Coffee Talk: Ranking Your Away-From-Home Options

I drink coffee.  No; I live to drink coffee.  With the exception of a few breaks where I tried to wean myself off of the loving grip of caffeine, I have had at least two cups a day since I was fourteen years old.  I tried quitting because caffeine can be pretty bad for you – there was a point in college where I had headaches every day, and my therapist recommended I lay off the java.  There was another point as an adult where I tried quitting because I was diagnosed with high blood pressure.  Let me tell you something – going off coffee is like living in Oz your whole life and suddenly waking up in Kansas; it’s awful.  Needless to say, I am still on it, and you will have to pry my morning cup of coffee from my cold, twitching hands.

While I will never turn down a cup of coffee, not all coffee is created equal.  You become especially aware of this when you travel.  Below I have rated, best to worst, the types of coffee you can get when you are away from home.

1.    French press coffee at the in-hotel restaurant

I love the coffee at nice hotels.  It tastes like they picked coffee beans from the nicest plantation in Heaven, filtered the water through the golden hair of a mermaid virgin princess, and gently pressed the grounds through the water with the Hope Diamond.  Even though I am a coffee freak, no matter what I do, I can not replicate the flavor of coffee at my favorite hotels – I have bought the actual coffee they used, used filtered water, used a French press and I just can’t perform the magic they have performed on my cup.  My favorite cup of coffee was at the St. Regis in Kauai.  I suspect location may have had something to do with it…

2.    Starbucks

The only reason this is ranked higher than number 3 is because you know exactly what you are getting with Starbucks.  I pretty much know that wherever I am in the country, I can count on my Skinny Cinnamon Dolce to taste good.  There are people who despise the flavor of Starbucks’ coffee – silly people: you don’t order just a plain old coffee at Starbucks; if you’re not getting something that ends in latte, macchiato or frothgasm, you’re doing it wrong.

3.    Local Coffee House

Some local coffee houses are really cool – they have that “let’s hang out and play some weird version of chess” vibe.  Sometimes their coffee is really good, too.  If you have comfy chairs or couches to sit in, I will like you. If you have a bookshelf filled with books, I will love you.  However, when grading as a whole, I rate them slightly below Starbucks simply because you really don’t know what you’re going to get.  Sometimes you feel like an outsider.  It’s like when the out-of-towner walks into the saloon, and everyone stops and stares. Except in this situation, they are all hipsters instead of cowboys or saloon whores, and they’re drinking cappuccinos instead of tequila.

4.    Gas Station Coffee

Gas station coffee is basically the Malt-O-Meal version of Starbucks; you know the brand name is way, way better, but you are either in a place where you can’t easily get to a Starbucks, or you are kind of cheap.  That’s okay – we’ve all been there; it’s hard to justify paying $5 for 14 ounces when you can get your 32 ounces of sugar-blasted  Reeses Peanut Butter Cup Cappuccino for $2.

Here’s my trick: unless you enjoy drinking sugar water, fill up one quarter of your cup with the sugar-blast cappuccino of choice, and the rest of your cup with regular coffee. You’ll actually have a chance of experiencing the joys of a caffeine high that way.

5.    Diner Coffee

When I was in high school, I wasn’t allowed to work until late in my Senior year, so I saved my school lunch money to hang out with friends on the weekends.  One of the things my friends loved to do is go to one of the 5 million diners available in Connecticut (all of which became part of some random Greek cartel in the early 90s).  Because I had limited funds, I would only order coffee.  I judged the quality of the diner by how cheap their coffee was – if I could get a coffee for 30 cents or less, the food was destined to be inexpensive and delicious.  If the coffee was closer to the dollar mark, the food was more for the New Yorker set, and not what I would classify as true diner food. Bottom line – that cheap coffee is in fact, really cheap and not very tasty.  On the other hand, it works if you are poor, and it washes down well with the $4 trio of pancakes that are the size of a lion’s head.

6.    Sad Packet in the Hotel Room

I am more than just a caffeine addict – I am a ritual coffee drinker.  When I wake up in the morning, I look at that time as a slow, critical process to reintroduce the world to my tired brain.  While I am not a habitual person by nature, my morning ritual is essential.  I have to have my coffee and read the news (preferably by newspaper, realistically via computer).  When I am in a hotel, there are few things sadder than reintroducing the world to my brain via a sad, old, dusty Starbucks Disappointment Pod accompanied by off-brand Sweet-N-Low and a dry creamer from 1962.  Oh wait, there is something sadder…

7.    Single Serve sad packet in a hotel room

Note to Starwood Hotels: your Starbucks paper cups aren’t fooling anyone.  That little single serve thing in the room is impossible.  The pod doesn’t fit right, and a sad packet still tastes like a sad packet, even if you have to crumple it into a tiny little hi-tech-looking basin.  At the very least, put pods in the room that actually fit the basin appropriately.  I am a die-hard Starwood person, but I now travel with my own coffee because I don’t want to kill my vacation buzz.

8.    Coffee at Grandma’s

Part of your travels will include a trip to grandma’s, so I have to include this one and I have to place it dead last.  I’m not going to bash grandmas; they are wonderful people.  Their house has that old-person, sweet mothball smell, and they are usually pretty good cooks. However, there are two weaknesses with grandmas, and that is in the soda department and the coffee department.  I will explain the soda issue with a common dialogue I had when I went to my grandparents’ place as a child:

“Can I get you a soda?”

“Sure.  What do you have?”


“Do you have root beer?”

“No, but I have cream soda.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s like root beer.”

“Ok, I’ll have that!”

Then grandma or grandpa would sweetly hand me a can of Shasta Cream Soda, and I would sip it down with a smile, knowing full well that cream soda is nothing like root beer, and my sweet grandma would murder me in my sleep if I threw away a half-full 5 cent can of soda.

The problem with soda and coffee comes down to the same root problem: a lot of grandparents grew up in the Depression, and they don’t want to waste money.   Their philosophy is to buy the cheapest thing in the store and not waste it.  I can appreciate this philosophy – I come from an excessive, wasteful generation.  We should appreciate that we have the means to drink any kind of soda, even Shasta; but grandmas around the world? I draw the line at bad coffee.  I’m telling you right now, you don’t need to do this to yourselves – good coffee is not expensive.  Live a little!

My husband’s grandmother was the worst offender – she was a die-hard coffee addict, which made me feel a kinship to her, but she would make a pot and reheat it over and over until it was gone – even if it were overnight.  By the time you got to the last cup or two, it would have the taste and consistency of Penzoil that hasn’t been changed out for 300,000 miles.  You could pour a gallon of heavy cream into your final cup, and it would change the color from black to Chocolate Laborador.  Bless her heart, it was awful.

So grandmas of the world, I am going to introduce you to one word: Yuban.  Cheap, but reasonable-tasting.  And kids? Help granny with the groceries once in a while if you are going to drink all of her coffee and Shasta soda when you visit.