You would be forgiven for thinking that the age of instant coffee is over. In an era of coffee pod machines, coffee bags, coffee subscription services and single origin micro-lots…surely the days of instant are numbered.
Well guess what? Global sales of instant coffee are increasing by around 10% a year, led largely by a growth in consumption in China and Russia. But is there any decent instant coffee out there? And are there any benefits to drinking instant coffee? We thought we would delve into the fascinating world of instant coffee. If you are a major freshly ground coffee snob – look away now!
Where did instant coffee come from and how is it made?
Instant coffee’s story begins in the Europe of the 1770s, around 200 years after coffee drinking began on the continent. One of the first commercially available brands was Camp coffee – first produced in Glasgow, Scotland. This was (and still is) a liquid coffee essence made from water, sugar, coffee, and chicory. Similar instant coffees crossed the pond to the US during the Civil War when they were drunk by soldiers in the field.
The USA saw the first coffee powders hit the market in the early 1900s.
Since then, producers have been refining their methods for making instant coffee and there are broadly speaking three ways of making the stuff.
- Distilling coffee down into a liquid coffee essence
- Spraying freshly brewed coffee onto hot surfaces to create a fine, soluble powder
- Freeze drying coffee
What are the benefits of instant coffee?
Instant coffee obviously offers a high convenience factor. It remains the quickest and easiest way of making a steaming cup of joe and if you are looking for something that is warm, wet, and aromatic – instant is the easiest way to get your fix.
Instant coffee still boasts the same health benefits as coffee. Coffee is the largest source of antioxidants in the modern diet and due to the way instant coffee is processed, it is thought to contain more antioxidants than its fresh counterpart.
Instant also contains less caffeine per cup than fresh, which could be a benefit to anyone who is sensitive to caffeine or looking to have a cuppa in the late afternoon. This varies, but instant contains around 30-90mg while fresh comes in at around 70-140mg.
Instant coffee is also more versatile than coffee in a broader culinary setting. For example, it can be used to make marinades, salad dressings, added to chilli or Bolognese for added depth as well as being a great start for coffee ice creams, cakes, and smoothies…
One potential downside is that instant is thought to contain higher levels of acrylamide – a potentially harmful compound found in all roasted/charred foods – than plain old coffee.
What are the best instant coffees out there?
This is on the list representing a new breed of instant coffee – the brain booster. Mushroom coffee has been growing in popularity for a few years now, spurred on by rave reviews from Silicon Valley types in California.
Mushroom Coffees belong to a growing group of cognitive supplements known as ‘nootropics’ which aim to improve brain function. The science behind a lot of this is far from definitive, but that does not mean it is baseless either. Super U’s Shroom Coffee contains Arabica coffee, Chaga Mushroom, Cordyceps Mushroom, Lion’s Mane Mushroom, and Maca Mushroom.
These mushrooms have been shown in studies to demonstrate positive effects on several things from concentration and brain cell growth to possibly alleviating mild symptoms of depression and anxiety. Quite whether that means chucking a load of them together with coffee yields tangible benefits…who knows. But there are plenty of people self-reporting big benefits.
It tastes nice, like coffee but with a mild earthy taste, we guess from the shrooms… which is very pleasant. It has around half the caffeine of other coffees so is good for a late afternoon pick-me-up and can be used hot, cold and in other recipes for healthy food. Super U has a load of great recipes on its website which look like they would be fun to try.
The simple cardboard package is also a big win as is more eco-friendly than other choices. If you are going to drink instant…this may just be the way to do it.
This is a nicely branded coffee which comes in a very attractive tin – it’s amazing how much difference this makes. It is so much less depressing to look at than some of the really ugly jars of instant coffee out there!
Aside from on-point packaging design this freeze-dried coffee is made from 100% arabica beans by a small British company that trumpets its ethical sourcing techniques. Each tin will make around 50 cups of coffee and it is nice stuff. It does not taste like fresh, but it is a nice aromatic medium roast with low bitterness. It is highly drinkable but could have a bit more body to it.
It dissolves well in cold water too so can be used to make iced coffee or flavour smoothies without creating any grit or slimy clumps.
These granules are certified Fairtrade and organic which makes them a popular choice among ethical consumers.
This is still very much an instant coffee in terms of its taste profile, but for sure among the most drinkable going. It is made from 100 percent high altitude grown arabica beans. The result is well-rounded coffee with low bitterness and acidity but with decent strength and body.
It works well in hot and cold drinks and the recyclable glass jar is a decent packaging choice for consumers minded about their impact on the environment.
The original commercial instant coffee! It dates back to 1876. It is a dark brown syrupy liquid and contains far more chicory (25%) than coffee (4%) by volume. This is good as it keeps the caffeine content down. Chicory is an age-old substitute for coffee and has often been popular during times of bean shortages.
Given the high chicory content, Camp does have a strong chicory aftertaste – it’s perfectly pleasant, but means it is unlikely to satisfy anyone really craving that authentic coffee flavour. It’s sweet and wet, which does make it great for adding to desserts and it is ultimately a nice piece of coffee history and piece of British nostalgia. Worth trying we reckon, but perhaps not as the mainstay of your 3-4 cup a day habit.
Starbucks is a highly respected name in fresh coffee and raised a few eyebrows when it launched this instant range in 2009.
The instant coffee uses one of the latest fads among purveyors of instant coffee which is to add “micro-ground” beans to the dried coffee. These micro-grounds are beans crushed so fine that they are water-soluble, which is said to give more body to the coffee. It does work but it tends to leave the drinks in a sort of “uncanny valley” where they straddle an awkward position between tasting somewhere between a great instant or poor fresh coffee.
This is for sure one of the best products out there which mixes micro-grounds and granules to good effect. It is made with rich and bold Arabica beans and has a good look, aroma taste, and mouthfeel.
It comes in individual sachets, which is kind of annoying and creates a bit of waste, although probably does help to keep things fresh.