The taste test: Fairtrade ground coffees

There are three foodstuffs which smell even better than they taste: frying bacon, baking bread and roasting coffee. Consumption of them, while often wonderful, is always tinged with this disappointment. Bread and bacon can wait for another day – we were asked to test Fairtrade ground coffees. To concentrate our minds, we carried out the tasting in Italy, where the humblest corner café serves coffee that’s incomparably superior to anything in Pret A Manger, Starbucks et al. So we packed 11 high-street brands into a plastic bag and ordered the FT Weekend private jet to transport us to Tuscany. After an espresso in Arezzo as an acclimatiser, we got down to work. We were looking for a coffee flavour as close to that tantalising smell of roasting beans as possible. Joining the Discerning Litigator (DL) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP) was a newcomer to the panel, recruited for the breadth of vision and forensic rigour he would bring to the proceedings. May I introduce the Theoretical Astronomer (TA).

Fairtrade coffee is bought directly from the growers at a premium price. The system promotes fair labour, democratic growing co-operatives and community development. Its aims are noble, but as yet it amounts to less than 1 per cent of world production. Of course, if Fairtrade products didn’t taste very good, we’d be less inclined to support them (I have terrible memories of some early Fairtrade tea bags that tasted strongly of their paper material but little else). I’m pleased to report we found a number of very acceptable coffees, and two which can be highly recommended.

So many factors can influence coffee flavour: the bean, the grind, the country of origin, the roast, the packaging, the method of preparation. Most of our coffees were Arabica beans, medium-roasted. But there were still distinct differences. We tasted products from Peru, Colombia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Uganda and Indonesia, as well as some blends. Some suppliers, such as Waitrose, Costa and Starbucks, now include a one-way valve in their packaging to allow them to put the grounds in as fresh as possible, immediately after roasting and grinding. The CO2 which the process produces can then escape the packet.

One complaint we have is that most brands now include somewhat baroque tasting notes on their packets. That’s our job (they could put this column out of business). But on this occasion we’ve included their verdicts with ours. They seem to have developed a “citrus” obsession. Although coffees do have different acidity, this particular conceit went over our head.

Three coffees that scored quite highly were led by Jackson’s Colombia Excelso. They say: “Lively citrus notes.” We say: “A bit bland after good first taste”(DL). Costa’s Mocha Italian Formula One also did well. They say: “Citrus with lime and tangerine zest.” We say: “Unobjectionably isotropic”(TA). And also Tesco’s Finest Fairtrade Costa Rican Roast and Ground Coffee. They say: “Gentle fruity flavour ... slightly spiced chocalatey aftertaste.” We say: “A right royal roasting – not for the faint-hearted”(GP).

For us, two products were way out in front. This is subjective, of course, but on the day we thought the resulting cup, made in a jug with water just off-the-boil, was the rival of many espressos. Conveniently, we thought one was an ideal breakfast drink and the other good for after dinner. The runner-up, by a whisker, was Asda’s Extra Special 100 per cent Arabica Fairtrade Colombian Medium Roast. They say: “Sweet fruity aroma, rich caramel finish.” We say: “Italian-style high-roast flavour bunga bunga!”(GP); “Smoky, rounded”(DL); “Great breakfast coffee”(TA).

And our top coffee was Percol’s Fairtrade Colombia Arabica. They say: “Hint of nuts ... attractive citrus notes.” We say: “Almonds, softness with bitterness”(GP); “deep and complex”(DL); “aromatic – an accretion of flavours”(TA). Percol’s packet promises an “adventure in coffee”. We certainly enjoyed the experience. And we took note of the fact that both winners are Colombia Arabica.

The Winners

1. Percol Fairtrade Colombia Arabica Ground Coffee, £3.29 (227g), available from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose

2. Asda Extra Special 100% Arabica Colombian Fairtrade Roast & Ground Coffee, £2.78 (227g),

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