Americans consume an estimated 88 gallons of coffee a year, compared to just 33.5 gallons of bottled water and 39.5 gallons of soda.
Coffee is far and beyond the most-consumed beverage in the country, and it’s clear that we all like our coffee – and have liked our coffee for centuries. But who makes the best coffee in America?
There Is No “Best”
Coffee is like wine. If you’ve had one glass of red wine, you generally get the gist of what red wine tastes like. Similarly, if you’ve had a cup of black coffee, you can get an idea of what black coffee generally tastes like.
However, there are amazing red wines and godawful headache inducing red wines.
Similarly, there are coffees that evoke any number of mesmerizing flavors and aromas, and coffees that taste like a wet mouthful of ash and wood chips.
The most amazing thing about coffee is that packed in that tiny little seed of the coffee cherry is not just a ton of caffeine (relatively speaking to most other plants), but a complex molecular mishmash of dozens of fatty acids and aromatic compounds, almost twice as many as your average wine.
When coffee tastes like chocolate, or pie, or molasses, or cranberries, or caramel – it’s because coffee shares many of the compounds that already exist in those foods and fruits, and it’s the roasting and brewing process that unlocks them and releases them into the air with every cup.
However, even when you get grapes from the same vineyard and make a pot of coffee from the same roast batch, you’ll always end up with a slightly different result.
Every plant, grape or coffee, produces unique flavors in every fruit. Every batch of wine and roasted coffee seeds comes out just a tad different. And when it’s bottled or packaged, you’ll find unique characteristics in every good bag of coffee, as well as every good wine.
However, you’ll generally have better luck consistently getting coffee you like when you know what kind of coffee you like, and when you’re buying that coffee from roasters who can deliver on a specific flavor profile with fresh coffee on a timely manner.
If you like lighter roasts and floral notes, this roaster of your choice might have just the coffee for you. If you enjoy coffee darker, thicker, and more chocolatey, they may recommend something else.
With that comes the question of individual preference.
Do you like specific flavors in your coffee? Or do you uphold price and convenience above all else? Do you want a roast you can easily afford on every budget, or something special to savor in the morning? Can you take the caffeine rush, or do you need decaf to avoid the jitters?
The best coffee will always differ from person to person.
Some people have a nostalgic attachment to the cup of Folgers their parents and grandparents still drink.
Some people are used to the scent of flavored Starbucks coffee, and treat themselves to a new bag of French Vanilla every month.
Some people like decaf and find that Dunkin’ makes the most pleasant kind.
Some only want instant coffees, and can’t be bothered investing in a grinder, a scale, and a brewing method of their choice.
The Most Influential Coffee Roasters in America
It’s impossible to make everyone happy with a single choice. But it does help to try different things. Today, we’ll be covering some of the most popular high-quality artisanal coffee roasters in America – the forerunners and frontrunners of third wave coffee, the men and women for whom coffee is as much a luxury good to be savored and harvested responsibly and sustainably, as it is a daily requirement for a good start to the day.
Intelligentsia started in 1995, when its co-founders moved to Chicago from San Francisco and realized that the Windy City didn’t quite have the quality coffee they were accustomed to.
Armed with a single roaster and the aim of personally selecting single-origin coffees from all around South America, Doug Zell and Emily Mange opened shop – and over the last quarter century, they’ve been roasting up a storm of beans sourced from most major coffee countries, with the aims of satisfying the palettes of their tens of thousands of discerning customers.
Their ethos? Coffee made well, sourced responsibly, and sold in cooperation with farmers who are fairly compensated and given every opportunity to expand their business and knowledge through training programs and more.
Yet another hallmark name in the history of American third wave coffee, Stumptown was established in 1999 by founder Duane Sorenson, and the company prides itself on working individually with farmers (who they call “producers”) to deliver the best quality beans they can find, often paying three to four times the usual fair trade price in exchange for a product that is made with true love and care.
This spirit and approach to coffee selection and roasting has earned Stumptown a large number of notable accolades, and they can also be considered the forerunners in the nitro cold brew trend, being the first to sell cold brew coffee through a beer tap with a nitrogen disc – creating that unique mouth feel associated with nitro coffee, without any additives or changes to the basic primary ingredient: good coffee.
Blue Bottle Coffee, notable for being one of the key players in third wave coffee, as well as having been acquired by Nestlé (signaling the increasing attention being paid to the market of artisanal and sustainable coffee), was founded in 2002 in Oakland, California, and was named after the famous Vienna coffee house established in the 17th century by Polish-Ukrainian Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, who anecdotally contributed to ending the Battle of Vienna through his cunning and knowledge of the Turkish language and customs.
This knowledge led him alone to recognize the value of one of the battle’s greatest spoils – bags and bags of Arabian coffee, likely harvested in the Arabian or Ethiopian highlands. He took the bags with him and started a legendary coffee house – one of the first in Austria.
Much like other similar forerunners in the third wave of coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee dedicated itself to personally picked single origin beans, served within hours of being roasted for peak freshness and flavor.
One of the more successful third wave coffee brands, Blue Bottle Coffee currently serves customers in America, Japan, and Korea.
Founded 25 years ago in North Carolina, Counter Culture is yet another notable roaster sourcing coffees from around the globe, working primarily with smaller farmers and cooperatives, and investing heavily in workshops, training centers, and classes to raise the bar and further promote good coffee.
Rather than operate cafes, Counter Culture Coffee operates roasteries and training centers in Boston, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, New York, and more. They sell coffee per pack or on a subscription basis.
Founded in 2009, heart is a smaller, yet award-winning coffee roaster dedicated to bringing US customers the delicious fruits of labor that their partners in Africa and South America have grown and carefully handpicked.
Heart purchases its coffees at the peak of each type’s individual harvesting season, ensuring top quality, and every pound’s price is negotiated individually to ensure that producers have what they need to work with heart and export consistent quality coffee to discerning coffee nerds throughout the country.
Created in Santa Cruz, CA in 2007, Verve Coffee Roasters combine surf and coffee in a unique way – offering a lifestyle beverage in the form of their flash brewed nitro coffee, as well as single-origin coffee beans.
Verve also places great value in working with producers individually through a program they call the “Farmlevel Initiative”.
Their most recent product is a freshly brewed cup of coffee chilled instantly and bottled with nitrogen, removing any oxygen, preventing oxidation for maximum freshness.
Shipped and sold while refrigerated, this new “Flash Brew” aims to provide the convenience of cold brew coffee while providing the flavor profile of a pour over, or something similarly carefully crafted.
The Bottom Line
There are an estimated 150 million daily coffee drinkers in the United States. Altogether, the US coffee industry generates revenue of upwards of $225 billion, and accounts for 1.6 percent of the United States’ GDP. The American coffee market also employs about 1.7 million people.
All this to say that there are very many coffee lovers, very many coffee roasters, very many places to drink coffee, and very many people who prepare and serve it. Finding the real best cup – even on a purely subjective level – is astonishingly difficult.
We do our best to gather information our readers can find interesting, or even learn from. But when it comes to figuring out what the best coffee truly is, you are your own teacher, and the only person you can truly learn from.
Feel free to browse some of country’s best roasters – or if you live someplace else, snoop around and figure out what your local coffee nerds are pouring themselves every morning.