Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Product Review: Starbucks Via Ready Brew Decaf

Being both a traveler and a lover of coffee, I was intrigued by the marketing strategies employed by Starbucks to promote their latest product: Via Ready Brew Coffee. They claimed that the product was perfect for people on the go, picturing a traveler dragging a suitcase in one hand while displaying Via Ready Brew coffee in the other. At that point, I knew that this was a product that I was destined to review. One problem though: I had drastically cut back my caffeine intake a few months ago and Via didn't come in decaf...until now.

At this time, the only variety in decaf that is offered is a bold Italian roast. Since switching to decaf, I've generally found that I'm shying away from darker roasts, but I found this version pleasant and invigorating despite the lack of caffeine. I was presently surprised that I didn't find the same amount of burnt flavor that I normally associate when getting coffee at Starbucks.

The package claims to contain a combonation of instant and microground coffee. Each individual serving packet contains a fine powder, which is unlike the coarser grains of many traditional instant coffees. The fine powder allows Via to dissolve quickly in most liquids, even in cold liquids. This allows for the possibility of an impromptu iced coffee without needing to heat up water, mix the coffee and let it cool down.

While I did enjoy using this product at home, the logistics involved in brewing this coffee on the road are a little trickier. First of all, you need 8 ounces of water to mix with one packet of coffee so you'll need a way to measure 8 ounces of water. You could eyeball this, but I'm not inclined to eyeball anything when it comes to my coffee. Starbucks does sell a travel mug which has a line at the 8 ounce mark and holds 6 packs of Via, but it seems a little too gimmicky to be put to practical use.

I suppose it boils down to what you are looking for in your morning coffee. Since I have switched to decaf, my morning coffee is no longer about getting a quick caffeine fix to get me going in the morning. For me, coffee is about comfort, warmth and ritual. Let's take a look at what it would take for Via Ready Brew to fit my needs while traveling.

Once I have a way to measure the water (a measuring cup), I need a way to get the water suitably hot. Since I don't trust the hotel staff to clean and maintain the coffee pots that you find in hotel rooms, that would mean carrying around an immersion heater. This also requires the use of a mug that won't be melted by the heater so I'll need to carry around a ceramic mug as well.

In addition to this extra gear that I'll need to pack (measuring cup, coffee mug and an immersion heater), I'm used to drinking my coffee with cream. I could carry some small packs of ultra pasteurized half and half with me, but that seems like I'd be going a little too far.

For me, carrying these extra items with me is a bit further than I'm willing go for a good cup of coffee. In a real life travel situation I'd probably just try the Via with cold water and without cream. I'm not quite hard core enough about my coffee to make this sort of sacrifice in coffee drinking experience. If I really can't find a decent cup of coffee, I'll gladly do without before I use this product on the road.

Does Via Ready Brew produce a tasty cup of coffee under ideal conditions? Absolutely. It's just when conditions are less than ideal where this product fails to meet my needs.

Via Ready Brew certainly has home and office applications, and I can easily see people keeping a packet of decaf on hand for the odd guest who drinks it, but I can't visualize this as a travel staple.

The biggest problem with this product as a home product is the packaging. For $10.95, you get 12 eight ounce servings. This is a bit pricy compared to instant coffee that comes in bulk packaging. Not only does economy come into play when you change the packaging but you also reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste that is involved.

In conclusion, Via Ready Brew decaf is, at its core, a great product that misses the mark, at least for me, in usability.

Starbucks Ready Brew Decaf can be purchased at any Starbucks store for $2.95 for a 3 pack or $10.95 for a 12 pack ($1 more expensive than the regular Via).

Have you tried Via Ready Brew or Via Ready Brew decaf? Will you be using this product while traveling? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments selection below.

If you've enjoyed this post please consider subscribing to the RSS feed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

5 Tips for Holiday Travel

Once again, we are entering one of the busier times in the travel year. This is a time where business travelers are joined by throngs of families trying to make it to their holiday celebrations. In order to help things move a little more smoothly this year, I've put together a few of my favorite holiday travel tips.

1.Pack a good attitude
More than anything, the right attitude can keep travel from being an unnecessarily frustrating experience. Holiday travel is a lot like rush hour in a big city; everyone is trying to get to the same place at the same time. This causes traffic jams and delays, and we should all expect this by now.

