Barista Tastes on a Folgers Budget? Here’s How to Find Good Cheap Coffee

A young African American woman dressed in pink drinks coffee.
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If you’re like many people, you probably drink coffee every day. That can add up — especially if you’re really into coffee.

We’d never, ever tell you to give up your habit (we have the same one!), but we do want you to drink the best coffee you can afford, even if what you can usually afford is instant.

Coffee can range from $4 to $16 per pound, and you usually don’t get to sample it before you buy. How can you tell what’s good? Do more expensive beans equate to better flavor? And how can you tell which inexpensive brand is best?

We grilled coffee experts to share their best tips on finding, buying and making delicious coffee without spending a lot of money.

Opt for Blends Over Single-Origin

“Single-origin” means the coffee comes from one farm or cooperative, which allows the drinker to taste coffee with the characteristics of that specific area, according to Tom Bolland, founder of The Happy Barista. However, the change of seasons mean you can’t get single-origin coffee year round, which makes it more premium. As a result, it tends to be more expensive.

On the other hand, a blend of coffee beans are usually cheaper. They may be sourced from several places around the world, and are usually made to create flavors the roaster wants. Plus, you can get them all year round, according to Bolland.

Packaging Matters

The coffee should be stored in airtight bags rather than in bulk bins, as the coffee ages quickly when exposed to air, said Brendan Smith, founder of the St. Pete Craft Coffee Tour, based in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Smell Before You Buy

Contrary to popular belief, if the bag has a strong coffee smell at the store, that’s not a good sign, according to Kevin Zimmermann, owner of Brewer Style.

“A strong smell would mean that air has reached the coffee, and air is the enemy of coffee,” he said. “Not only will the oils evaporate, but coffee is actually a deodorizer, meaning it not only gives off a smell, but it will absorb other smells into the beans.”

Ultimately, this has the effect of making your coffee taste more like coffee-flavored water.

Grind Your Own Beans

The quality of the coffee will increase when you grind your own beans, regardless of how much the beans cost, according to Bolland.

Once the beans are ground, more of its surface area is exposed to the air, which means the coffee becomes stale faster. You’re more likely to get fresh, high-quality coffee from whole beans than pre-ground coffee, Bolland said.

Skip Expensive Beans When Making Fancy Drinks

It’s hard to notice the flavor of the bean if you’re drinking milky lattes or blended drinks, according to Lauren Wardini, barista and founder of Coffee Suggest. If this is how you like to drink coffee and you’re not a coffee connoisseur who can tell the difference in quality, you should probably skip the premium beans and use cheaper ones instead.

Learn to Use the Tools of the Barista Trade

You easily can learn some of the techniques used by the barista at your favorite fancy coffee shop, which will help make your coffee more flavorful. Bolland recommends using manual methods, which he says extract coffee from the beans a little better than drip coffee makers do.

“My personal advice: Brew your coffee using manual methods like a moka pot, Aeropress or pour-over brew method,” he said. “They produce some of the most flavorful coffee I’ve ever had.”

If you want to make specialty drinks, you can get a stand-alone milk frother, Bolland said. Milk frothers are inexpensive; you can find decent handheld ones for less than $20.

If you’re willing to make more of an investment, you can pick up a coffee maker that comes with a steam wand to steam your milk, or you could look for something like an Aeroccino, which froths milk automatically.

Reach Out to the Supplier

If you find an expensive brand of coffee that you love, try reaching out directly to the supplier, Zimmermann said. Now that most companies can dropship their products, you may be able to get a better price this way, rather than buying elsewhere online or through retail shops.

Check Out Social Media

“Sign up for coupons and join Facebook groups for super fans,” Smith said  “Deals are often found that way.”

He added that special groups such as the Batdorf Booster VIP Coffee club offer exclusive coupons, giveaways and discounts. A simple internet search can help you find out if your favorite brand offers a similar program.

Check With Your Local Coffee Shop

If this is overwhelming to you, talk to the staff at your local craft coffee shop and ask where they get their coffee.

In addition, many coffee houses have started roasting beans to order, so you may want to see if your local coffee shop offers this. This can be a little more expensive than the beans you’ll find in the store, but if you’re willing to spend a little extra chasing that perfect cup of joe, this may be an option for you.

Danielle Braff is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.