After a brief and bitter foray into the world of home coffee brewing, I realized I simply do not have the talent to finesse a palatable caffeinated beverage out of cheap beans and a plastic plunger. Even my background in chemistry could not bail me out of that frugal predicament.
This left me at a crossroads: either upgrade my gear and stock up on kopi luwak, or settle for instant.
Needless to say, I settled. Getting serious about coffee brewing can be pricey and time intensive, plus I’M LAZY. If I want to have exceptional coffee, I’ll pay someone else to make it for me.
However, my standards still remain high, and if I’m going to be drinking instant coffee, it’s got to be the best damn instant coffee little money can buy. This entry will document my ongoing taste testing and dogged quest to become the ultimate instant coffee snob.
All brews were made with 1 tablespoon of instant coffee, 4 tablespoons of granulated white sugar, 1 teaspoon of refined coconut oil, and 12 ounces of hot spring water.
These are the unadulterated thoughts that ran through my mind as I consumed each cup…
Café Bustelo: $1.51/oz @ Wegmans, $1.86/oz @ Amazon
“Woah. There is definitely caffeine in here. I think I went overboard with that heaping tablespoon I dumped in my mug. It has flavor. It’s slightly sludgy… BUT THERE’S CAFFEINE. Goes down pretty smooth. Would be great if you needed to stay awake for a week straight and couldn’t afford cocaine.”
Jacobs Krönung: $1.71/oz @ Wegmans, $1.38/oz @ Amazon
“The jar looks cool. Green is a neat color. Oh right, coffee. Not much flavor going on here. Airy. Reminds me of… baking soda? Yeah. Wish I was more buzzed. Wish I didn’t know what baking soda tastes like. Maybe two tablespoons would have been better. Inoffensive is probably the best word to describe it. People who watch the Hallmark Channel would definitely drink this stuff.”
Jacobs Cronat Gold: $1.71/oz @ Wegmans, $1.20/oz @ Amazon
“I taste burning wood chips. It’s like I’m in Cub Scouts all over again. Similar airiness to its brother Krönung. The flavor festers and I don’t particularly enjoy it. I wish my mom would come pick me up from camp. There’s nothing to do here!!! I have a feeling this jar will slowly make its way to the back of the cupboard where it will remain for the rest of eternity alongside my half-eaten bag of banana crisps.”
Medaglia d’Oro: $1.65/oz @ Wegmans, $1.62/oz @ Amazon
“I think medaglia d’oro means gold medal. Good thing I took three semesters of Italian during college. Taste is somewhere between Jacobs Gold and Bustelo. It’s smoky with only an inkling of odorous wood. Wood. Huhuhuh. Definitely drinkable. Concentrated but that’s partially because of its fine grind. I bet I could snort it. Good flavor to caffeine ratio. Doesn’t upset my stomach. I give it a silver medal.”
Ferrara: $1.85/oz @ Wegmans, $3.13/oz @ Amazon
“It tastes like I’m drinking the wrong end of a smoldering cigarette. Evokes the coffee equivalent of bitter beer face. If I was ever Secret Santa for someone I didn’t like, this would be one of their gifts.”
Nescafé Clásico: $0.78/oz @ Walmart, $0.78/oz @ Amazon
“Wow, this has not one, but two accented letters in its name. I’m not sure I am worthy to partake of this fancy brew. First sip… pretty sure this is the same coffee they serve at Denny’s. At least I don’t have to deal with muffled Garth Brooks yodeling in the background too. I’m actually kind of enjoying the taste, but it’s starting to stagnate and my mouth feels dry. I really don’t want to finish this cup but I feel obligated.”
[1 hour later]
“I’ve become progressively more and more dehydrated since drinking this ‘coffee’… I’m not sure what’s happening… oh god… IT’S SUCKING MY WILL TO LIVE. Would be funny to give this to a friend shortly before they have to deliver a big speech.”
Great Value: $0.56/oz @ Walmart
“The jar says both ‘Great Value’ and ‘Premium’ on it; I think that’s an oxymoron. The taste is making me cringe… it’s got this sour, medicinal bite to it. Reminds me of repressed terrors at the dentist’s office. The flavor is now dulling and I think I might actually drink the whole cup. There is a very real possibility it is laced with Novocain or some other local anesthetic. (Well played, Walmart.) I will regret drinking this.”
Pilon: $1.67/oz @ Amazon
“My spoon can’t fit into the 1.75 ounce jar. -10 points. Has a yellow lid that is identical to Bustelo (albeit a tenth of the size). Grind looks incredibly similar as well. Says it is a ‘100% pure coffee made from a blend of beans from one or more of the following countries: Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua.’ Does it come with frequent flyer miles too? Dark but murky flavor. Tastes a bit watered down. It’s close to Bustelo but not quite as strong. I wish it had a little more of a bite or caffeine kick to it. Musty aftertaste. Old people. I will probably finish this jar but won’t go out of my way to buy it again.”
Maxwell House: $0.69/oz @ Wegmans, $0.70/oz @ Amazon
“Comes in a ‘lightweight, EZ-open jar’ and is commended by the Arthritis Foundation for its ‘ease-of-use.’ I’m really glad that the friendliness of the jar such a point of emphasis of their marketing campaign. The aroma is pretty noxious and I am predicting I won’t make it to the ‘last drop.’ First sip made me cough violently. It gives a very authentic experience of walking into an old folk’s home and breathing in wafts of antiseptic fumes. My tongue feels weird. I think it’s being numbed. The flavor has changed and it’s not as pungent now, but for my safety and on the off chance I am consuming a neurotoxin this taste test is over.”
