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Taste Test: Canned and Bottled Ready-To-Drink Coffee

[Photographs: Jessica Leibowitz]

The Best Canned Coffees

#1: Seattle's Best Iced Mocha
#2 (tie): Starbucks Doubleshot Espresso & Cream and Seattle's Best Iced Latte
#3: Bustelo Cool Cafe con Leche
#4: Illy Issimo Latte Macchiato

Coffee at its best is freshly ground and freshly brewed. We like the burr grinder, the French press, the Chemex pot, and awesome espresso from jillion-dollar contraptions. So how did we find ourselves sipping 20 different ready-to-drink canned and bottled coffees in the Serious Eats office? Well, sometimes you're on a road trip, and the only option is gas station coffee. Sometimes you're stranded at home and out of beans. And sometimes the bizarre new concoctions in the drinks case of your local store just call to you.

But should you grab a ready-to-drink coffee in a can or bottle? Are any of these reasonable substitutes for a delicious iced java?

Short answer: No. If you can, find another alternative. This taste test ranked among the more painful we've experienced, right up there with the infamous "Milks Not From A Cow" torture of 2009.

Criteria

We judged these ready-to-drink coffees in a blind taste test, considering coffee flavor, sweetness, off-flavors, and aftertaste. The winners tended to have a bit of true coffee flavor, though they still tended to be quite sweet and milky. (Sometimes, the sweet milkiness served to cover up the bad flavors of the coffee adequately—the losers let the rubbery, burnt notes shine through.) You may notice that even the highest score of the lineup wasn't that high: our winner received 5.4 points out of ten. Some of the losing drinks were stale tasting and oily, some had earthy, dirty flavors, and a few were so sweet they made our teeth hurt.

See all the results by brand in the slideshow, or continue on for details about the winners and losers.

The Contenders

Best of the Bunch

20110426cannedcoffeewinners.jpg

Seattle's Best Iced Mocha (5.4/10)
Though some tasters found this canned coffee a little watery and overly vanilla-scented, it scored the best overall for its drinkability and decent coffee flavor. "Clean-enough-tasting," noted one person.

Seattle's Best Iced Latte (5.2/10)
This canned coffee scored almost as well as its mocha cousin, but tasters found it a little stale. It has more real coffee flavor and a little less sweetness than many of the others, though some tasted charred coffee urn. See how the Seattle's Best Iced Vanilla Latte did here »

Starbucks Doubleshot Espresso & Cream (5.2/10)
Several tasters disliked the sour flavors of this canned coffee, but others praised its "decent coffee flavor." It's a little over-extracted, with hints of wet cardboard, but it wasn't as offputting as many of the others we tried. See how the light version did here »

Bustelo Cool Cafe con Leche (5.1/10)
This one reminded us of coffee flavored Nesquick, and several tasters noted that it's sweet enough for dessert. "This one's fine," noted one taster; "there's a bit of coffee buried under there." See how the other Bustelo coffee did here »

Illy Issimo Latte Macchiato (5/10)
We appreciated that this canned coffee wasn't super sweet, but some found the coffee flavor stale tasting. "It's like mild, watery coffee," noted one taster, "but at least it's not like melted ice cream." See how the other Illy Issimo coffees did here »

Really Not For Us

Most brands had some winning and losing flavors. We were surprised to find that in the blind tasting we prefered the Starbucks Doubleshot over its bottled siblings; the bottled Coffee Frappuccino was mild and milky, but some tasters noted a cardboard-like flavor they didn't like. The vanilla version was quite sweet, without enough coffee punch. The caramel version reminded some tasters of vanilla salt water taffy and butterscotch, and was just too sweet to drink in any volume. The mocha version came out on top of the bottled Starbucks options, but tasters still found it too stale-tasting to recommend.

We also weren't wild about any of the Wolfgang Puck bottled coffees. The café au lait version scored the highest of the bunch, but it had a slightly perfumey vanilla flavor that some tasters disliked. The caramel was a little artificial tasting, the vanilla was achingly sweet, and the mocha was a bit chalky (though fans of Yoo-hoo might like it.)

We were also disappointed by the Trader Joe's canned coffees. The Caffè Latte was watery and all of our taster noted off flavors ranging from rubbery to grassy. The Mocha scored even worse, with tasters criticizing its bitterness and muddy flavors.

See the full results, brand by brand, in the slideshow »

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