I tend to avoid reviewing coffee drinks for the same reason I tend to avoid reviewing cheese and beer – I’m simply out of my depth when it comes to the breadth and depth of knowledge possessed by all the armchair experts out there. There was one guy who posted a comment about my Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate review that I’m still afraid to post because of its excoriating intensity and essay length. Nevertheless I’m going forward with this review of Trader Joe’s delicious Mocha Cappucino Mix because I figure powdered coffee drinks get a pass. I enjoy them, so I imagine that no self respecting coffee snob would be seen dead with a can of this stuff in his cupboard.
Allow me to start out strong by saying, coffee drinks have always confounded me. I understand that coffee means water filtered through coffee grounds. What perplexes me is how the countless, subtle changes in this proportion lead to a bewildering array of different names. Coffee americano, expresso, macchiato, cortado, cafe latte, cafe au lait, frappucino – the list, I’m sure, goes on. I’m aware that some of these have milk in them, and some don’t, but that’s about it.
Turning to the internet, I hoped to clear up this muzzy-headed understanding of what makes a cappuccino uniquely a cappuccino before today’s post. Sadly, I failed. The traditional definition of a cappuccino is an espresso, mixed with milk and topped with foamed milk, each in approximately equal proportions. On the other hand, a cafe latte also seems to be defined in the exact same way – the chief difference being that cafe lattes are served in larger cups that don’t have handles, whereas cappucinos are served in smaller cups with handles. In other words, the name of the drink changes depending one what kind of glass you serve it in – which is a daunting thought and one that I’m glad doesn’t apply to other categories of food. It’s possible that I’ve got this all wrong, so I’ll cite my source here – a slipshod wikipedia page.
In any case, Trader Joe’s Mocha Cappuccino has nothing to do with any of this. There is no expresso, hot milk or milk foam involved at any point. Instead, there is a tin of powdered coffee, powdered milk and powdered chocolate that you mix with hot water. The results, rather surprisingly. are very good.
I’ve been burnt by Trader Joe’s powdered milk and tea mixes in the past, burnt bad, so I wasn’t confident that their powdered milk and coffee mixes would be much better. Fortunately, I was wrong. It might be the chocolate that pulls it together, but a little this mix is quite good hot or cold. The balance between sweet, sugary chocolate (or mocha, as we may call it here) and bitter coffee is just right, giving you that Starbucks confectionery blast that may not make for a classical cappuccino, but sure is tasty. 20 grams of sugar per scoop makes this far from a health drink, but if you’re in the mood to buy a drink called Mocha Cappucino you’re probably ready to be a little decadent.
If there’s anything that bothers me about Trader Joe’ Mocha Cappuccino mix, it’s the powdered milk. While the drink certainly benefits from a touch of creaminess, it still leaves that lingering “I am not real milk” taste on the edge of your tongue. If TJ’s had just stuck to the coffee and mocha side, and let us add the cream ourselves, I’d have been happier. And even though the powdered milk still tastes like powdered milk, at least it’s natural powdered milk. Trader Joe’s is proud to boast that this mix doesn’t have any artificial flavors or preservatives in it, which is actually something of a rarity in the powdered coffee drink field.
And really, in the end, it’s not really a deal breaker – at only $3.99 for the whole tin there’s more than enough value in it to justify the purchase.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you want that Starbucks fix in the comfort of your home.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not, I’ll leave the coffee drinking to the coffee drinkers.
Final Synopsis: A powdered chocolate and cappuccino mix that tastes better than it sounds.
I’m sorry, what? Can you repeat that please? Did you say, Trader Joe’s BBQ Rub and Seasoning with Cofffee and Garlic? Does that make any sense at all? This one is truly mind boggling. I knew Trader Joe’s didn’t give a flying fig about convention, I knew that the second I saw them stocking Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil on their shelves, I knew that when I picked up their Avagadro’s Number themed guacamole, but even I didn’t dream they were this dangerously unhinged.
I’d like to put myself in the mindset of the Trader Joe’s food scientist who dreamed up this insane blend of seasonings, but I’m afraid to do so would be to permanently wrench my psyche from it’s bearings. Coffee grounds and garlic – blended together, for the sake of rubbing on your meat. It’s got to be a stunt, right? Maybe there isn’t that much coffee in it, or maybe it’s, like, a type of coffee that isn’t really coffee. Let’s just check out the ingredient label.
Ingredient #1: Coffee. Period.
Okay, we’ll, there’s a bunch of other stuff in here too. Look – brown sugar, salt, garlic, um… paprika… and, uh, clemengold rind,? Which is apparently the skin of the Nandorcott mandarin orange? Okay, that’s a new one. At any rate, it must, like, all blend together in a way that sort of hides the strong coffee taste amid many flavors. Let’s just open it up and take a whiff. Wow – nope, that’s coffee. That is straight up coffee. I can’t imagine this is going to be any good.
And this, folks, is where it gets even crazier. After all that, when you really get down to it, this seasoning is spicy, flavorful, intriguing, nuanced, and totally worth your $1.99.