Holiday travel is the same; there will be delays. There may be delays of several hours, but the airlines will do the best they can to get you to your destination. Delays will either be caused by weather or mechanical reasons.

If your delay is weather related, you'll have plenty of company to share in your misery. Make a new friend and share travel horror stories if you have one. You'll feel better for it, I promise.

If your delay is mechanical, then know that someone is doing their job and thinks that your safety is at risk. It's better to be cautious than sorry.

Whatever you do, please don't yell at the airline employees, it won't help and it won't win you any friends on the other side of the counter.

2. Don't wrap your gifts
When it comes time to inspect your checked and carry-on baggage, the TSA may need to unwrap any wrapped gifts you may have with you. Save yourself some frustration by wrapping them when you arrive at your destination. I've found that gift bags are a great alternative to wrapping paper.

An even better alternative is to use reusable grocery bags as gift bags, this way the wrapping is actually useful after the gift has been unwrapped. Some reusable bags are actually quite nice handsome, so keep an eye out for bags that might work.

3. Let online shopping simplify your packing
If you are going to order gifts online, you may be able to save yourself some trouble by having your gifts sent directly to your destination. You'll need an accomplice to intercept and store packages, but you won't have to worry about the items breaking due to rough airline handling.

As an added bonus, you'll likely need to check fewer bags when you travel which is nice considering all of the baggage fees that are all too common now.

4. Don't forget the ice
TSA has recently changed their rules about bringing ice and other frozen items through security. If the item is solid at the time that you take it through security, it counts as a solid even if it can later melt into liquid form.

This may not sound like a big change, but it is. Foods that require refrigeration can now be packed in your carry-on. Want to bring a special cheese or pastry item to Thanksgiving? No problem. I like to fill a freezer bag with water and freeze it, this goes into the bottom of a soft sided ice chest.

This also opens up the possibility of bringing home a frozen container of your aunts famous chicken soup without risking putting it in your checked luggage. Details of this change can be found on the TSA blog.

If your ice chest fits in a larger carry-on, you'll want to take it out for the security screening as TSA doesn't like bags within bags.

5. Review the TSA guidelines
If you only travel once or twice a year then reviewing the TSA guidelines before you travel is time well spent. There's nothing worse than realizing that what you thought was a benign item turns out to be on the TSA's forbidden items list. Head over to the TSA Traveler's Website for all of the latest information.

That's it for my holiday travel tips. Plan for a busy travel season and take things as they come. Just remember that panicking and yelling at people won't help you and you'll be fine. If you have any holiday travel tips that you'd like to share, please share them in the comments section below.

Update 11/21/2009: The TSA blog just published an article about tips for holiday travelers that you may find informative. Head over to the TSA blog for details.

If you've enjoyed this post please consider subscribing to the RSS feed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Factory Tours: An Educational Way to Kill Time

Photograph by Nicole Holt

Since I don't have much choice in the places to which I travel for work, I've decided to make the most of it and I try to enjoy places as they come and see what each new destination has to offer as I encounter it.

I try to keep an open mind in how I fill my free time while traveling. While it is true that I end up wandering around a lot, I have quite a few options: I could go to a museum, visit a coffee shop or, if I'm lucky, go on a factory tour.

For some reason, I really like to find out how things are made, and factory tours are a great way to indulge that desire. It is true that some factory tours are overproduced and a little too "Disney", but for the most part, I've found factory tours very rewarding. I'd like to share with you three of my favorite factory tours that I've been on so far.

1. Theo Chocolate
Location: 3400 Phinney Ave N, Seattle, WA,
Cost: $12
An organic, free trade chocolate company, Theo is located in the Fremont area of Seattle, just a short walk from the Fremont Troll. The Tour starts with an informative lecture which describes where chocolate comes from and how it's harvested. With the groundwork established, you get to go into the factory. Nothing was active on the weekend tour, but the duties of the machines and steel tanks were all explained satisfactorily.

Samples were available both on the tour and immediately after. You can try any of the chocolate bars that they have on hand so that you can make an educated choice in deciding what to take home with you. They also have a variety of non-bar confections as well, I'd recommend the salted caramel.

