We’ve all seen bottled, pre-made cold brew at the grocery store. Some of us have probably tried it too, whether it be from Starbucks, Dunkin or a more indie brand with nice packaging and the “Non GMO” and “organic” stamps of approval. With all of them priced within fifty cents of each other, they can’t be that different from each other, and it can be difficult to navigate which one is best. Lucky for you, I’ve done the research and taste testing of store-bought cold brew so you don’t have to.

Illustration by Alison Barlow

I tried three different brands of black cold brew that Kroger stocks — Starbucks Dark Roast, Califia Farms Light Roast and STOK Cold Brew Bold & Smooth, each of which  were priced at $4.99 for 48 ounces. I chose brands that I see often or had tried before. I’ve had Califia’s non-dairy milks, but found it interesting that they branch into coffee products as well.

Throughout my tastings, I followed the same formula for consistency: ice, about 12 ounces of coffee and a splash of oat milk. I spread out my taste-testing over three days and took notes after the first few sips of each.

Starbucks’ taste is so distinct that you could recognize it anywhere. Think burnt, earthy and heavy mouthfeel (the sensation that you get from the weight and viscosity of coffee in your mouth) for their dark roast coffee blends, sometimes with a bitter taste. The milk hardly diluted the coffee taste, which is great if you want to drink a strong coffee. But remember, a “strong” flavor doesn’t mean more caffeine, just a longer roast time that can usually also lead to bitter flavor. This cold brew was adequate, but lacked any complex tasting notes or interesting flavors.

Califia Farms is better known for their almond and oat milks than their coffee, but I could understand why the brand would want a foot in the door with products that are so often consumed together. The blonde roast of Califia’s Black Cold Brew was sweeter and brighter than Starbucks’ blend and tasted a little more sophisticated. The smooth bottle shape and simple, pretty packaging only added to the experience. My knowledge of the brand as a Los Angeles-based specialty beverage company set the bar high, but I was still impressed by the prominent fruity notes of the coffee. Frankly, I was a big fan of this drink; I felt like I could make a cold brew equally as flavorful with my own beans at home.

I might be a little biased towards STOK Cold Brew as it’s from my home state of Colorado, but I think everyone will get the hype. This cold brew tasted as advertised: bold and smooth. The flavors were more like Starbucks than Califia Farms — a darker roast with earthy and chocolatey notes, not as much mouthfeel and a cleaner flavor profile overall. Less gritty than Starbucks, not bright and citrusy like Califia, but simple, flavorful and smooth.

If you’re in a rush (aren’t we all?), this is a great option. Like my argument for the Keurig, it’s ridiculously quick and easy to make yourself a cup of iced coffee. Normally you would either have to buy it from a cafe for a higher price than you pay for the five or six servings you get in these bottles, wait twelve hours for your own cold brew to steep or dilute hot coffee with ice and milk. In using store-bought cold brew, all you do is throw your ice, coffee and milk in the same cup and go.

I think if you enjoy the taste of these coffees, it might be worth taking the next step in your coffee habits and making your own cold brew rather than buying it from the store. Ultimately, it ends up being cheaper per serving while making better coffee and supporting a coffee roaster rather than a large corporation like Starbucks. I’m a big believer in “shop small,” especially when it comes to coffee. When buying beans from a cafe, ask the barista to grind them coarse for cold brew, if you don’t have your own grinder. Then just add the grounds and water to a carafe (a large water bottle works too) and let it brew overnight in your refrigerator. Filter the grounds out the next day, and you’ll have four to six servings of great coffee at hand.