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Growing up, instant coffee was a vile thing that no one in their right mind would drink. Even the best instant coffee was still nasty. So, you can imagine how surprised I was when specialty coffee brands started offering their own instant coffee. I was even more surprised when people I knew were actually drinking the stuff.
I understand why people might resort to drinking instant coffee. It’s great when you’re in a hurry. You can take it anywhere. You don’t need any expensive equipment. But being easy doesn’t mean it’s good.
For instance, I always drag a French press coffee maker when I go camping. Yes, it’s more things to carry. But waking up on a cold morning and drinking a delicious steaming cuppa… not much beats that.
But, with more renovations in the instant coffee industry, I may rethink this. Some instant coffees actually taste as good as ‘the real thing.’ It might be time to make things a little easier.
In this article, we’ll look at how the technology of instant coffee has changed over the years. Then we’ll review 10 different instant coffees you might want to try. Who knows? One of these might just become your new favorite.
Why does instant coffee have such a bad rap?
Turns out, early instant coffee products were mainly made from robusta beans or low quality arabica. As you may know, robusta beans have more caffeine. Unfortunately, they do not taste very good.
Instant coffee has been around since the mid-1800s. But it wasn’t until 1910 when a commercially viable instant coffee product was created.
During World War I, the U.S. military bought up all the instant coffee it could find to send to the troops. Soldiers sent letters home praising the miraculous instant coffee. It brought the comfort of home, at least for a little while, in a steaming cup of Joe.
During this time, the method for dehydrating coffee was the spray method. It exposed the coffee to extremely high temperatures. High temperatures destroy the taste of coffee. So, it’s another reason why instant coffee was not tasty.
In the mid-1960s, innovators developed the freeze-drying method of making instant coffee. The process was more complex and expensive. Most instant coffee brands stuck with the spray drying. Even into the mid-1980s, the majority of instant coffee producers were still using the spray drying method.
Specialty instant coffee is a product of the 21st century. You can trace it back to 2009 when Starbucks introduced its instant coffee powder Via. That triggered a new wave of interest in refining the process of instant coffee.
Today’s specialty instant coffee brands focus on taste. They start with the best tasting beans possible. They don’t cut costs with inferior methods. This ends with a drink that even the snobbiest coffee connoisseur can enjoy.
Instant coffee is a powder or crystal that dissolves instantly in water.
While methods have changed over the last 150 years, the basic principle is the same. The manufacturer takes concentrated brewed coffee and removes the water.
The taste of the instant coffee depends on two things. The first is the quality and origin of the original brewed beverage used to make the instant coffee. The second is the method used to remove the water.
You can find super-fast, single-serve options besides instant coffee powder or crystals. For this article, we’re only talking the coffee that instantly dissolves in water. We did not include sachets or the fold-out pour over versions.
Single-serve coffee sachets work like tea bags. The sachet holds ground coffee beans. You steep the sachet in hot water then remove it. This produces a drink that compares to a French press coffee maker. But, it takes several minutes to brew, and the beauty of instant is that it is… well… instant.
The other portable coffee option is disposable pour-over packets. These packets come filled with ground coffee beans. You unfold the filter and place it over the cup. Then you pour in hot water. The filter hangs over the cup like your traditional pour-over maker. Again, this process takes time, about 10 minutes to get the best flavor.
The earliest form of instant coffee in the U.S. dates back to the Civil War. The military issues instant coffee in cake form. It was probably made in part by boiling down coffee.
It would not have tasted great, but it provided the needed caffeine boost. With enough sugar, it was palatable. It served its purpose, but was not commercially viable and did not have a long shelf-life.
Shelf-stable instant coffee came along in 1901. George Constant Louis Washington refined and commercialized the technique in 1910. This is the coffee that went to the soldiers in WWI.
Today, instant coffee is made by one of two methods. Spray drying is fast, taking only between 5 and 30 seconds to dehydrate. This is the cheapest method. It also produces a less than desirable cup of coffee.
As mentioned earlier, freeze-drying evolved in the 1960s. This method went a long way toward producing an enjoyable cup of instant coffee. This video shows the method that mass-market brands use to freeze dry their instant coffee.
One hallmark of specialty instant coffee is that it will never be spray dried. There are a few exceptions, but this is the general rule.
That’s not to say that all freeze dried coffee will taste great. The biggest difference between regular and specialty instant coffee is the quality of the beans. You must have a great-tasting brew before drying to get a good tasting instant coffee.
By definition, specialty coffee has exacting standards from the field all the way to the cup. Growers, buyers, and roasters must all deliver quality products.
For a long time, instant coffee was merely a cheap and easy way to transport and consume coffee. In some things, you get what you pay for. The innovators of specialty coffee put taste as a priority, regardless of the cost.
