WISE UP Facts about high-priced coffee Wake up and smell the $5 French roast
By Elif Sinanoglu

(MONEY Magazine) – Your 50 cents cuppa Joe has now turned so chic, it's perked a lingo all its own. Coast to coast, java-hungry hordes are bellying up to coffee bars, ordering things like, "A short-shot latte, double espresso." All sorts of marketers are catering to the newly caffeinated, from the fashionable Seattle-based (and publicly traded) Starbucks to good ol' A&P. Since the late '60s, the $3 billion specialty coffee market has grown a steady 7% to 10% every year. Still, the question for consumers is: What exactly is ! trendy French roast and what distinguishes a $10-a-pound bag from a $5 one? To get the scoop on French roast beans, Money interviewed national roasters and coffeemakers as well as industry analysts and trade associations. First, though, some bean background: The term French roast dates back 100 years when French exporters in western Africa added barley and wheat to mellow the brew of poor-quality robusta beans. Then, to disguise the taste of grain, the mix was roasted in a drum over a wood-burning fire for approximately 16 minutes (vs. the 13 that is used for better-quality arabica beans). Today, when virtually all French roasts contain a blend of choice arabica beans -- mostly from Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala -- French roast on a label signifies a longer roasting process rather than any particular mix of beans. No two retailers use the same blends in French roasts. And the extra roasting time, says Sam Boyer, a founding owner of Brothers Gourmet Coffee in Denver, "gives the coffee a smoky, slightly charred taste." Some blends do contain small amounts of more unique-tasting beans, but, observes Boyer, "the average coffee drinker will have a hard time telling the origins of a French roast coffee because it has been roasted dark. Regardless of the mix, they'll all taste good." So why pay $5 extra for a mix that may include 5% or less of rare and expensive Yemen beans? When we investigated the bean varieties used in different brands of French roast coffee, we found the blends of supermarket house brands at the A&P and Stop & Shop ($4.99 to $5.99 a pound) to contain fundamentally the same beans as in the French roast offered by national gourmet makers such as Green Mountain ($9 a pound) and Starbucks ($9.89 a pound). A&P's Eight O'Clock Coffee (above), for example, contains Brazilian and Central American arabica beans. Starbucks' French roast is also made from Central and South American beans. No, the precise mix is not the same. But before you fork over $4 to $5 more a pound, try the low-priced stuff. "Nowadays it's hard to assume even coffee in a can is bad," says David Dallis, president of Dallis Bros. Coffee in New York City and president of the Specialty Coffee Association. "Don't get fooled by the big names. They are not always the best."