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Free On The Road Coffee Hack

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Hack bad coffee with this simple trick.

Here’s one coffee hack that is both free and satisfying while traveling on the road. Plus, an instant coffee/cocoa review.


Most of us need coffee to remain mentally sharp with the reflexes of a gaming teenager while traveling on the road. Lumbering semis, distracted parents, deer, and the occasional road hazard are just a few of the potential calamities waiting to turn us into just another data point for highway safety statisticians.

However, it’s not always “the other guy” that is the biggest risk. Get some of that summer sun coming through the windshield and I turn into a lazy cat lulled by the warmth and the purr of the engine.

As such, I typically drink coffee the most while driving. But at $5 or more at cup with each slumbering stop, it can be expensive. And, believe it or not, there are some actual stretches of highway in the Midwest where there is not a single Starbucks in sight. It’s like stepping into a classic episode of The Twilight Zone.

Back in the day, the old man with his family would start each day’s summer travel trip armed with a pretty hefty thermos filled with Folgers. Today, I never see such a site. Rather, the closest thing to it is to see someone on the road tipping a large travel mug while behind the wheel. That’s me, when I glance into the review mirror.

In fact, my favorite travel mug is a freebie my spouse picked up for me at some convention that turned out to be one of best travel mugs I’ve ever owned because it is a combination of thermos and mug that can hold up to 1 and a half venti size coffees. I get hours of liquid warmth and wakefulness from it.

So how do I turn this into a free coffee hack? Through the continental breakfast of whatever hotel, motel, court, etc. that I spend the night at and depart the following morning.

Most of the time, overnight lodges serve coffee from large chrome dispensers with a Starbucks’ label on it. But I have my doubts. I know what Starbucks tastes like. Its flavor is burned into the retina of my stomach. My experience is there is none of that “famed Starbucks’ consistency” from one hotel to another. But I won’t belabor this observation.

Now I know what most will think about this option—coffee served at roadside lodges typically sucks. And it often becomes a matter of just how desperate you are in the morning on whether to pour a disposable cup of it or not. But there’s a simple hack to make it more palatable that does not involve alcohol: powdered cocoa.

I’m not sure what is the magic behind cocoa powder, but it does something special to make a lot of beverages and meals more palatable. If you’ve ever added beer and cocoa powder to questionable chili, you’ll know what I mean.

In the case of bad coffee and when I have no other recourse for my morning caffeine fix, I recommend adding half a pack of instant cocoa that is typically offered in a rack beside that canister’d morning of misgivings. Better yet, get into the habit of keeping a spare packet of your favorite cocoa powder in your car for just such coffees that will cross your path. You will be surprised how much bad taste cocoa powder can cover in a coffee.

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That said, as promised earlier, here is a review of an instant coffee/cocoa mix that initiated today’s article topic.

CoCoa Fanatics! Instant Coffee Review

Instant coffee/cocoa mix.

While shopping at a local International Market, I came across a colorful can in the coffee section that caught my eye and curiosity. Reading the label, it apparently is an instant coffee and cocoa powder mix with all of the ingredients typical in an instant coffee; with the exception that the added cocoa is Dutch-processed cocoa powder.

As it turns out, Dutch-process cocoa powder is made from cocoa beans that have been washed in an alkaline solution like potassium carbonate to neutralize the natural acidity (and therefore bitterness) that comes naturally from cocoa. The effect of this treatment is that the cocoa develops a more mellow and smooth flavor.
I bought a can out of curiosity, half-expecting it would be unremarkable in a taste test. I was wrong.

The directions call for two and a half tablespoons of the product mixed with 6-8 fluid ounces of hot—but not boiling—water. My first impression was that it had an overpowering chocolatey flavor that hid any hint of coffee and was waaaay too sweet. Cutting, the dose back to one-half proved to be much better. This time, I did not experience so much chocolate goodness and could actually detect some coffee in it. This one is a keeper and I would recommend using it to replace the typical instant cocoa mixes sold at local grocery stores. As an instant coffee, it’s not quite there; however, as a cocoa it’s a cut above the usual instant cocoa offerings. Using just 1 tablespoon of the mix cuts the calorie count down to 65 calories, and the caffeine content is low enough for children.

Hot vs Cold Taste Test

I also tried it in a hot versus cold taste test, but found that as a hot beverage it was significantly better. As a cold iced mocha drink, it lost a lot of its flavor.

Best served as a hot drink.

If you have a favorite coffee hack while traveling, share it with us in the comments section below.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between coffee and healthy living. For continual updates about the benefits of coffee on your health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Images courtesy of Pixabay and the writer