Crazy though it may sound to me, coffee rubs are not a wholesale invention of Trader Joe’s. Many in the hardcore slow-cooked meat world have experimented with the intriguing addition of robust coffee grounds to otherwise ordinary rubs. Despite the intense coffee smell of the rub, the taste is actually much more diverse and interesting. Coffee, being coffee, has a smell that tends to overshadow everything around it. On the tongue, however, that bold, bitter coffee taste is joined by a medley of other equally strong flavors that stand out on their own. The coffee gives way, in turn, to sparks of sweetness, sudden notes of saltiness, and the simmering, low key spiciness of the garlic and paprika.
These flavors do not blend, but tussle for position on your taste buds, and that’s what makes this rub work. It’s not a single flavor, or polite union of similar flavors, it’s a raucous dust up of competing tastes. It’s a tour of the whole tongue, with fun flavors for every taste bud. I’d be interested to see how this stuff would taste without all the coffee in it, to be honest, but having the coffee is what makes it really stand out. While other rubs commonly play up to saltiness, Trader Joe’s Coffee and Garlic Rub plays up the boldness, and it’s this strong base note that gives the riot of other flavors the grounds to go wild.
Trader Joe’s also suggests that you can use this rub as a seasoning on veggies, fish, etc. I’m not sure I’d recommend that myself. While it isn’t bad, per se, the rub is so intense that it can only really be used in tiny amounts, and even then you probably want to mix in another, more traditional seasoning to round out the taste.
One final caveat – make sure you leave yourself plenty of time for the flavors of the rub to permeate your ribs, steaks etc. Trader Joe’s recommends at least an hour – but the longer you wait the richer the flavor in the end. Give this rub as much time as possible on your meat, and apply it generously, for the full effect. Just don’t wait until too late at night to eat. This is real coffee in the rub and, as I discovered, a late dinner might leave up for hours.
Would I Recommend It: Absolutely. This will shake up your life a little.
Would I Buy It Again: I think I’ll stock up on a little more.
Final Synopsis: A bold, mix of bitter, salty and sweet flavors that you should try at least once.
Tangy coffee – do you like it? If you can answer that one question for yourself, there will be no need to read the rest of this post about Trader Joe’s Coffeehaus “European style” low fat yogurts. I will repeat it once again – do you like the taste of tangy coffee?
Very probably you have never had tangy coffee before, you might be confused by these words – angered by them even. No problem, friend. Just relax, sit back, close your eyes… and imagine. Imagine sipping a cup of coffee, imagine that unmistakable coffee aftertaste, that bold, full-roast dark coffee flavor that sits on the tongue like burnt toast. Now imagine it’s also real tangy. Tangy like a glass of Tropicana orange drink. Tangy, tangy coffee, sitting on your tongue, and also it’s cold. Do you like that idea?
If you’ve said yes, hold on tight because we are going to get into this. If, and I’m guessing this is more likely, you said no then you can feel free to navigate away from this browser tab right now. You sir, will not like Trader Joe’s Coffeehaus yogurts because if there’s one thing they have, it’s a serious tanginess.
Let’s unspool this for a moment. There’s about five different things going on in the name of this product alone, and it could do with a little unpacking before we start laying into if I, personally, enjoyed this thing or not.
To begin, let’s start with what a “European style” yogurt might be, and why Trader Joe’s feels they need to single that notion out for some reason – not just by name, but by packaging, iconography and font as well. How, in fact, is European yogurt different from the Greek yogurts, French yogurts and Swiss yogurts which can all also be found in Trader Joe’s yougurt aisle? The straight forward, if basically uncorrect, answer is that “European style” yogurt is called as such because it isn’t going to sit well with the average American. More specifically, it’s much less firm than standard grocery store yogurt, and much more tangy due to the presence of the many live, active bacteria cultures fermenting it full of lactic acid.
Now, every yogurt in the world is a product of bacteria cultures – that’s just the basic nature of its existence, but it’s not a fact that the big commercial yogurt companies like to play up on TV here in the States. The “now full of more live bacteria colonies than ever before” pitch is just not one that appeals to the standard demographic. As such, the bacterial nature of yogurt has been downplayed to the point where it’s almost totally overlooked. For the same reason, your usual grocery store yogurt varies between “slightly tangy” and “not tangy at all”.
Much more common in the US are the standard, “custard” style yogurts where fruit and thickening agents have been blended into a firm, sugary, low-bacteria yogurt. Confusingly, custard style yogurt can also be called French or Swiss style yogurt, despite the fact that they are much more American than European in sensibility. In fact, real Swiss yogurt (yogurt made by the Swiss in Switzerland) must, by Swiss law, contain a certain minimum number of bacterial colonies to even be considered yogurt.
So, to summarize, by saying “European Style” Trader Joe’s is singling that this is going to be some bacteria-filled, tangy yogurt, and you’d better be ready for that. They are as good as their word as well – each type of their coffeehaus yogurt comes packed with four different live and active cultures: S. thermophillus, L. Bulgaricus, L. Aciodphilus, and Bifidus. I don’t know quite enough about biology to expound on what all the important differences are between these, but I can tell you that you can sure as hell taste them in every tangy, zingy bite.