As a general rule, specialty coffees will start with 100% arabica beans. But not all arabica beans are created equal. Lower grades of coffee allow a certain number of defects. This negatively impacts the taste.
With specialty instant coffees, you’ll get the A-list of coffee beans. You’ll even find single origin coffee and other niche products. So, to find the best tasting instant coffee, look at the source of the beans.
As you venture into the world of specialty instant coffee, you may wonder where to start. What brands are actually worth the price tag? Here is our review of 10 different instant coffees to help you decide.
Waka Coffee was founded in 2018. From the start, its sole aim was to bring great tasting instant coffee to market. The use 100% arabica beans and freeze-dry the coffee.
As a company, they are committed to helping create a healthier environment. The coffee comes in a recyclable box. Beyond that, they donate 4% of their profits to projects helping bring clean water to communities around the globe.
This coffee is single-origin from India. The light roast allows the original flavor of the coffee bean to shine through. Flavor notes include chocolate and hazelnut. It has a low acidity and a dry finish. You can get this in single-serve instant coffee packets. You can also find it in a resealable bag that contains about 80 servings.
Joe Coffee is a specialty roaster that’s been around since 2008. They’re knows for small-batch roasted coffee. Now their line-up includes freeze dried instant coffee. This coffee is Rainforest Alliance Certified.
They use the Swift Cup proprietary process. They start by carefully brewing the coffee into a concentrate. Then it is dried slowly to preserved the flavor and aroma. It is one of the most expensive offerings on our list.
Their daily blend offers a well-balanced cup with a subtle sweetness. The beans come from South and Central America. It includes the Caturra, Colombia, Catuaí, and Red Catuaí varietals. You may detect notes of milk chocolate and caramel. It definitely has a strong, slightly bitter taste that takes milk and sugar well.
The Death Wish brand began in 2012 in Saratoga Springs, NY. As the name implies, Death Wish Coffee is touted as the world’s strongest coffee. Soon, they reached a whole new level.
They had the idea of sending their super-charged beverage into space. So, they developed their instant coffee to meet the same standards of their regular coffees. On June 29, 2018, they sent their freeze-dried coffee to the International Space Station. Now, they’re the galaxy’s strongest coffee.
Each instant coffee stick makes a cup with 300mg of caffeine. That’s twice what most coffee offers. The boost comes from using robusta beans as well as arabica.
The dark roast also beings all the coffee flavor and full body you crave. What’s more, they prepare the coffee in a way that has about half the acidity. And, they are a company you can feel good about buying from. This instant coffee is Fair Trade and USDA Organic Certified.
Canyon Coffee started in 2018. Their focus in on sourcing beans that are grown with sustainable and eco-friendly practices. While the company mainly sells whole bean coffees, they offer a few different instant varieties.
The beans for this coffee are grown near the Celinga Village in Ethiopia. This instant coffee produces a balanced cup with chocolate and cherry flavor notes. Like Joe Coffee, Canyon coffee is one of the more expensive options.
Many say that Starbucks’ instant coffee taste just like the coffee in the stores. What sets the apart from other instant coffees is that they include actual coffee beans that are microground along with the instant coffee crystals. While this may give a slightly grainy texture with some residue, it also helps impart the freshly brewed flavor.
The Pike Place Roast has been a staple at Starbucks since 1971. It gives a balanced cup with notes of cocoa and toasted nuts.
As mentioned before, Waka Coffee is a company with a conscience. As with all their coffee, this option is 100% single-source arabica beans. They use the freeze-drying method.
The coffee beans used for this product were grown at high altitudes in Colombia. The medium roast gives a medium body with hints of citrus. Flavor notes include dark chocolate, brown sugar, and toasted nuts. You can get single-serve packets or a resealable bag of about 80 servings.
This instant coffee is unusual in many respects. First, it’s one of the few specialty instant coffees that spray dries their coffee. Price-wise, it’s on the lower end of the scale for specialty instant coffee.
Another unusual aspect is the additive: mushrooms. The company touts the health benefits of these mushrooms. Taster’s say that it truly tastes like coffee and not mushrooms. This dark roast has a full, earthy flavor.
On the plus side, they use 100% arabica coffee beans. They are also a company with a conscience as they offer organic and Fair Trade products.
With only half the caffeine of regular coffee, you might be surprised that this coffee claims to boost creative focus. The mind-boosting power comes from the powdered Lion’s Mane and Chaga mushrooms. It also has organic rhodiola root to fight stress and prevent jitters.
This coffee may not be for everyone. But, if you’re adventurous and believe in the health benefits of mushrooms, it’s definitely worth a try.
