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Instant coffee has always had a bit of a reputation issue — that it’s weak, that it tastes bad (translation: like an ashtray), et cetera. But today, both legacy and newer coffee brands are trying to right that ship with the help of things like updated technologies and higher-quality beans.
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Accordingly, as the bar for quality has gone up, so too have prices. And particularly among the crop of newer, smaller brands, there are those that are worth the extra money and those that are not. But no matter if the goal is a backup plan for being out of locally-roasted Arabica or just an everyday way to brew a quick cup of Joe, there’s an instant coffee on this list for that.
What the Experts Say
Speaking to people who know coffee and aren’t snobby about instant, a consensus emerges as to what you should look for when shopping. Marko Lazarevic, owner of Craft Coffee Spot, says it’s best to start with the beans, which will be either Arabica or Robusta, the two broad genetic strains of coffee.
“Arabica is used for almost all coffee shops and whole-bean sales, but Robusta is far more popular for instant coffee,” he says. (Robusta is lower-quality and cheaper, with a higher caffeine content and a tendency to taste rubbery.) Wynand Barnard of Total Coffee Base agrees, adding that “Arabica beans are known for their superior taste, with a smoother, sweeter, and less bitter flavor profile than Robusta beans.” Don’t settle for Robusta, in other words.
Both experts also recommend searching for the same bonafides in instant coffee as one would in regular coffee, like sustainable and organic certifications. Lazarevic adds that a good rule of thumb is to go with brands that offer more information on their packaging. If the brand is transparent about where its coffee was grown, when it was roasted, or what it might taste like, it’s a sign that it may be a higher-quality product.
Lauren Winder Hoar, veteran barista and editor-in-chief of CoffeeHex, adds that she looks at the drying process, as this is what transforms regular coffee into instant coffee. “Cheap instant coffee is made by spray-drying, but in my opinion, freeze-dried tastes better for roughly the same price,” she says. And if you have some money to spare, she recommends artisan-made instant coffee: “It’s usually made by combining more expensive drying methods, like agglomeration and vacuum sealing,” she says.
Partners is a Brooklyn-based roaster and operator of five cafes in the five boroughs. Its take on instant coffee comes in six-pack pouches, each of which contains five grams of medium-roast coffee. Partners says that its unspecified dehydration process preserves the tastes of Jordan almonds, poached pear, and caramel (in its Jumpstart variety).
Simply combine the contents of one pouch with 8 ounces of hot or cold water and the brewing process is done. Partners says that its instant coffee has a two-year shelf life (and you probably shouldn’t consume coffee much older than that, anyway). If Jumpstart isn’t your thing, you can try the brand’s flagship Brooklyn coffee, another medium roast, as well as its El Ramo light roast coffee, in instant varieties.
BEST INSTANT ESPRESSO
Blue Bottle Craft Instant Espresso and Cupping Spoon Set
This kit from coffee giant Blue Bottle comes with a 48-gram jar of the brand’s instant espresso, a cupping spoon (which doubles as an easy way to measure out the correct amount of powder), and a pouch that holds them both for easy traveling. Whether you’re looking for a simple shot of espresso or something like an iced latte, this versatile powder is a great way to make your espresso drink quickly and without a massive machine.
BEST LIQUID INSTANT COFFEE
Jot Original Organic Coffee Concentrate
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Instead of drying out instant coffee, Jot brews a concentrate that the brand claims is 20 times stronger than typical coffee. You can combine a tablespoon of it with hot or cold water or milk, a method that’s easier than working with powdered instant coffee. It is worth noting that its shelf life, 90 days from the day it was brewed, is a bit shorter than powdered instant coffee, so it’s best purchased with a plan to drink it fairly soon.
BEST ITALIAN INSTANT COFFEE
illy Instant Coffee
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If you’re partial to Italian coffee, this instant coffee from the Italian mainstay is well worth keeping on-hand. It’s available at three different intensities (Classico, Intenso, and Forte) to match anyone’s personal taste, though even the least intense (Classico) has a certain richness and depth of flavor that’s a hallmark of Italian coffee (and is impressive to capture in an instant version).
BEST BAGGED INSTANT COFFEE
Steeped Coffee Single-Serve Packs
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If you can brew a cup of tea, you can brew a cup of coffee with these single-serve packs. Slowly pour 8 ounces of hot water over it, wait for a crema to form, and then steep for five minutes (or more for a stronger brew). The brewing method is at once novel and familiar, and the coffee itself is direct-trade and organic. Steeped even tells you the elevation at which each of its varieties is grown — the kind of coffee nerd knowledge that Lazarevic says is a sign of quality you can spot before buying.
BEST MUSHROOM INSTANT COFFEE
Four Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee Mix
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Mushroom coffee aficionados, rejoice! This product combines four organic ingredients — one coffee bean and three kinds of mushrooms — into one convenient package. Beyond the potential health benefits, the best part about this blend is that it still tastes like a (pretty good) standard cup of coffee.
Cafe Altura Freeze-Dried Instant Organic Coffee
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Hoar swears by this coffee, saying it’s easy to mistake for a normal cup of drip. It’s a blend of organic and fair-trade coffees from around the world that’s then freeze-dried and sold in a glass jar — something that makes it feel more like the instant coffees of old, but with better taste and quality. It’s also relatively inexpensive compared to the more artisanal options on this list. Overall, it’s a fine product to keep in your pantry for when you run out of fresh beans.
Frequently Asked Questions About Instant Coffee
What’s the difference between instant coffee and regular coffee?
A standard bag of beans is roasted and sometimes ground. Instant coffee, in its classic powdered form, is also dried out, typically via freeze-drying (a heat-free process involving lowering temperature and removing ice by sublimation) or spray-drying (rapidly drying a slurry with a hot gas). Removing the moisture makes the coffee last longer and allows one to “brew” it by adding hot water.
What’s the purpose of instant coffee?
Instant coffee is great as a backup for when you run out of beans or have a malfunctioning coffee maker. It’s also excellent for emergencies because all it requires is hot water. And let’s be honest: if your coffee temperament is the opposite of measuring grinds to the tenth of a gram and spending 15 minutes on a specific pour over method, instant coffee does the trick in that it’s just easier.
Is all instant coffee bad?
Nope! A lot of it is — particularly the big, legacy brands that date back to when all coffee was pretty bad. But there are tons of companies putting a lot of care and attention into sourcing, grinding, drying, and distributing coffee beans as instant coffee. If you think everything is Sanka, you’re missing out on a lot of good stuff.
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