In specialty coffee circles, instant coffee is more often compared to greasy fast food than an authentic culinary art form. But a handful of specialty coffee companies, some led by barista champions, are giving conventional coffee wisdom a run for its money.
San Francisco-based Sudden Coffee, founded by two-time Finnish Barista Champion Kalle Freese, makes its instant coffee with single-origin beans from Equator Coffee and has created a proprietary freeze-drying process that uses a vacuum instead of heat. Voila Coffee offers its instant coffee in a one-time purchase or subscription, in which consumers choose how many cups per month and customize their taste preference. And Black & White Coffee, founded in 2017 by U.S. Barista Champions and Urnex Ambassadors Lem Butler and Kyle Ramage, has partnered with Swift Cup Coffee to offer two of their most popular coffees in instant form.
Instant coffee has existed long before specialty coffee has jumped into the mix. The first successful method of creating a stable soluble coffee powder was developed as early as 1901, and Nescafe began selling instant coffee to the masses in 1938. But Starbucks brought renewed attention and excitement to the category in 2009 when it introduced Starbucks VIA Ready Brew. Just 10 months after it launched, VIA reached $100 million in sales.
Producing instant coffee uses many of the same practices as non-instant coffee – whole coffee beans are roasted, ground into a powder, and then brewed into a liquid. The key difference with instant coffee is that the brewed coffee is either spray or freeze dried to preserve its flavor. Spray drying allows larger scale economic production and shorter drying times, but freeze drying generally results in higher-quality coffee.
But another important, and more contentious, difference between instant and traditional coffee preparations is the level of engagement involved in making the coffee. Traditional filter coffee is a more hands-on approach to coffee preparation that allows consumers to experiment with the brewing variables. But with instant coffee, all that’s left for the consumer to do is to add water.
But that convenience is one of the reasons consumers choose instant coffee over traditional. It couldn’t be easier for people to simply add the specified amount of hot or cold water, especially compared to the skill it requires to brew using traditional pour over methods. And the immediacy of instant comes in handy especially when you’re in a rush, on-the-go, or travelling away from home.
But for premium coffee brands, positioning instant coffee as part of the specialty coffee industry is fighting an uphill battle. Instant coffee’s quality and reputation are generally less than stellar – most instant coffee is made using Robusta coffee, which is less expensive and easier to farm than Arabica, but has a much worse flavor. And it’s often thought of as just a caffeine-delivery method without value given to the taste or experience.
However, these companies do have a few trends working in their favor. According to Euromonitor, global sales of instant coffee tripled from 2000 to 2014. And although instant coffee only makes up 3% of the U.S. coffee market, it makes up more than half of coffee consumption in Asia Pacific and Eastern Europe. Instant coffee makes up three quarters of retail coffee consumed in Australia and New Zealand.
But even though Americans seem to shrug off instant coffee, they have fully embraced other methods of convenient coffee. Single-serve coffee machines are the second most popular brewing system in the U.S., after standard drip coffee makers, and 29 percent of American coffee drinkers used one in 2017. And interest and investment in ready-to-go coffee drinks like bottled lattes, mochas and cold brew are on the rise.
So maybe specialty instant coffee does has a chance to thrive. There is certainly a market of coffee drinkers who enjoy a quality cup, but don’t always have the time for a four-minute pour-over. Instant coffee could fill the gaps for a lot of coffee lovers in a crunch. And as Kalle Freese of Sudden Coffee told Sprudge, you can’t always drink the most magnificent, exotic coffee available.
“To me it’s all about making a cup of coffee fun and easy,” Freese said. “It’s not going to be a freshly brewed Geisha V60 – but you know, it’s really good.”
For more trends in coffee, check out the different coffee cultures around the world.