Cold & Hot Brew
About Trader Joe’s
Trader Joe’s is a chain of eclectic grocery stores that started in California in 1967 then spread across the US. They now operate in 530 locations spread across 42 states and Washington D.C. The store is named for founder Joe Coulombe and features the South Seas motifs made popular by the tiki-themed restaurants like Trader Vic’s. Trader Joe’s was bought by the CEO of German grocery chain Aldi Nord in 1979, and operates as Aldi Nord’s quasi-independent American arm. Most of the products sold by Trader Joe’s are private label products — about 80% of a store’s 4,000 items have an in-house brand. They also change up their products frequently compared to other stores. My experience with Trader Joe’s is that they often have good and interesting stuff, but that stuff might disappear suddenly. Maybe it comes back in a slightly different form with a different name down the line, but maybe it’s just gone.
Like their other products, Trader Joe’s coffee is sold under their private label brands. The details tend to be pretty opaque, especially for the blends. The small-lot coffees offer a little more specificity about the origin and roast, but like so many Trader Joe’s products, they come and go. The blends stick around, presumably with new components rotated in and out over the course of time. We sampled two of the small-lot coffees as part of this test, but history says they’ll be rotated out of the stores in a matter of months. We’ll do our best to keep up with the new selections as they come.
I like to mix up my brewing method throughout the week. I usually use a French press during the week at work, break out the V60 pourover on weekends when I can take my time, and an AeroPress for an afternoon boost. A fair number of readers have been asking about cold brew, so we added that to the mix. My sister’s a big fan, so I’ve tried it before at her place, but it never really made my rotation. After the testing here, I’ve come to like having some around in the fridge for a unique and ready cup.
Hot Coffee — V60 Pourover
For our hot coffee, we went with the Hario V60 pourover. I ground 20 grams of each coffee in a Capresso Infinity Plus (which I love as a coffee lover, but question as a math lover) burr grinder on setting 7 (third-finest in the medium range). The ground coffee went into a washed filter, then bloomed for 30 seconds with 40 grams of water just off the boil. I then added 140 grams of water, stirred, and added 140 grams more water for a total of 320 grams. Final yield was about 300 grams of coffee.
Cold Brew — French Press
For each cold brew, I mixed 70 grams of coffee (ground on setting 2) and 375 grams of 60°F water in the beaker of a French press. Those beakers filled up the entire refrigerator and were held at 35°F overnight for about eighteen hours. After brewing, we pressed them with the French press plunger to filter out the coarse grounds, then poured them through a washed V60 filter to clean out the fines. Yield on this was about 200 grams of each concentrate.
Tasting the hot coffee was a straightforward process, but we weren’t sure what to do with the cold brew. Most people drink it cut somewhere between 1:1 and 2:1, usually over ice. Milk is most popular, with the smart folks at Serious Eats calling it all-but-essential. We started off tasting 1:1 with milk, but while the results were tasty, they weren’t exactly revealing. The milk is indeed a great complement to the smooth flavor of cold brew, but it covers up a lot of detail.
I called up an expert for advice, and he had an unorthodox suggestion: taste the concentrate as-is. The concentrate was heavy-duty stuff, but the flavors were very distinct. We stuck with that plan throughout the tasting, occasionally supplementing the concentrate tasting with a diluted tasting afterward to see if anything exceptional came up. None of the supplemental tastings did anything to change our results — the cold brew is only as good as the concentrate.
Best Trader Joe’s Coffee — Hot & Cold
1. Peru CajamarcaHot: ★★★★★ | Cold: ★★★★★
This is a small-lot coffee, so grab it while it’s still in the store.
Subtle can be a nice way to talk about boring coffee, but it can also be wonderfully sophisticated. Give the Peru Cajamarca an ascot and cufflinks, because this coffee is great. Light-bodied and mellow, this medium roast starts with a delicate balance of tasty flavors. We got pear, vanilla, and rye in a wonderful combination with a little green apple acidity. The finish tapers off neatly, focusing on the malty rye. This is our top choice for pourover. As cold brew, Jacob called it a “low-pitched full orchestra”. We tasted honey, vanilla, and semi-sweet chocolate in a new exquisite balance.
The Peru Cajamarca is our top choice for this test lineup. Grab some before it’s gone.
2. Rwanda IsimbiHot: ★★★★★ | Cold: ★★★★★
This is one of the two small-lot coffees in our testing. These tend to move quickly on and off the shelves, so grab some now. I did.
