The bright side to chilly, miserable weather is that it's a good excuse to perk up with a coffee. And not just any coffee. It's been a rough winter, so treat yourself to a fancy schmancy espresso-based cup -- though without an extravagant price.
That's what Compare and Contrast did for four blissful days in a row, getting coffee in our favorite flavor, mocha, at four national chains (Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, Panera and McDonald's) to find the best brew for the price. All products were purchased in Chicago during the week of Feb. 21. Prices are subject to change based on date and location of purchase.Chain: Caribou Coffee
Nutritional facts: 410 calories and 27 grams of fat for 12 fluid ounces. Calculate nutritional facts for medium and large mochas here.
Taste: This is one fat coffee, and the cup we ordered was way too hot for far too long. But after our burned tongue healed, we drank this mocha extra fast. An absolutely delicious, ultra-rich, mighty sweet treat. It's truly one of the best mochas we've ever had (but it may be a bit too sweet for coffee purists).
Price: $3.69 for 12 fluid ounces, $4.19 for 16 fluid ounces and $4.59 for 20 fluid ounces.
Nutritional facts: 280 calories and 11 grams of fat for 12 fluid ounces. Find nutritional facts for medium and large mochas here.
Taste: It took longer to get our mocha here than at other chains (we thought this was supposed to be fast food), but the coffee did not disappoint. Served hot but not too hot, McDonald's (excuse me, McCafe's) brew strikes a good balance between the sweetness of the chocolate and the slight bitterness of the coffee. As a result, it could be the most crowd-pleasing mocha.
Price: $2.49 for 12 fluid ounces, $2.99 for 16 fluid ounces and $3.39 for 20 fluid ounces.
Chain: Panera Bread
Nutritional facts: 380 calories and 16 grams of fat for 11.5 fluid ounces. More nutritional information here.
Taste: We love Panera's soups, salads, breads and pastries, but this mocha was disappointing. Despite the whipped cream, there wasn't much sweetness in the cup. In fact, the drink was pretty flavorless, particularly when compared to its competition.
Price: $3.59 for 11.5 fluid ounces. Panera doesn't list other coffee sizes on its menu.
Nutritional facts: 270 calories and 12 total grams of fat for 12 fluid ounces. More nutritional information here.
Taste: Based on revenue and number of locations, Starbucks is the undisputed coffee chain champion, and a major reason for that is its quality java. The mocha, unsurprisingly, was solid, a tinge sweeter than McDonald's (and a lot more flavorful than Panera's), but not as sweet as Caribou's which, for people who like their coffee to taste like coffee, is a good thing.
Price: $3.25 for 12 fluid ounces, $4.05 for 16 fluid ounces and $4.40 for 20 fluid ounces.
What we think: Well one thing's for sure: Don't waste your money on Panera's overpriced, underwhelming mocha. Starbucks was our second favorite coffee, slightly better than McDonald's, but the small is 75 cents more.
Caribou's mocha was by far the most expensive (the small is $1.20 more than McDonald's), but it was our hands-down favorite, maybe ever. In the end, we'd recommend Caribou for the rare splurge (besides being expensive, it's also very fattening), but the much cheaper, much healthier McDonald's brew is our pick for the best mocha for your money. Paying $2.49 for a small is ridiculously cheap, and at that price, an already tasty mocha just tastes all the better.
Piet Levy's Compare and Contrast breaks down the prices and perks for products and services that college kids want, and posts them weekly on WalletPop's Money College page. Send suggestions, including items or services that you want written about, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Compare and Contrast: Best Mocha for the Money