CS Instant Coffee is a small instant coffee product designed to compete with Starbucks Via and other popular backcountry coffee solutions. It comes in packs of six for $19, and each pack makes two cups of coffee. That equates to about $1.59/cup.
In Defense of Instant
I’m somewhat of an anomaly amongst the Backpacking Light authors and staff. Although I appreciate and can identify quality coffee—and tend to drink middle-range, fair trade, course-ground coffee prepared in a French press when I’m at home—I also don’t need a gourmet coffee experience. I can and have imbibed caffeine through tea, electrolyte tabs, and bottom-of-the-pot swill at run-down gas stations, burger joints, Waffle Houses, and beautiful sweeping vistas all across the country.
Ryan Jordan, Chase Jordan, and Emelyene VanderVelden have all weighed in extensively on their go-to backcountry coffee preferences. They uniformly prefer pour-over, French-press, or Aero-press backcountry coffee when those options are available.
I, on the other hand, tend to gravitate towards instant coffee when backpacking.
I know. I know. When I was pre-interviewing a coffee roaster for our Backcountry Coffee podcast, he almost refused to talk to me after I mentioned I drank instant while backpacking. I believe he called it “a sin against all that is good and right in the world.”
But if your palette is sufficiently dull (working a night shift job, being poor in your twenties and early thirties, or making a living as a writer are all great ways to lower your coffee expectations), instant is the way to go. It packs smaller, weighs less, and is more convenient than any other option – bar none.
And not all instant is the same. Starbucks Via is ubiquitous amongst the instant-carrying ultralight crowd because of its wide availability, but I think most of us agree that there’s room for improvement. Even to Philistines like myself, Via can taste like the coffee equivalent of the tea Arther Dent tries to get the Heart of Gold to brew in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
So I was excited to try CS Coffee when they mailed me a sample a few months ago.
I drank CS Coffee on backcountry expeditions in the Lake Tahoe region of the Sierra Nevada, as well as in Great Smoky Mountain National Park and my house while writing this article.
I compared the product to Starbucks Via in a direct taste test because Via is available in almost any grocery store in the country, and it is easy to get your hands on if you have to re-supply in a hurry. It is (by my anecdotal reckoning) still the most common instant coffee to be found in backpacks.
I also compared CS coffee to Alpine Start, a very decent instant product you can find at REI or online in individual servings. It also has the advantage of being available in bulk. The downside to Alpine Start is that it can be hard to find (I’m not sure if they have supply issues or something, but it’s been out of stock at REI in multiple locations at various times I’ve searched for it). If you are a last-minute packer like me, beware.
I tested a dark roast from CS because it is currently their only product. I tested a dark roast from Via because I wanted to match the roast as closely as possible to the product from CS. Alpine Start only has a medium roast available, so I didn’t do a direct taste test. But I will mention it in comparison below when it seems appropriate.
Finally, in an effort at total transparency, I will disclose that I wrote a compensated article for CS Coffee’s blog a few months ago in my capacity as a freelance outdoor journalist. The article wasn’t coffee related.
I think CS Coffee is significantly better tasting than Starbucks Via, and about on par with Alpine Start. Here’s why.
Upon the initial pour, CS froths up with a beautiful and appealing crema, while Via just kind of sits there, glimmering darkly. Via’s aroma has a top note of toasted marshmallow—this is what they say on their packaging, and after trying and failing to come up with a different explanation for the aroma, I think they nailed it. There is an underlying soapy finish to the smell, though, one that replicates itself in Via’s taste.
CS Coffee’s top note is citrusy and a little sharp, with an earthy finish. It lacks the unpleasant tang of Via’s finish and is, therefore, a more pleasing aroma.
I enjoyed CS Coffee’s initial hit of flavor—on the mild side for a dark roast, fairly nutty, and with a nice bright finish. Via’s tasting notes are, on the whole, much sharper. Via seems to walk a line between “dark roast” and “turn the beans into charcoal.”
Both products get a little bitter and acidic as they cool (this seems to be the hallmark of instant coffee), though my experience revealed CS Coffee is less acidic on the tongue (and stomach) than Via. It’s about on par with Alpine Start.
I went into this mini-review with one question—is CS Coffee a better-tasting instant coffee than Starbucks Via? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Is it better than Alpine Start? That’s where things get a little more thorny. The roasts aren’t really the same, so it’s hard to make a direct comparison. For the purposes of this review, I will call them equally good tasting, or close enough.
Since I’m calling CS Coffee and Alpine Start roughly equal in terms of quality, it’s worth examining things like cost, packaging, and other factors for a moment. CS Coffee’s paper packaging is 100% biodegradable and burnable if you happen to live in an area where campfires are okay. Alpine Start uses the ubiquitous plastic and mylar packaging you’ve seen (and thrown away) a thousand times. So that’s a point in CS Coffee’s favor.
CS Coffee is about $1.59/cup and comes in boxes of six packets, with each packet containing enough powder for two servings. Alpine Start comes in boxes of eight packets, with each packet being a single serving. It’s $8.99/box, or $1.12/serving. As I mentioned before, you can also get Alpine Start in bulk containers. When you buy it that way, it’s $0.83/serving.
A final point in Alpine Start’s favor is that it also comes in dairy-free creamer or dirty-chia varieties if you don’t like your coffee black.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Starbucks Via is the most affordable of the three products. I just bought a pack of eight at my local Safeway for $5.99, or $0.74/serving.
If you’ve been looking for a Starbucks Via alternative and you like supporting small companies that put good into the world (CS donates 1% of its profits to environmental non-profits), CS Coffee is a good alternative. It is head and shoulders above most instant coffees in terms of taste and is about on par with my other favorite option, Alpine Start.
While Alpine Start is cheaper, CS Coffee’s packaging is a little more earth-friendly. Whether or not you like CS Coffee’s two-cup-per-packet strategy will depend on your coffee drinking habits. I like it because I always have two cups, and the double-serving strategy is less wasteful.
The final takeaway comes down to use cases. If I’m supplying for an extended trip with high food costs or difficult, rural re-supply, I’ll go with Via for cost and convenience. If I have a slightly better budget or my trip is shorter, but I’m still re-supplying in a hurry, I’ll go with Alpine Start because of its taste, relative budget-friendliness, and moderately convenient availability. If I happen to be supplying myself within the internet ordering window and I have a little extra cash, I’ll go with CS Coffee because of the combination of taste, double-serving packaging, and environmental friendliness.
Where to Buy CS Instant Coffee
- CS Instant Coffee is available direct at the CS Instant Coffee website.
DISCLOSURE (Updated November 7, 2019)
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