Instant Coffee: Five Alternatives to Starbucks VIA

680 280 Zach Berning

Many people swear by Starbucks VIA as their “go to” instant coffee of choice, however we decided to look at some other options available. While your traditional grocery store may have just a handful of brands to choose from, we expanded our search to a nearby Asian market to see what options they had to pick from. It turns out that they had more than twenty different options, including Starbucks VIA, available to choose from. We selected five different instant coffees to test and take a closer look at.

The review process was simple. Make a single serving of each instant coffee and taste it without adding cream or sugar. We had five different taste testers help with this review as to eliminate a single tester’s bias. The taste testers were all coffee drinkers, however we had a mix of those that preferred to drink it black versus adding cream and sugar. Below you’ll find a quick overview of each instant coffee we tested, the cost per serving, as well as the group’s overall impressions.

maxim-instant-coffee

Maxim Original Coffee Mix

The first coffee we tried in our taste test was the Maxim Original Coffee Mix. The packaging depicts a happy young woman enjoying a nice cup of black coffee. The coffee comes in large stick single serving packets with 20 sticks to the a box. We paid $4.99 for the package so individual cost per serving is roughly $0.25. We fired up the kettle for some hot water and dumped the contents of the stick into our cups.

Imagine our surprise when half of the contents of the stick were instant coffee and the other half was powered creamer and sugar. Granted, if we were fluent in Korean we could have read the packaging and this wouldn’t have been a surprise at all. We poured the hot water into the cup and gave the contents a gentle stir. The coffee was a light brown color and reminiscent of something you’d make in a cheap hotel with those single serve brew machines. The taste was smooth, but the coffee had no real strength to it at all and was pretty weak.

arabica-coffee-extract-instant-coffeeArabica Coffee Extract

This was the only liquid product we tested. The idea behind it is simple. Pour the concentrated liquid into a cup and add a little hot water to dilute it into a cup of coffee. The price was $5.99 for 10 packets. Cost per serving is approximately $0.60 each. The extract has a unique smell to it. It was definitely a coffee odor, but had somewhat of a pungent component to it as well. We added the hot water to the extract and gave it a quick stir. One thing to keep in mind about the extract is that the packet is designed to be mixed with 150ml of hot water. Don’t expect to make a “large cup” of coffee with a single packet. The flavor was interesting to say the least. The best way to describe it was a hybrid blend of weak black tea and coffee. Nobody in the group got excited about this one.

ucc-the-blend-118-instant-coffeeUCC The Blend 118

If you’ve ever run across the UCC collection of instant coffees, you already know that there a handful of varieties available. Whether it be 113, 114, or 117, each number represents a different flavor profile. We’ve had experience drinking the 117 blend before so we decided to branch out and try the 118 for this test. The packaging says “Strong Taste” and it leans a little more to the “sharp” than “soft” side of the flavor chart they have on the side of the bottle.

The UCC was $6.99 for the bottle. Depending upon how strong you like your coffee, one 100g bottle could potentially make 50 cups of average strength coffee. That being said, the cost per serving is roughly $0.14 each. The 118 was by far the strongest out of all the instant coffees we tested in this group. While it comes on strong and is pretty smooth to drink, it does leave a harsh and slightly bitter aftertaste.

tea-sam-drip-coffee-supremo-instant-coffeeTea Sam Drip Coffee Supremo

The Tea Sam takes a different approach to instant coffee. Rather than crystals or liquid mixed with hot water, the Tea Sam comes with a filter basket that you pour hot water through in order to “brew” the cup. The box cost $6.99 and there are 8 single serve packets inside. The Tea Sam cost per cup is approximately $0.87 each. This instant coffee was the most expensive per cup option of the 5 different varieties that we tried.

tea-sam-drip-coffee-supremo-instant-coffee2

Upon opening the single serve packet, you’ll find a filter bag with two cardboard flaps. Unfold the flaps to extend outwards from the filter bag and rest them on the lip of your coffee cup. Remove the top section of the filter bag and you can see the ground coffee inside. One thing we quickly noticed about the Tea Sam was the fresh ground coffee smell. Unlike the other products we tried, this one actually smelled like coffee beans and had no other odors.

It was enjoyable to pour the hot water into the filter bag and see the coffee drip out from the bottom. Maybe it was all psychological, but the coffee smelled nice while it was “brewing” and dripping into the cup. This was by far the best cup of coffee out of the different ones we tested. It was very smooth and easily drinkable. We would have preferred it to be a slightly darker roast, but you can’t be too picky when dealing with instant coffees.

nescafe-tasters-choice-house-blend-instant-coffeeNescafe Taster’s Choice House Blend

This is the classic instant coffee found across the globe. In just about any country you travel to, you’ll pretty much find Nescafe readily available. This 198 gram container will make approximately 100 cups of coffee. Priced at $8.99, it will cost you roughly $0.09 a cup to drink Nescafe. There is no real magic to a cup of Nescafe Taster’s Choice. It’s very basic, slightly smooth, and has a little harshness on the front end. As far as instant coffees are concerned, Nescafe has pretty much become standard issue. It doesn’t come close to drinking drip, but it’s consistent in what it is and you can find it anywhere.

Conclusions

First and foremost, instant coffee is instant coffee. It will always be a quick alternative to brewed coffee when you’re looking for a hot beverage and don’t have the time or means to make a traditional cup. It shouldn’t be compared to drip because as far as we’re concerned, it’s a different animal. That being said, amongst the instant varieties there are definitely some that stand out as a more enjoyable “coffee” experience.

The Arabica Coffee Extract was disappointing to say the least. Maybe our water to extract ratio was off, but we couldn’t get excited about it no matter how many times we tried it. The Maxim’s unique quality is that because it comes with the powdered creamer and sugar already mixed in, it’s a very easy option for those that take cream and sugar in their coffee. However, because it was weak it felt like we need to drink four cups of it to equal one cup of the other instants.

The UCC and Nescafe are pretty similar in a few respects. Both will cost you less than $0.15 a cup so they’re relatively inexpensive. The nice thing about them is that you can adjust the strength of the cup to your own personal taste by simply adding more or less coffee.  The Nescafe can be found just about anywhere in the world so you’ll always know what to expect when drinking it. The UCC on the other hand is a little harder to come by. You typically won’t find it in your regular grocery store, but it is easily found in most Asian grocery stores and markets.

The Tea Sam Drip Coffee Supremo was a pleasant surprise. It produced the best cup of coffee by far and smelled the most like drip. The cost per serving is a bit high compared to other instant coffees, but it yielded the best cup out of the group. One drawback to the Tea Sam is that it created the most waste compared to the other options. When packing light or working in the field, details like this one should be taken into consideration.

Regardless of what instant coffee you go with, it’s important to keep in mind it’s not a replacement for drip. While taste was our top priority for this test, there are other factors like cost per serving, packet size, and which one fits your individual needs when selecting a brand of instant coffee.

AUTHOR

Zach Berning

Zach is our Digital Editor for MOTUS. He's also a foodie, off-road and backcountry adventure travel lover, and has coffee running through his veins. Read more …

All stories by: Zach Berning

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