Just like the other Starbucks VIA on this list, this item uses 100% arabica beans. The packet includes both freeze dried instant coffee and microground coffee beans. You might notice a slight grittiness, but the microground beans help this instant tastes more like fresh brewed.
Their decaf Italian is a dark roast with enticing aroma and a smooth body. It also has sweet notes like caramelized sugar. If you’re a fan of Starbucks coffee and don’t want the caffeine, this would be an excellent choice for you.
Mount Hagen, a German coffee company, was a pioneer in ethically sourced coffee. Way back in 1986, they initiated biodynamic farming on coffee plantations. As an environmentally-conscious company, they are organic and Fairtrade certified as well as Kosher. They are also one of the most affordable specialty instant coffees on the market.
They were also an early convert to producing specialty instant coffee. In fact, they were the first certified organic instant coffee. By 2016, they already had had a reputation for superior instant coffee. They consistently get high marks in instant coffee taste tests.
This instant coffee uses 100% arabica beans. It’s single-sourced from Papua New Guinea. The flavor is velvety and mild. It is a medium roast without any bitterness. You can find Mount Hagen in individual packets or in an economical glass jar.
You can’t have a list of instant coffees without at least mentioning Nescafe instant coffee. They hold about 70% of sales of instant coffee.
They’ve been making this beverage since 1938! They were a major supplier of instant coffee to the military during World War II. They began offering freeze dried instant coffee in the late 1950s.
Taster’s Choice House Blend is a mild roast that offers a smooth and well-balanced taste. You can find it in the traditional jar or now in individual packets. They have expanded their original Taster’s Choice line. Now Nescafe instant coffee includes varieties such as Colombian, French Roast, and flavored. They also offer a powdered espresso.
While most coffee connoisseurs won’t drink this on a daily basis, it is a cheap alternative for emergencies. It’s also a great option when you want to add coffee flavor to baked items, blended drinks, or in cooking.
If you love brewed coffee, you’ll find many reasons to love specialty instant coffee. Sure, you might lose a little bit of the depth of flavor and aroma. But with the convenience of instant, it may be worth it.
If you live in a small space or have a small kitchen, instant coffee may be for you. Most coffee machines take up a significant amount of counter space. With instant coffee, you need zero special equipment.
It’s also great for travelers. Whether you’re in a hotel or backpacking through the wilderness, you want to minimize your equipment. With instant, you can easily bring your own to the hotel instead of drinking whatever they leave in the room. When camping or backpacking, having tasty coffee that you just have to add to a water bottle can be a life saver.
It’s convenient for anyone on the go. You might not have time in the morning to brew a fresh pot. You don’t want to break your budget on $5+ coffees every day. The coffee at work sucks. With specialty instant coffee packets, all you need is access to water.
Also, instant coffee is great for cooking, baking, and making whipped drinks. It already has the flavor concentrated, so you won’t dilute whatever it is you’re making.
Finally, here’s one more great thing about instant coffee. You can control how strong your coffee will be. Personally, there’s nothing worse that a weak pot of coffee. If it’s too weak, there is nothing you can do to make it stronger. With instant, you decide exactly how much or little coffee powder or granules you will add.
When looking for the best tasting instant coffee, there are some things to look for. Dehydration method and source and quality of the beans is another. As we’ve discussed before, the best instant coffees use the freeze-drying method.
The other major consideration is the quality of the coffee beans. In general, look for 100% arabica beans. The dehydrating process starts with making a strong brew. If the quality of the beans used for the original brew are not up to par, then the rehydrated drink will not taste good.
You might also look for products made with coffee grown at elevation or shade grown. These methods tend to produce a better tasting beverage. A number of the brands on this list use single origin beans, so you know exactly what you’re getting.
Brewed coffee is associated with a number of health benefits. These include a lower risk of diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. It might also protect the liver and increase longevity.
All these benefits are mainly due to antioxidants in coffee. Coffee is the highest source of antioxidants in the modern diet. But does instant carry the same benefits?
The answer appears to be yes! In fact, instant coffee may even be higher in antioxidants than regular brewed coffee.
As you can see, instant coffee has come a long way in the last decade or two. Once snubbed by coffee enthusiasts, now even top specialty coffee brands are getting in on the action.
So, what should you try first? We believe that Waka Coffee Quality Instant Coffee is the best instant coffee to try. This brand offers a good balance between taste and cost. Waka Coffee only makes instant coffee, so we expect them to get it right!
They start with the highest quality arabica beans. Not only do they select the beans for flavor, but also for the sustainable practices used in growing the coffee. Using the freeze-drying method, they preserve as much as the flavor and aroma of the original brew as possible.
We hope this guide has been helpful. May you always have a satisfying cuppa wherever you go.