who know what they like. But novices should shop here too: The site’s easy coffee quiz and algorithm helps any coffee drinker zero in on what roast profiles they’ll like — even if all you know you like is decaf with a little milk. And if you don’t like the bean you’re first matched with, call them and they’ll help you pick another, which they’ll send for free. I just wish it were possible to select more than one preferred brewing method. Maybe I like using a coffee machine during the week and doing pour-over on weekends.
A subscription here starts with four, two-ounce bags of single-origin coffees to help you decide what you like. (It’s a quiz you can taste!) The coffees I tried covered a huge range of flavors, from an acidic Peru Cajamarca San Ignacio to a fruit-forward Burundi Bukeye Buhorwa. I found Driftaway’s service to be one of the most informative and customizable, teaching me about different beans and allowing for constant feedback to shape future shipments.
Although all of the beans from Atlas are roasted in Austin, they’re imported from nearly 20 different countries. This service is more about exploring different beans than selecting one based on your taste. You simply pick ground or whole beans, your bag size (you can buy as little as 6 ounces at a time), delivery frequency, and one of three roast options. Wherever Atlas gets their beans that month determines the coffee that is shipped to you. One unexpected benefit is the bags the coffee comes in. Inspired by textiles local to each coffee grower, they’re attractive enough that you’ll want to leave them out on the counter.
Blue Bottle churns out about 20 different coffees from locations in Sacramento and Brooklyn that reach subscribers two to three days after coming off the heat. The commitment-phobic will like the option to go with smaller six-ounce bags. The company also offers a subscriber hotline you can ring with questions, like how to dial in the pour-over method.
Pick your preference among six roast levels, from light to espresso, and Bean Box will send you four relevant 1.8-ounce sample pouches from its collection of 35 Pacific Northwest roasters. If you love one of the samples, then you can buy it in a larger bag. You can always change your selection, or the company offers a more traditional coffee-of-the-month club with a different batch each month. My sampler included a delicious Velton’s Coffee’s Peru Flor de Selva, which had the fruitiest notes I tasted, with hints of lime and citrus.
MistoBox offers 590 coffees from 52 domestic roasters. It’s hard to find a site with a wider selection. Unlike other coffee companies’ quizzes, this one goes pretty deep, asking whether you prefer blends or single origins, and if you prefer your coffee black, with cream, or with sugar. Based on your answer, Misto selects a coffee you might like and sends you a 12-ounce bag, along with the email address of a curator who can help you refine your choice for the following month.
If you usually pick up beans at the supermarket, Craft Coffee has a simple process to determine the right blend for you: Just tell them what you typically buy, whether it’s Dunkin’ Donuts, Green Mountain, or something else. From that single bit of information, Craft selects a blend for you. If you don’t like it, they’ll help you find an alternative. All of my bags had roasting dates stamped on them, which were typically within 72 hours of their delivery.
The website uses a simple photo system to indicate the main flavors of the coffees, which is helpful for newbies. It also lets aficionados filter coffee by production process. If you don’t already know what you’d like to try from their catalog of 40 U.S. roasters, Crema will send you a free three-bag sampler to taste and rate. Based on that information, the company creates your coffee “playlist,” automatically adding recommended beans based on your input. The more feedback you give with each bag, the more specific your recommendations become.
Another Strategist-recommended coffee subscription service
We highlighted this Oakland-based coffee roaster in our ever-growing list of Black-owned businesses to support. It was first recommended to us by Chef Daniel Patterson, who uses it in his restaurants and his home. Although there’s no quiz to help you make a selection, the dominant notes in each coffee are hard to miss and listed prominently on the bag. If you sign up for the repeating subscription option, you get a 10 percent discount. Plus, all of Red Bay’s beans are roasted on demand, right before they’re shipped.
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