Sooner or later, a modern marriage of the current artisan and coffee crazes was inevitable. Still, when that box of Jiva coffee cubes landed on our desk, we found the idea of 'artisan' instant coffee highly entertaining (it was a long day). And, to be fair, our Folgers times have changed. Starbucks introduced its line of instant coffee packets a few years ago, and refill pods for the (almost instant) espresso machines long been popular in Europe now line Smart & Final shelves.
With Jiva, the beans are fair trade Colombian Arabica, the sugar is not just any sugar, but panela (raw, unrefined cane sugar). The two are pressed together into a compact rectangle; each looks like a tiny relative of Mexican chocolate with its flecks of caramel-colored sugar amidst the dark coffee. As these are instant tablets, they're individually wrapped so you can pop one in your pocket for those unexpected caffeine-free moments: A spur of the moment camping trip, the untimely visit to a friend's mountainside retreat when everyone is on a juice cleanse, that sailing trip around the world, or at least to Catalina Island, that you've always wanted to take. So, how do they taste?
First, how those panela-sweetened cubes got into our cup. Owners Natalia Rodriguez & Allen Gomberg developed the idea after Rodriguez returned from a trip to visit family in Colombia. While there, she tasted the local instant coffee cubes sweetened with panela. The sugar, she recalls on the company website, lent a richer flavor to the coffee.
Back home, Rodriguez and Gomberg began tinkering around with the ratio of coffee to sugar, scouring for Fair Trade suppliers and, as so many small businesses seem to do these days, launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund their efforts. Current flavors include the regular coffee, which we tasted, and a mocha version (a non-sweetened coffee is in the works, according to their spokesperson).
Though the box instructs one cube per 8 ounces of hot water, we needed two for enough coffee flavor. The first sips had a noticeable richness that many instant coffees lack. The beans are good quality, yes, but we're betting more on that almost molasses-like flavor of panela. Its caramelized side would also come in handy when baking coffee-infused desserts (pop a few cubes in your backpack for an instant chocolate pudding upgrade).
The downside with two cubes: the coffee was noticeably sweet, not cloying or off-putting, as we're talking caramel here, but sweeter than we tend to drink our coffee. Especially after those first few sips. Then again, we almost never put sugar in our coffee. And if we're sailing around the world -- or just trying to get through a really long day at the office -- we probably could use an extra shot of panela. Of anything.
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