The descriptor “instant” combined with coffee conjures up images of homespun holiday mornings and hidden camera restaurants scenes – marketing trickery for a product so odious it’s best suited for soldiers in a war zone where its shelf life rivals those of their meal, ready to eat (MRE). It has a long history, invented separately by a Frenchman, a New Zealander, and a Japanese scientist in Chicago, all before the Wright brothers’ flight at Kittyhawk in 1903. That’s a history dating back nearly 140 years, and today it still accounts for nearly half of green coffee production. Finally, in the past decade or so, the quality risen enough for it to be a possible alternative to the coffee shop, in-room pod, or travel kit.
Instant coffee is generally formed by spray drying brewed coffee at high temperatures over 400 degrees to rapidly evaporate water and leave clumps of concentrated dried crystals. This can be applied to large batches, forming very small granules, and thus potentially well suited for large volume production. However, the high heat alters the chemical composition, impairing the flavor, rendering it undrinkable by those familiar with specialty coffee.
None of the instant coffees before the last decade were worth drinking as a replacement for a fresh brewed cup unless time was so short – as in the bus-is-coming-down-the-road short – that a swig, any swig, was better than nothing. Starbucks Via, launched just over a decade ago, was touted as nearly indistinguishable from its freshly brewed coffee (it was not, at least not to this writer). Starbucks, however, should receive some credit for its efforts, as Via’s success may have pioneered a concept that startups and specialty roasters are now bringing into the third wave.
However, the term “instant” should be expanded, thanks to companies like Steeped. Counter Culture’s pursuit of “simplicity, flexibility, and convenience” has guided their development of a single serving coffee in partnership with Steeped (see below for more coverage on both). Technically, it’s not instant coffee, as it requires steeping for 5 minutes. In reality, however, that net difference between traditional instant versus steeped coffee is a net two minutes, after the former cools down to drinking temperature for a few minutes. But it should taste better.
The search here, then, is for a tasty cup out of the home and coffee shop, where some combination of speed, portability, and convenience is maximized. This would be ideal for camping and overseas travel, where space, weight, and the availability of alternatives beg for a simple solution. Of course, two other equally important considerations must be factored – sustainability and cost. Perhaps the most promising development in this product category is that neither have to be compromised.
Below are six “instant” coffee products of note.
10-pack for $15 or $1.50 per cup
The Santa Cruz-based company launched through Kickstarter in 2017, purports that coffee making has become too complicated. Steeped offers five choices of their own specialty coffee blends, including a decaffeinated option, at varying roast levels, sourced, as of this publication, from Colombia and Ethiopia. These options are also available in starter kits or through a flexible subscription service, which can drop the price per cup as low as $1.00/cup. Steeped roasts and processes from Santa Cruz, using compostable and renewable materials for its products.
Single-Serve 5-pack for $9.99 (10-pack for $19.99) or $2 per cup
Counter Culture examined the instant coffee products over the last decade and chose a different route, partnering with the Steeped to produce a single serving, dehydrated satchel. As one of the most outwardly focused coffee companies concerned with sustainability, Counter Culture also considered this factor in their design. The tea-like pouches are 100% biodegradable, and the enclosing air tight sealed package is renewable and compostable. Three proprietary blends are available, including a decaffeinated option.
8-pack for $20 or $2.5 per cup
Focused purely on instant products, the aptly named Sudden was launched in 2015 in San Francisco by a barista competition and a former McKinsey management consultant. Sudden touts their sourcing, freeze-drying process, and emphasis on sustainability as differentiators. They use single origin specialty coffees roasted by a partner roaster, from a roster of over 25, including Intelligentsia. Ritual and Phil & Sebastian.
Sudden differs from almost all others. It packages instant coffee single servings into recyclable PLA plastic vials which provides a shelf life of 9 months. Sudden claims they have cut their water, plastic, and energy use by 80% over a two-year period. Perhaps these tubes will be replaced by their next innovation in packaging.
6-pack starts at $14 or $2.33 per cup. 48-pack starts at $1.75 per cup
This Lancaster, PA-based company specializes in instant coffee, offering at least 10 different sources, including decaffeinated, blends, and several selections from both Latin America and Africa. These sources rotate, and may even include samples from Cup of Excellence winners, the world’s preeminent annual awards for the best specialty coffees. Swift has, well, swiftly established itself as a leader in the industry segment, partnering with roughly 50 roasters from around the US, including Sightglass, Joe, and Verve. Their primary offering is a subscription service of 10, 20, or 30 cups per shipment.
5-pack starting at $16 or $3.20 per cup (less if by subscription)
Another instant coffee-focused company, Voila has been in business since just 2016. Started in Bend, Oregon, the company spent nearly two years developing its processing method. It’s a much smaller-scale operation than either Swift or Sudden, but also concentrates on the quality of its sourcing. The instructions are a bit unusual: they advocate pouring immediately drinkable 155 degree Fahrenheit water over the granules, which would make it theoretically the fastest available coffee of any type in the world. Packaging is mostly recyclable and compostable – boxes are 80% post-consumer waste recycled paper which are carbon neutral and the single packets are compostable.
8-pack for $19.99 or $2.50 a cup, subscription cost is less for $2.25 per cup
The instant coffee of First Ascent out of Crested Butte is well situated for the outdoor Colorado lifestyle. Indeed, the company has received the acclaim of several outdoor living publications. For its efforts in sustainability, First Ascent was recognized as one of 13 finalists, among more than 100 businesses, for Something Independents’ 2019 Wright award for the outdoors-focused businesses.
Developments in the instant coffee segment are welcome news for coffee drinkers. Producers in this niche are solving the challenge of delivering single serving drinks with minimal waste at a reasonable price. The goal is, ironically, not the best cup, but a good cup while accomplishing the paradoxical – putting the sustainability into convenience.