Saturday, November 7, 2009

What's The Best Instant Coffee for Hacking?

Chris and I just spent the last couple weeks completely strung out coding and hacking the IDE. There were a number of problems, but they all stemmed from two simple issues that could be summed up in one word: "suck".

1) Apple deciding to modify the binary java application launcher in preparation for 64 bit java compatibility (which broke the Aardvark IDE), and

2) Windows 7 sucking. Billy G. locked down certain folders, changing the way programs have to deal with temp files (which also broke the Aardvark IDE)

Anyway, Chris wrote a blog about how we solved the issues technically speaking. But this is a differenty kind of blog. This is the one that describes how we solved it biochemically speaking. With coffee, of course.

We drank a lot of coffee, especially late at night, and when Starbucks or the local joints are usually way past closed. So I figured it was a great excuse to do some double-blind taste tests of the various instant coffees I could find at the grocery stores around me.

Here are the five types we taste tested, from left to right, Maxwell house, Medaglia D'oro, Starbucks Bold Via, Starbucks Columbian Via, and Mount Hagen. You pretty much have to live in a bubble not to have seen all the advertisements for Starbucks Vias recently, so this was also Chris and my attempt to cut through all the marketing B.S. out there...

Naturally, we took out a piece of paper to document the experiment:

The Via's needed scissors to open, which sucks. Everything else was easy to use, but needed a spoon, which is a more readily available "kitchen" tool as far as I'm concerned. On the other hand, the lab space always has scissors lying around, so I guess it all depends on where you fix your coffee.

Here's a close-up of the different looks of the instant coffee. Mount Hagen sort of looked like bacon bits, and perhaps as a result, looked the most appetizing. Medaglia was sandier, while the others were more like little piles of dirt.

Here's the full get-up. I followed the recipe marked on the label in every case, down to the amount of grinds, and water.

Here's me pouring out the microwaved water into one of the cups:

And this is what all the glasses look like when they're filled:

And after I stirred each glass:

One thing to note is that the Mount Hagen is the only one with foamy bubbles at the top. This is weird. It would have been fine if I'd put milk in there, and stirred it up. But I didn't. It just somehow likes to keep its foam. For some reason, this foam stayed there the whole time. Not good, not bad, just different.

To clear our pallates in between sampling, we used Diet Coke. Why? Because it's another liquid that commonly makes it's way around the lab, and is often the chaser Chris and I use when drinking coffee. There's something satisfying about drinking a hot cup of coffee, then a cold glass of diet coke, then another hot cup of coffee, then about cold glass of diet coke.

Hi, my name is Matt, and I have a caffeine problem.

While we drank, we kept notes on the first imrepssions, tools needed, time to prep, amount of water needed, smell test, taste test, and even what each type tasted like after waiting a while. The rationale went like this: a lot of times, I make a couple cups of coffee at a time, pour them out, and bring them from the kitchen into the lab. Inevitably, one of the glasses gets cold. Drinking cold coffee is a fact of life in a lab :)

Finally, we ranked each of the 5 in terms of total experience, and provided summary notes.

I even typed it up:

The bottom line

If you can get over the weird foaminess, the Mount Hagen is the best tasting coffee, hands down. The Italian Roast Bold Via is the next best taste, but you have to drink it all quickly, because it starts to taste a little stale after sitting around. The Columbian Via holds its flavor better, but that's because that flavor is bland. Maxwell House has a chemical, synthetic taste in my opinion, kind of like that smell you get when you drive on I-95 through New Jersey, and you drive past that big chemical refinery and the air smells like pancakes which is normally good but you start holding your breath because you know it's not really pancakes, it's actually acetyln glycol esther mercury fumes. Medaglia D'oro was 3 European ounces of just plain horrible - they had me at the smell - which is tart and sour and nasty and frankly has no business belonging in any cup I'm drinking.

So in conclusion:

  1. Best - Mount Hagen if you can live with the weird foam
  2. Runner up - Italian Roast Via
  3. So so - Columbian Via
  4. Eh - Maxwell House
  5. Get out - Medaglia D'oro


evilrocks said...

Y'all need to upgrade to a stovetop espresso maker (use a bunsen burner if your lab lacks a stove). The things reliably crank out amazing-tasting coffee with incredibly high caffeine content. Minimal prep and cleanup. Flexible pot sizes from 1 serving to 4. Time from process start to live coffee: 4 minutes (±2 mins).

cheap source (scroll down a bit):
(not a shill for the link, just a fan of the technology).

Lars / Ebi said...

Instant coffee is blasphemy!

Justin said...

since i don't live near starbucks or dunkin donuts anymore, this is actually pretty tempting when i'm tired and don't feel like brewing coffee...

mixonic said...

Stove top is nice, French press better! This is awesome gents. The foam is called crema, or at least that's what they were trying to emulate. I agree the Via is pretty blah.

Matt said...

@evilrocks - that is some seriously intense equipment, for sure...

@lars - i know, that was my opinion going in... nothing beats a nice solid espresso. in boston, there's a place in faneuil hall called red barn that blows away anyone else's espresso. i'm a huge fan, and no i'm not getting paid for that recommendation :)

@justin - exactly! bceause why would anyone think sleep is an acceptable answer... i wonder what it was like in like hte 1700's when people got tired and the candles were all used up? i guess they actually went to sleep. weird.

@mixonic - ah ha! so the foam wasn't a chemical byproduct, it was "intentional", nice... i guess that elevates the mount hagen then, as long as they meant for that to be there. i've made afew more glasses since then, and they all have the same phenomenon

Also, JR emailed me a link to, which also mentions "press pot", but doesn't seem overly up or down about starbucks via

Oh, and PS. please don't email any more asking to submit my official feedback to the starbucks PR department... no thanks! they must have some automatic snooping scan filter for any mention anywhere on a blog that gets their lawyers all bothered. geez, take some honest public feedback for crying out loud!

KA1KJZ said...

I grew up on Maxwell House instant... this was before Mr Coffees were commonplace and my parents really couldn't be bothered to pull out the percolator. In fact I never learned to use a percolator.

But speaking of Mr Coffee's, they aren't much slower than heating a full kettle of water from dead cold. You can save the leftover coffee for about 24 hrs, nuking it for 1min in the cup to get it back to warm.

damon said...

Hey Matt we enjoyed your taste test. I work for the importer of Mount Hagen and wanted to let you know that we sell that product in a travel stick also. You can find more info here: Mount Hagen organic sticks
Then you could eliminate the spoon!

Cyrozap said...

Pepsi != Diet Coke