No instant coffee will ever replace a cup of expertly roasted, perfectly brewed coffee. It's just not possible. But it's quite possible to find some good freeze-dried stand-ins, some so authentic they taste better than the stale, over-brewed swill that's passed off as "fresh" in offices and some restaurants.
Decades ago, instant coffee was a pathetic affair. The product may have started with quality beans, but by the time it was brewed, concentrated and dehydrated, something terrible had happened. The resulting cup lacked aroma, texture and flavor -- good flavor, anyway. Bitterness, it had in spades.
Now, thanks in part to Starbucks Via, coffee companies have figured out how to transform the category of instant into a significantly more palatable cup of Joe. These days, you can find French roast, Colombian, Sumatran and Ethiopian coffee in pouches, ready to zap into something fragrant and desirable. Mostly.
While brands and prices will vary by your region, here in the Bay Area a select few dominate store shelves. So I lined up some cups and started sipping. Here's the scoop on the good, the fair and the truly, horribly awful.
Mount Hagen Organic
This coffee boasts a rich, sweet, smooth aroma and medium flavor. I love the clean profile of this coffee, which is also a terrific bargain. A box of 25 is $8.50 at Whole Foods. (4 stars)
Starbucks Via Tribute Blend
Those who like coffee with attitude will love this new addition to the Via line, made from coffee beans sourced in Africa and Sumatra. It has deep cocoa notes, a hint of fruitiness and an aroma that's very much like a cup of fresh-brewed coffee. A box of 12 is $11.95 at Starbucks.com. (3-1/2 stars)
Starbucks Via Veranda Blend Blonde Roast
Via makes such a wide array of coffees that I decided to mention only my two favorites. This super-mellow blend is a little light for a first cup, but it's perfect for a second or third cup, when you're looking for something smooth and bright, like a citrusy coffee. A pack of 12 is $9.95 at Starbucks.com. (3 stars)
Barney's CoffeeKitchen Pronto
The nutty, fruity flavor of this unusual coffee is fun and fresh, much like specialty estate-grown coffees. But the exaggerated aroma coupled with the slightly sweet flavor make it seem unnatural. Note that the bulk of Barney's CoffeeKitchen coffees are flavored and sweetened. A box of six sticks is $5.99 online; it will soon be available at local Walmart stores. (2-1/2 stars)
Nescafe Taster's Choice House Blend
Not bad, but not great is the best way to describe this coffee. It has mild, smooth coffee flavor but lacks aroma and body. It gets a full star, however, because it's so affordable. A box of seven runs for about $2 at your local grocer. (1 star)
Folgers 100 Percent Colombian Fresh Breaks
How caffeine-deprived are you? If I had no other option, I would drink this, but compared with fresh coffee, it has an overwhelming aroma and flavor of burned coffee beans. The coffee, which foams when hot water is added, also leaves an unpleasant sludge around the rim and at the bottom of the cup. (Note: The company has just introduced two new blends, which I was unable to try.) A pack of eight can be found for around $3.99 at your local grocer. (1/2 star)
Reviews are based on product samples purchased by the Contra Costa Times or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at email@example.com.