2. Harpoon Brewery
Location:306 Northern Avenue Boston, MA
Cost: $5 and you get a sample glass to take home.
Who wouldn't want to go on a tour of a beer factory? This tour was just plain cool and parts of it made me feel like I was in the movie Strange Brew. While the initial description of how beer is made was educational to those that don't know how beer is made, the tour really starts to shine once you are walking through the factory.

Being amongst the massive mixers, storage tanks and pipes is quite an experience. You get to walk right where the workers walk and you can almost feel that beer is made here. You can't go everywhere on this tour, but I felt that I wasn't being coddled at all as the tour had a very relaxed feel about it.

After the tour, which lasts 30 minutes, there is a 30 minute beer tasting back in the tasting room/gift shop where you can sample any of the beer that they have on tap. The sample glasses had a line at the 2 ounce mark, but I didn't see any samples poured that were less than 4 ounces. Everyone really enjoyed this tour.

3. Hammond's Candies
Location: 5735 N. Washington Street, Denver, CO
Cost: Free

I visited Hammond's several years ago at their old location, but they still run regular tours. I remember being the only non-parent, non-child on the tour, but I enjoyed it immensely. Unlike the other two tours mentioned in this article, the Hammond's tour was conducted while candy was actually being produced.

Since candy making is a hobby of mine, I appreciated seeing candy being made with old equipment, just like it has been made for years. Of course, there were samples at the end of the tour and an opportunity to buy more candy in the gift shop.

I will admit that there is one factory that I missed out on visiting while traveling which I do regret. I was in Switzerland and did not visit the Victorinox factory, which produces the beloved Swiss Army Knife.

I looked into it and I just wasn't in the right part of the country to be able to make the trip. I try not to have travel regrets, but that one gets me when I think about it.

Do you make a habit of going on factory tours while traveling? What's the best factory tour you've been on?

If you've enjoyed this post please consider subscribing to the RSS feed.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Wonder of the Norwegian Club Sandwich

Photographs by Nicole Holt

The origin of Norwegian cuisine was once described to me as being designed around making the cheapest foods available last through a harsh winter. How else could one explain a countries food that includes Lutefisk? This special dish is salted white fish that has been preserved with lye. Lye is a highly caustic chemical which, amongst other things, is used in soap making. I'm convinced that Lutefisk was invented through a housewife's failed attempt at murder.

Given that many of the dishes in Norway were unfamiliar to me, you can understand my surprise and relief when I went into a cafe and saw a club sandwich on the menu. After a long and tiring flight, seeing that simple sandwich on a menu in a new country was like randomly meeting an old friend in a strange town.

For the uninitiated, the club sandwich is a constructed with 3 slices of bread where the middle slice of bread separates two distinct layers of hearty filling. Usually the bottom layer is thinly sliced turkey, while the top layer is bacon, lettuce and tomato. This club sandwich is usually cut into quarters and held in place with toothpicks.

I've been eating club sandwiches for many years so I didn't hesitate in ordering one in order to see how the people of Norway had made this sandwich their own.

When my sandwich arrived, I was surprised to find that, while there were three slices of bread, the bottom layer was not turkey, but rather a beautifully grilled chicken breast. My "Norwegian Club" was delicious and I decided that I should further explore the local influences on this sandwich.

All in all, I ate three club sandwiches in Norway which ranged in both the number of bread slices and overall quality. My favorite was eaten in a cafe attached to a small art gallery which was located just a short walk from my hotel. While this particular sandwich only had two slices of bread, the bread was thick and had been brushed with butter and grilled before being formed into a sandwich. The chicken breast was perfectly cooked and the bacon was a site to behold on it's own. Thick cut bacon cut in one inch pieces was piled impossibly high with another slice of golden toast perched upon it.

The sandwich was surely a sight, and I regret not having my camera with my to take a picture of it. Picking up this sandwich was impossible, so I resorted to a knife and fork. Washed down with 7-up in a glass bottle, this was by far the best club sandwich that I have ever had.

It's funny how often I think about that sandwich, all others which include bacon are instantly compared to that Norwegian marvel and they invariably fall short. If you ever find yourself scratching your head in a cafe in Norway, do yourself a favor and try the club, you're not likely to be disappointed.
If you've enjoyed this post please consider subscribing to the RSS feed.