I moved to Austin Texas in January 1993 from Hendersonville, North Carolina. Hendersonville was a reasonably small town which only a handful of chains or franchises would service.
Starbucks was a chain that mostly has not ventured into the smaller cities. In 1993 as they were just getting rolling that was even more the case.
So, being new to a much larger city, I found great places to visit, but I also found Starbucks. I liked Starbucks for many reasons, but a big one was the drink they called “the mocha”.
A mocha is frothed milk, chocolate, and espresso. You can put more stuff on top, like whipped cream, but the main idea is the chocolate and espresso – mediated by the frothed milk.
Starbucks was where I discovered the mocha. Since Starbucks is international, why not let the Starbucks mocha be the gold standard for mochas. Now before your undies get all bunched up, gold standard just means that it is a consistent reference point – not that it is the best.
That was 1993. Between now and 1993, I have always searched for alternatives to the Starbucks mocha that represent BETTER value tradeoffs.
The magic of the mocha
I often wonder why the mocha tastes so darned good to me.
I like coffee.
I like hot chocolate.
But together, my belief is that the chocolate and coffee flavors themselves completely complement each other. Like the rain forest cacao plant and the high mountain coffee plant combine to create a one-world flavor that could never be created on its own.
The bitterness of the coffee, especially the INTENSE bitterness of the espresso coffee mixed with the smooth sweetness of the chocolate sets up a point-and-counterpoint which confuses and delights the senses.
Before you even start on the mocha mix, you are confronted – at least at high end coffee shops – with the foam sitting on top of the mocha itself which hints at the flavors that you'll be getting to. Excuse the metaphor, but the foam, especially when it is more than “just milk foam” – when it is mixed with the mocha flavorings is like the foreplay to an amazing delight to your palate.
When I drink mochas, the world is a better place. Peace flows over my body and seeps into my soul. My mind is engaged with the planet and focused on the day.
The Great Mocha Price Flavor Continuum
Heck, I knew they weren't as good as Starbucks, but the whole box only cost $9 for 24 cups where you only get 2 Starbucks for $9 – not even so true any more – but the comparison holds.
So I'm reading an Amazon poster on the Mocha k-cups page and they only gave the k-cups a 3-star rating because they weren't as good as a Starbucks. This is why you have to slap the mouse out of some peoples hands. They just don't get it. And maybe the rating systems don't help. But you can't compare a $0.55 cup to a $3.95 cup by saying a certain product isn't as good as the $3.95 cup. You have to rate it based on its TOTAL VALUE delivered which is a combination of cost/flavor.
So I came up with the idea of the mocha price-flavor continuum chart. The idea wasn't totally mine, I realized that a scene from “How I met your Mother” would work perfectly. Slightly inappropriate so you tender folks out there probably should not watch it.
I flatline the cost eventually because, in my mind, there is a a price at which a mocha is simply too expensive and no matter how good you think it tastes, it can't be good enough to justify the price.
Two more ideas – the DEEPER you get into the green acceptable region the better the overall value of the mocha – farther from the line is better. But the opposite is true too, if you are in the unacceptable area, the deeper you go into the unacceptable area the WORSE value the mocha is.
Starbucks I think literally sits right on the line. That would be what very good capitalist organizations would do (which I admire). They charge as much as they can to deliver acceptable value.
I'll show you my “full continuum chart” at the end of this article as I give you the different things I've tried over the years to play with the flavor/price (and consequently total value) continuum.
But this is the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT IDEA of this article – that there is a continuum – that you can deliver excellent value at different prices and different flavor levels. To be a smart consumer, understanding this line is how you get to be a smart consumer.
I suppose it is worth mentioning that you can apply this line to almost any products. In the MBA world it is called “utility“.
Lets go over some of the different products I've tried over the years. As I do this, keep the idea of the flavor-price continuum in your mind.
Starbucks – RV52 analysis of the gold standard of mochas
I've spoke quite a bit about the “gold standard”. I guess I'll just integrate the pros and cons chart that I created for this story. I linked the picture to Starbucks gift cards since it was the only way to have a link make sense.
One “con” is that honestly, Starbucks, as good as it is, is so popular that it is sort of uncool to go there too much.
Make your own mocha with a high end espresso machine
The first thing I did when I started to venture past the Starbucks mocha was to try to make my own.
