Ever since giving up soda a couple months back,* I've been drinking a lot of iced tea and coconut water. A lot of coconut water.
There was a time in my life when a can of coconut water was just a can of coconut water. Lightly sweet, a little savory, sort of like nature's Gatorade. I knew that most canned coconut waters tasted nothing like the fresh young coconuts I drank straight from the shell in Asia or South America, but that didn't really bother me.
But that was then and this is now. After having drunk, tasted, and meticulously note-taken my way through every brand of coconut water I could find, I consider myself a sort of expert on the subject, and I've got some opinions on what makes great coconut water, and who does it the best.
* Okay, I haven't quite given it up—I allow myself two "soda days" per month.
Harmless Harvest: One Coconut Water to Rule Them All
Let me get this out of the way right from the outset: There is one brand of bottled coconut water that is hands down, without question, far and away, not-even-in-the-same-game better than any other. Harmless Harvest's coconut water is the best bottled coconut water you'll get without lopping off the top of a nut with a machete yourself.
It's a tad sweeter than most of its competitors, sure, and it has a really nice savory background, but that's not what makes it great. It also has the most intensely nutty flavor with a complexity that its competitors lack, but even that's not its strongest selling point. What sets it apart is its fresh taste. It's the only brand I've seen on the market whose water is 100% raw. Rather than heating their coconut water to pasteurize it, they use a high-pressure, low-temperature method that produces coconut water that's completely safe to drink, but is still 100% raw.
Where every other brand loses complexity as volatiles and aromatics are broken down during pasteurization, Harmless Harvest maintains it. A side effect of this production method is that at least half the bottles of Harmless Harvest have a distinctly pink/purple hue thanks to high levels of antioxidants. I'm not one to espouse the health virtues of antioxidants or worry about nameless "toxins" in my body, but if you are, then this visual display of antioxidants should be another selling point for you (for my part, I've noticed no flavor difference between pink and clear batches).
How to Pick a Good Coconut (Water)
Of course, all good things come with a downside and in this case it's price. At around 31 cents per ounce, Harmless Harvest is by far the most expensive coconut water at my local Whole Foods (that's $5.99 for a 20-ounce bottle), nearly three times as expensive as the cheapest brand (Whole Foods' own 365 label), and twice as much as most other major brands.
So what's the best coconut water to get without breaking the bank?
I have a few general guidelines for picking good coconut water as well as some specific guidelines.
NB: When coming up with these guidelines, I made sure to taste all of the coconut waters without looking at the ingredient list or other information, only drawing conclusions from that data after I'd made my selections.
General Coconut Water Guidelines
- Check the ingredients lists and only go for coconut waters that list nothing but "young coconut water" or something to that effect. Extra sweeteners and natural or artificial flavors are the most common additions and both have a strong correlation with coconut waters I ranked lower.
- Avoid coconut water from concentrate. A few of the big coconut water brands sell different versions of their products, including those made from coconut water concentrate. I have yet to have a bottle of coconut water from concentrate that doesn't taste like plastic and tears.
- Look for coconut water from Thailand. Most coconut waters sold in the U.S. come from Southeast Asia—Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines are common, though at least two major brands bottle their coconut water in Brazil. I've also seen a few packs that don't list country of origin. After picking my four favorite brands, I was surprised to find that all four of them were bottled from Thai coconuts and that none of the coconut waters from other countries were particularly tasty. On the whole, Thai coconut waters tend to be slightly sweeter with a much deeper, nuttier flavor.
- Bottles, then cans, then Tetra Pak. It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but if you see an array of coconut waters in front of you, even within the same brand, the ones packed in plastic bottles tended to have the freshest, most natural coconut flavor, followed by cans, and finally square Tetra Pak containers.
Sweetest: Taste Nirvana
Cost: 24 cents per ounce.
Taste Nirvana is sweet. Maybe too sweet for some (my wife said it "tasted like birthday cake"). But it's refreshing and flavor-packed nonetheless. If you're the kind of person who drinks their cereal milk, you'll enjoy this one. If you prefer your coconut water on the more savory side, skip it.
Most Refreshing: Amy & Brian's Coconut Juice
Cost: 15 cents per ounce.
Amy & Brian's calls their product "coconut juice," but it's no different from coconut water. It's just a matter of nomenclature (in Thailand, where it's bottled, coconut water translates literally as "coconut juice"). Their coconut water has the characteristic sweet nutty flavor of Thai coconut varieties, though not quite as sweet or nutty as Harmless Harvest. It's a very refreshing can that's also available in pulpy varieties with little tender nubs of coconut floating around.
You might notice that Amy & Brian's comes in two cans: 17.5-ounce steel cans and 10-ounce aluminum cans. The two products are not identical! The smaller cans contain water from a sweeter variety of coconuts than the larger cans, so if you want that extra sweetness, it's worth seeking out the small cans.
Best Value: C2O and Whole Foods 365
Cost: 14 cents per ounce (C20) and 11 cents per ounce (Whole Foods 365)
Both C2O and Whole Foods 365 Everyday come in tall-boy steel cans and have a very decent—if not totally fresh-tasting—sweet/savory balance with no off flavors and a very reasonable price point. Bear in mind that they are also available in Tetra Pak format, but I suggest seeking out the cans instead.