Instant Coffee Has Always Been Convenient, and Now It Actually Tastes Good

If you've only known instant coffee as a bitter imitation of a desirable cup of joe, you're in for a pleasant surprise: A new generation of instant coffee is afoot, and it tastes pretty good. 

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Cup of coffee on wooden surface

There are plenty of elegant coffee drinks out there. Cortados are the drink of trendy editors in New York City. A latte might make you feel like you're in Paris. A single-origin pourover can feel sleek and chic.

And then, there's instant coffee. Instant coffee is not nearly as popular as the brewed stuff and has a much more negative reputation. A 2014 study by market research firm Euromonitor found that instant coffee accounted for a mere 3% of US coffee sales. Unless you're over the age of 65, you likely have negative feelings about it. It tastes harsh and bitter... like old tires, like the ghost of good coffee that perished in a fire. If you ever drink instant coffee, it's probably just while traveling and you regret it upon first sip.

But, that's not how it's always been.

In the 1970s, one third of the coffee brought to United States was sold as instant coffee. But, since the expansion of Starbucks and Peet's in the 1990s, called coffee's "second wave," America's instant coffee sales have declined as our taste in coffee has changed. We want a nuanced, balanced beverage that wakes us up and delights us. Some of us even buy single-origin coffee—beans from one place rather than from many places—with unique flavor and texture.

Even if you don't identify as a coffee snob, your taste in coffee is likely quite different than that of your grandparents and perhaps even your parents.

That said, instant coffee may be catching up to our tastes. Not only is instant coffee being made with better beans than it was before, but there are small-batch instant coffee producers working with gentler methods that maintain the quality and flavor of the beans.

David Kovalevski, CEO and founder of Waka Coffee, explains that some instant coffee is made using the spray-drying method, which uses hot air to evaporate water from coffee beans. This, he says, "destroys the original flavor and eliminates the coffee's aroma." By contrast, Waka utilizes a freeze-drying method, where coffee extract is frozen at about -50° C, preserving the coffee's aromas. It's then placed under a vacuum, where the frozen liquid changes into steam.

Kovalevski, who grew up in Israel where instant coffee is much more common, was disappointed to find a lack of quality instant coffee in America. Soon, he began to look at it as a challenge.

"Our goal is to make people realize that instant coffee is a great alternative to other more complicated coffee methods, and that instant coffee can actually be delicious," he says. Waka only sells instant coffee and tea, in a range of roasts and origins.

Nate Kaiser, founder of Swift Cup, also only sells instant coffee. From Swift Cup, you can even buy single origin coffee from El Salvador, Ethiopia, Brazil, and more. Swift Cup also partners with specialty coffee brands to produce instant coffee released under their own label. Their 75 partners include roasters like Tandem in Portland, Maine and Belleville in Paris, France.

Kaiser's journey was a little different. After working in and with specialty coffee roasters for a decade, he was interested in creating really good instant coffee. It grew into a hobby, then a larger side project. He shared his work with friends in the industry, who immediately started asking how they could work together to make instant coffee, using Kaiser's process.

"It was almost like the business model was decided for me at that point," he says.

What are Kaiser's goals for instant coffee?

"We want it to become a new normal," he says.

The leaders in specialty instant coffee are not making it for the same reasons as the instant coffee producers of the 1970s. The new stuff is more expensive than your grandma's instant coffee. It's for people on the go, perhaps just having a busy morning at work or perhaps camping, who refuse to sacrifice quality for convenience. It's not just for coffee snobs, but they'll be happy too.

Want to try the instant coffee of the future? Here's where to start.

The Best Instant Coffees You Can Buy

Waka Instant Colombian Coffee

Jar of instant coffee with cookies

Buy it: $11.99;

Swift Cup Mainstay Blend

Swift Cup Coffee
Swift Cup Coffee

Buy it: $10.95;

Joe Coffee Specialty Instant Coffee Packets

instant coffee package against white background

Buy it: $19.99,

Verve Buena Vista Craft Coffee

Verve Instant Coffee
Thrive Market

Buy it: $13.79,

Mushroom Coffee by FourSigmatic

Instant Mushroom Coffee

Buy it: $11.96;

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