Trader Joe’s Rwanda Isimbi is a light roast coffee suitable for special occasions. It’s sweet, with strong flavors of honey and berries and virtually no acidity. It’s medium-bodied, with some real substance to it, and leaves your mouth with a wonderful finish of raspberry. Overall, it’s strange and wonderful, almost more like an extraordinary tea than a coffee. As cold brew, it’s almost more impressive. The flavors of blueberry and honey come through even stronger, with interesting minor flavors breaking through with them, like hazelnut. The flavors are so big and interesting that I’ve treated it like a fortified wine and come up with some cocktails that showcase it, found below.
The Rwanda Isimbi is an absolute joy. Get it before it’s gone.
3. Cafe PajaroHot: ★★★★☆ | Cold: ★★★★
Trader Joe’s Organic Fair Trade Café Pajaro Blend is the best of the blends. This dark roast is bold and full-bodied, but there are real flavors to back that up. I taste a pleasant molasses-like sweetness, brown spices, and dried fruit. There’s a pleasant acidity too that holds onto the finish like flamed orange peel. I normally lean towards lighter roasts, but this is a great example of a dark roast with character. As cold brew, it falls off a touch. We still got the dried fruit and flamed orange peel flavors, but it just didn’t have the excellent balance it showed hot.
If you want one of the Trader Joe’s blends as your every day morning coffee, this is it.
4. Breakfast BlendHot: ★★★☆ | Cold: ★★★★
Trader Joe’s Organic Fair-Trade Breakfast Blend is a low-key cup of tasty coffee that shines even brighter as a cold-brew. Tasted hot, it was a good, straightforward cup of everyday coffee. Light-bodied and mellow, we enjoyed a mild sweetness with a bit of milk chocolate flavor and a light, floral acidity. The finish was pleasant and held onto those floral flavors. Tasted as cold-brew, it really pushed those subtle flavors to the front of the line. The floral acidity moved a bit toward the fruity, with flavors of tart red apple.
This is a pretty good coffee to start you out in the morning hot, but at just $8 for 14 ounces, it’s one of the best cold brew values out there.
5. EthiopianHot: ★★☆ | Cold: ★★★☆
Trader Joe’s Organic Fair Trade Shade Grown Ethiopian needs all those descriptors on the outside of the can to make up for the blandness of the coffee inside. Everything about our test in the pourover was very subtle: a little sweetness of roasty sweet caramel, a little dried cherry, a little bright acidity, a little bit of herbal finish. There’s nothing the least bit bad about this coffee, but nothing to recommend it either. I’m looking for more from my morning mug. As cold brew, the Ethiopian blend perks up a bit. The sweetness is amplified, and complements the flavor of ripe red plum and orange peel. It’s still not that interesting, but it’s quite pleasant.
The Ethiopian blend is inoffensive but unimpressive overall, but might have a place in your kitchen as a subtle choice for cold brew.
6. French RoastHot: ★★★ | Cold: ★★★
French Roast is about as dark as it gets, and you see that right away when you open the can. This makes a bold, full-bodied brew with roasty-burnt flavors of baking chocolate and toasted almonds. There’s just a touch of cocoa-like acidity, and a slightly musty off-taste. The finish is burnt and somewhat unpleasant, with a little of the cocoa flavor coming through. The French Roast blend is tough for me to review, since I don’t especially like a roast this dark. I feel like you only taste the roast and lose the coffee. I like the Trader Joe’s version better than others I’ve tried, so I’ll call this a good example of the genre. As cold brew, it gets more interesting. It’s bold, earthy, and bitter, with the flavor of baking chocolate lingering on the finish. I’m not a big fan, but it’s got some style.
If you like the dark roasts, the Trader Joe’s French Roast blend will deliver hot or cold.
7. SumatraHot: ★★☆ | Cold: ★★★
Trader Joe’s Organic Sumatra Coffee is another mid-priced mid-quality blends, with this one appealing to those who like a darker roast. It comes out big and bold in our V60 tasting with some real body. The flavor is mostly just the dark roastiness, with a little sweetness and acidity in the form of tart cherry and black plum. The finish is not great, with just the bitter elements of the roasty flavor hanging on. Our conclusion was that it was bold and boring, with no terribly substantial points for or against it. The flavors got much more interesting and surprising as a cold brew. The unpleasant finish was still there, but we tasted unripe fruit, olive oil, and a touch of nutmeg. I’d still describe it as pretty average, but with a little flair.