The other unusual aspect of these European style yogurts are their rather continental flavors. Dannon and Yoplait may have turned every type of cream pie and sherbet into a yogurt flavor, but even they haven’t yet done a straight up mocha or dark chocolate yet. While that might not go over very well in a custard style yogurt, it makes for a very nuanced bite here. The subtle bitterness of the dark chocolate and the mocha both play against the sourness of the yogurt, the tang of the lactic acid and the gentle sweetness of the added sugar. The result is a yogurt that challenges the tongue to a unique flavor experience, not merely a confection of high sugar content sweetness that passes the gums unnoticed.
So do I like tangy coffee? In this case, yes. I’ve had sweet yogurt, and I’ve had unsweetened yogurt, but I’ve never had yogurt that takes a path separate from sweetness all together. Tangy, bitter yogurt is an intriguing development, and one that I could easily see myself enjoying on my classier mornings.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – if you’re willing to give a whole new yogurt experience a chance.
Would I Buy It Again: I’d like to think that I’m just cultured enough to do so.
Final Synopsis: A very tangy, somewhat bitter, somewhat sweet, sophisticated yogurt.
I was really excited for Trader Joe’s Coffee a Cocoa to work out. On paper this sounds like a dangerously brilliant idea – combining a dark roast coffee with powdered cocoa to make a quick brewing mocha. Read the back of the can and you’ll get even more excited:
“You could go out and pay for a mocha, but with Trader Joe’s Coffee a Cocoa you can make one – without any added sugars – right in your own kitchen.” The label goes on to reference the use of “chocolate fudge oil” and uses the word “choco-riffic”
Sounds pretty dang good, right? Maybe like a mixture of hot chocolate and dark coffee? Oh, if only. Sadly I found this coffee to be nothing of the sort.
The last time I reviewed a Trader Joe’s coffee product it was the incredible Cold Brewed Coffee Concentrate. I might be all but untrained in the art of understanding and appreciating coffee, but even I was blown away by that coffee’s mellow, smooth taste and convenience. As a rule, I try to avoid reviewing those things which have a vociferous armchair expert culture built up around them (wine, beer, cheese, etc). This isn’t so much out of fear of looking foolish in public so much as a desire to avoid being yelled at by indignant pundits. Nevertheless, bouyed up by the success of the cold brew concentrate, and the promise of numerous cups of rich mocha, I seized this can of grounds and took it home.
To my dismay, I discovered that this coffee is not at all what it appears to be. I suppose I should have been tipped off by the “No sugar added” bit in the description above.
The thing that I seem to always forget about chocolate, is that in it’s natural state it is inedibly bitter. Even an three quarters pure bar of chocolate is more like chewing on bark than enjoying a nice piece of confection. Chocolate needs a least a little sugar to taste good at all, and possibly some cream mixed in as well depending on your taste. Without any sugar added, you have nothing to protect you from the bitter, mouth curdling tannins. It’s like Trader Joe’s asked itself the question, “How can we make something even more bitter than straight, dark roasted coffee? We’ll add, 100% dark, bitter baking chocolate – of course!”
It’s a strange question and not one I feel need to be answered. All would be forgiven, of course, if the brew actually had a chocolaty taste too it. Shockingly, it doesn’t. Not a traditional mocha taste, at any rate. If you’re expecting the mocha brewed by this mix to be anything like a mocha you’d pick up at your corner coffee shop, you need to re-calibrate your expectations. There is a chocolate taste present in the coffee, technically, but it’s much more akin to the chocolate tones you might be told to expect in a beer or a wine. Think subtle hints of chocolate that emerge from a lingering undertone, not a tasty chocolaty infusion.
This is doubly strange considering that the cocoa is paired with the above mentioned “chocolate fudge oil”. This sounds utterly delicious on paper, but when I say the phrase out loud it sounds terribly wrong. Fudge oil? How does one get oil from fudge? Is someone loading baskets of raw fudges into a fudge press somewhere? The answer might very well be yes. Google turns up frighteningly few results regarding “fudge oil”, outside of opportunistic recipe sites that seize desperately on that rich search term.
The best I could dig up was a brief e-mail from Trader Joe’s Customer Support stating the following:
“The ingredient ‘Chocolate Fudge Oil’ used in our Trader Joe’s Coffee a Cocoa is a natural oil that is derived from cocoa in a fudge form.”
Is this the same thing as cocoa oil? I simply do not know. Mysterious ingredients aside, Trader Joe’s Coffee a Cocoa is a straight coffee and nothing else. Could you make a resonable mocha out of it if you added some cream and sweetener and chocolate. Sure, but that defeats the point, doesn’t it? Come to this product if you’re looking for yet another subtly flavored medium-dark roast coffee. Those seeking something sweeter should stay away.
Would I Recommend It: Not if you’re looking for a mocha. Yes, if you just like coffee.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t drink much of either mocha or coffee, so probably not.
Final Synopsis: A totally acceptable medium-dark roast coffee misleadingly presents itself as a mocha.