Folgers Classic Roast: $0.71/oz @ Wegmans, $0.65/oz @ Amazon
“My crazy uncle Glenn who once was attacked by a rabid squirrel drinks this crap religiously. Black. Grind looks and smells like cigar guts. Don’t ask me how I know about cigar guts. First
hit sip made me cough. Can’t really put a finger on the taste. It’s not good but not awful. Somewhat bitter. Kind of like bad mids. (Oops. I didn’t say that.) I can see how my weathered uncle would enjoy this stuff. If I had no other option then I’d reluctantly tolerate Folgers but it would not be the best part of waking up.”
Whole Foods 365: $1.85/oz @ Whole Foods
“I actually really like Whole Foods aside from everything in the store being grossly overpriced and their cute cashiers always having boyfriends. (What gives?) For some reason I’m not all that optimistic about this coffee. Pretty clean taste. Not super strong or distinct but at least I didn’t gag. Flavor doesn’t stick; it dissipates kind of suddenly. A dash of cinnamon might put it over the top. HE LIKES IT!”
Mount Hagen: $3.40/oz @ Whole Foods, $2.45/oz @ Amazon
“This is pretty pricey because it’s organic. Far out, man. Jar is shaped neat. Octagon. Lid pops off when you twist it. I like that. It’s fun. It’s kind of like how I used to twist the heads off my sister’s Barbie dolls. I am worried the photo on the label is subliminally promoting Christianity though. Not super distinctive but there is almost no bitterness and the aftertaste fades gracefully. HALLELUJAH! I’m a believer. Praise be this cup of joe.”
Taster’s Choice House Blend: $1.21/oz @ Wegmans, $0.86/oz @ Amazon
“This is one of two recommended instants for the fabled ‘Bonus Cup.’ (That’s a recipe for another day when I have health care again.) The grounds smell like Eggo waffles. Upon adding hot water the aroma has now shifted to that of corn nuts. (I am definitely not at ‘all’ anxious to try this…) For being in the sub dollar-per-ounce group, it’s actually pretty
Descend decent. Delivers a nice buzz but leaves behind a somewhat gnarly, burnt aftertaste. I can see how this would have fueled ‘Milo Goes to College.'”
Starbucks VIA Colombia: $8.05/oz @ Wegmans, $5.67/oz @ Amazon
“Ah, the snootiest of brews. I wish I had a beret or fedora to wear and iPhone to poke at while drinking this. Full bodied. Has chocolatey tones. Very smooth. Would give Wilt Chamberlain a run for his money.”
Starbucks VIA Italian Roast: $8.05/oz @ Wegmans, $5.67/oz @ Amazon
“Darkest roast yet. My breath is deadly. Close quarters conversations would be painful for the non-drinker. I can finally exert revenge on innocent victims for all those times my portly and pungent uncle Charlie would beckon my seven year old self and endlessly blab at me from 1-inch away during family gatherings while guzzling a Bud and smoking a cheap cigar.”
Maxim Mocha Gold: $0.53/oz @ Amazon
“This review is promising. It is a Korean-made three-in-one with coffee, sweetener, and creamer. What could go wrong? Initial whiff made me gag. The substance in my cup looks nothing the picture. NERVOUS. Tastes like murky pond water. I guess I diluted it too much. Better add a second packet. Not much change. Time to load up on sugar. Now it reminds me of a Frappuccino. I am also beginning to take an unexpected and irrational appreciation for Kim Jong-un. Thank you supreme leader for this glorious product! It is far superior to American snow coffee!”
It’s currently a toss-up between Café Bustelo and Medaglia d’Oro. Both have a deceptively tolerable taste and are loaded with caffeine, plus they’re relatively inexpensive. You can’t really ask for much more than that.
I like the yellow jar better, and drinking it makes me feel like I am part of the Cuban drug cartel (“I’M TONY MONTANA!”), so Bustelo gets a slight edge.
Update: Medaglia has supplanted Bustelo for the top spot in my power rankings. Over the past ten months I’ve found the quality control of Bustelo to be suspect; a good jar is quite sensual, but far too often I’m left questioning my self-worth with each sip. Recommendation: rotate brands from cup to cup to maintain morale.
Update July 2015: Bustelo quality control has been on point as of late. Maybe word traveled that I’d knocked them a rank. You’re welcome, everyone. (Bustelo reclaims the top spot.)
- Café Bustelo
- Medaglia d’Oro
- Starbucks VIA Tribute Blend
- Mount Hagen
- Starbucks VIA Colombia
- Starbucks VIA Italian Roast
- Whole Foods 365
- Jacobs Krönung
- Taster’s Choice House Blend
- Maxim Mocha Gold
- Jacobs Cronat Gold
- Folgers Classic Roast
- Great Value
- Nescafé Clásico
- Maxwell House
Taste is subjective, but any of the top seven should satisfy most palates. Avoid the bottom four at all costs.
Note: I tried Starbucks VIA Tribute Blend a few months after initially publishing this article and I unfortunately failed to properly review it, but it does crack the upper tier of the power rankings.