This was LOTS of fun, but when all the dust settled after a few years of making my own mochas, I realized that with the cost of the machine, the coffee, the grinding, the prep time, the clean-up, and all the extras, that this was on a total cost basis pretty expensive.
Still – I was never quite able to dial-in the Starbucks flavor. So I moved on.
Other coffee shops that make mochas
Once I gave up on making my own mochas, I decided to try Starbucks alternatives. Some were chains, some were local. For Austin, I'll give a special mention to Summermoon coffee which makes a mocha which is quite frankly the best mocha I've ever had. That being said, it is in the wrong part of town for me so I have to give the runner up mention to Lola Savannah. They are very good and they do very good “coffee art”.
The Mocha K-cup
I've wrote about the k-cups in detail here and here and here. So I won't talk too much more about them here other than to point out that while these were pretty good based on the continuum, I still kept experimenting to find even a better value. Also, given the abundance of free coffee at work, I felt I could get something that tasted even better.
If you check out the “cons” you can see that there were quite a few that I could address.
Starbucks Powdered Mocha Mix
Starbucks finally created a powdered mocha. Wow!
I thought I died and went to heaven.
I'll be honest, the first few sips were really, really good. But this product left a bitter chemical-like after taste. It was bad enough that it scored very low on the overall flavor scale, while being about 1/4 the price of a mocha.
So I continued my search.
Local store brand high end powdered mocha mix
After finding out about the powdered Starbucks, I then realized there were other choices that were better than the k-cups and as close to a REAL mocha as you can get with the powdered varieties.
I'm more than happy to have a bunch of these around, but they are very expensive so I would only have them for very special occasions. I can recommend these in very good faith. But for the purposes of my great mocha search, if you really wanted to have a special treat, you would go to a coffee shop!
Maxwell House Suisse Mocha
I had tried many powdered mochas and had always tried the Maxwell House ones every now and then. But I decided to take a good hard look at the Maxwell Houses as part of my research.
These produced very good mochas and I can recommend these as a very good mocha substitute. My biggest strike against these was that it took substantially MORE teaspoons/tablespoons to make a good tasting mocha than it says on the label. I could only get 4 or 5 decent drinks out of a can.
The Swiss Miss Cocoa Trick
Eventually, I stumbled on the idea of mixing hot chocolate mix with coffee to create my mochas. Yes, I know that it isn't espresso, but still I'm looking for the mix between the bitter of coffee and the sweet of chocolate.
It took me a little while, but I found that the 0.73 ounce Swiss Misses with 10 ounces of Keurig brewed coffee make a mean mean mocha. Coffee is provided at work for free which makes my mochas $0.17 each – a stellar value. Sometimes, I add a little chocolate flavored creamer or regular creamer to make the mocha extremely creamy. However, those creamers make a slight chemical taste too, so I rarely use them.
I also found that by trying different K-cup coffees I can have amazing flavor twists. If you don't have a Keurig, you can simply use a regular coffee. I think stronger is definitely better. But for me, this has been the VERY VERY best flavor versus price per cup trade-off when I'm at work.
The Hills Brothers Double Chocolate Cappuccino Mix
At home, the k-cups were only mediocre and somewhat expensive. I think the high-end mixes are expensive and pretty fattening (the Swiss Miss technique is only 60 calories).
I already said that the Maxwell House's mix was weak.
One day, while shopping at Brookshire Brother's Grocery Store (a small chain that focuses on small communities in Texas) I found the Hills Brothers mix as an emergency mocha fix. Sheri calls it “jonesing”.
I was hooked. I've found is that for the cost, the flavor, and the convenience, this powdered mix is the very hardest to beat. I give it the highest rating from RV52.com.
The final RV52.com Mocha Flavor Price Enjoyment Continuum Chart
One thing this chart should be clear upon. Things in the light blue are pretty good values. But no matter how you slice it, the powders will never get close to the real thing – brewed mochas.
As a parting note I've found that making hot water is a pain in the rear to do quickly. But I've found that if I use my iCoffee (my Keurig replacement) WITHOUT a k-cup will make coffee really, really fast.
Anyway, hope this helps you get some different ideas on how to make a great mocha without going broke or spending lots of time.
As a final note, here is the chart that shows, for me (there is personal taste and preference tied into this type of thing), the BEST values for time, effort & cost based on the situation.