The Sumatra blend is a good value and worth tasting as a cold brew, but I can’t say it’s worth grabbing more than once when compared to the more interesting blends at the same price.
8. Barista EspressoHot: ★★ | Cold: ★★☆
When espresso is in the name, maybe it’s not so smart to be using this blend for pourover and cold brew, but we wanted to be consistent in our testing. It’s worth noting that this blend includes Robusta beans instead of being 100% Arabica like everything else in the test. They add body and crema to espresso, but aren’t usually used in (good) regular coffee. The pourover is indeed bold and full-bodied, with flavors of dark chocolate, rubber, and tobacco. There’s a strong and unpleasant acidity, like unripe grapefruit. The finish has all the worst notes of rubber and grapefruit. The unsurprising conclusion is that this is not good for pourover. As cold brew, a lot of the roughest edges come off, leaving something much better. It’s still pretty one-dimensional, but the finish is much improved, with flavors of blackberry and orange peel.
I hope the Barista Espresso blend makes good espresso since it doesn’t make good pourover.
9. JoeHot: ★☆ | Cold: ★
Sometimes when you simplify something down to the most basic elements you come to appreciate the foundational elements at play. Sometimes, though, you’re left with an empty cup of bland. Joe has an opening boldness, but nothing behind it. There’s a bit of cereal character in there, and maybe some citrus to the acidity, but this coffee is a big ‘ol cup of nothing. The finish is surprisingly agreeable, and more memorable than the coffee itself. It goes down a notch as cold brew, with the addition of green fruit flavors and an unpleasant metallic finish.
Joe can thank Joe Dark that it’s not at the bottom of the list, but it’s close enough to worst to still avoid.
10. Joe DarkHot: ★ | Cold: ☆
One of the side effects of the pandemic is that I really haven’t had a bad cup of coffee in a year. Joe’s Dark Coffee was a rude reminder that the outside world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Tasted hot, it had some ups to go with the downs. It’s bold and medium-bodied, and starts with a roasty sweetness, perhaps with some toffee. The acidity has a strong bitter lemon character, which lingers unpleasantly. The finish is just the unpleasant bitterness — not the way I want to start my day. The cold brew is much worse. The cold process strips it down to just the bitter and medicinal flavors, which linger in your mouth far too long.
Joe’s Dark is one of TJ’s signature blends, but if this was my signature, I’d change my name.
11. Instant Cold BrewCold: ☆
Some people like instant coffee. Some people like to be kicked in the balls. There’s no accounting for taste.
We hoped the Trader Joe’s Instant Cold Brew would be an upgrade on basic instant coffee that you could enjoy in a pinch. After all, real cold brew has a 16 hour lead time. It would be nice to get something 80% as good right away. This does not deliver. It’s just as bad as any other instant coffee — dry and musty with an aroma of cardboard. It’s just awful.
Trader Joe’s has some nice blends at reasonable prices, plus some great small-lot coffees at extraordinary prices. I was blown away by the Peru Cajamarca and Rwanda Isimbi at $9 each. I’d expect to pay $15, maybe $20 for something like that. Their coffee aisle is definitely going to become one of my regular stops.
For your ordinary brewing methods, we recommend the two small-lot coffees (Peru Cajamarca and Rwanda Isimbi) as our top choices, with Café Pajaro as the best of the regular blends. If you want the best cold brew, the small-lots come out on top too, with the Breakfast Blend as the best everyday selection. Both Café Pajaro and the Breakfast Blend are good all-around choices if you want to do a little of both styles.
Tasting that Rwanda Isimbi concentrate had me feeling creative. This was an incredible brew with big flavors that made me think it could to be mixed like a liquor to make some interesting cocktails.
The Pearl (nonalcoholic)
With Jacob enjoying a Dry January, I mixed up this basic G&T, subbing in some C for the G. This mix should ward off both boredom and malaria. Stir 1 ounce Rwanda Isimbi Cold-Brew Concentrate, 4 ounces Tonic Water, and the juice of ¼ lime. Serve over ice, garnished with a wedge of lime.
Coffee and brandy go together, so what if we subbed coffee into a sidecar? Shake 1¼ ounces Rwanda Isimbi Cold-Brew Concentrate, ¾ ounce Grand Marnier, ½ ounce Lemon Juice, and 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters. Serve up. Sugar the rim of the cocktail glass for an after-dinner drink.