Instant coffee. The name that brings horror to the souls of thousands of coffee enthusiasts. Can it be any good?
Despite a majority of my posts on the blog being about coffee, I actually have not written a standalone coffee review post since the birth of this blog. Here is a short review of a specialty instant coffee I have recently encountered and a discussion on instant coffee as a whole.
History of Instant Coffee
First, I would like to present a brief history of instant coffee. Who invented instant coffee? Through some research, I realize that the answer to this simple question is more convoluted than the Leibniz-Newton controversy over the invention of Calculus (and arguably more important). The creation of instant coffee was a race joined by participants around the globe across multiple centuries, with no universally recognized winner.
Most of my sources are selected from the book All About Coffee, published in 1922 written by tea and coffee specialist William H. Ukers detailing the history of the propagation of coffee in our world. Tim at Procaffeination did a wonderful job at fact-checking on many common statements about the invention of instant coffee listed in encyclopedias and other known sources (link here). I will reference some of his findings here also.
In Commentarii de Bello Gallico (“Commentaries on the Gallic War”), Roman general Julius Caesar recorded a story that occurred during his campaign in the winter of 54 BC, where he accidentally invented a form of soluble… Ahem. Alright, I will stop joking.
The first-ever documented mention of an instant coffee product is attributed to an English man named John Dring in 1771 during the reign of King George III. John Dring was granted a patent by His Majesty’s Government for a compound coffee, turning coffee grounds into a cake-like body that can dissolve in water. Not much more is known about this product.
Dring’s Specification of Preparation of Coffee. From English Patents of Inventions, Specifications
Around a century later during the American Civil War (1861 – 65), coffee as an essential part of the American diet was included in the rations of union soldiers. To reduce the logistical burden of transporting the huge amount of coffee ground, manufacturers including Bohler & Weikel and George Hummel developed a product called “the Essence of Coffee”—a concentrated form of coffee, milk, and sugar contained in a tin can. There were numerous reports saying that this product was widely unpopular among the union soldiers and was quickly discontinued.
In the late 19th century (a term used by multiple sources, as there seem to be two conflicting dates regarding its invention: 1876 and 1885), R. Paterson & Son in Glasgow, Scotland created a concentrated liquid of coffee and chicory named Camp Coffee. Some stories claim that its invention came at the request of a Scottish regiment called the Highlanders in the British army for an easy-to-consume coffee drink for their military campaigns in the British Raj.
Next in 1881, a Parisian named Alphonse Allais received a patent for a soluble sugar-coffee product. However, Alphonse Allais was not an inventor but rather a French writer and humorist during the Belle Époque famous for his absurd humor. Thus, the validity of his claimed invention is highly disputable for the possibility of it being an elaborate joke.
On the other side of the planet, David Strang in Invercargill, New Zealand was granted a patent in 1890 for a soluble dry coffee powder. Strang used the process of blowing hot air over liquid coffee to reduce it into solids. This soluble coffee product was sold by the name “Strang’s Coffee” in the local markets.
Nearing the end of the 19th century, Dr. Satori Kato, a Japanese chemist residing in Chicago, invented a soluble coffee with his experience dealing with soluble tea and the help of a few coffee merchants. His soluble coffee product made its first appearance to the public at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, and Dr. Kato was granted a patent for coffee concentration by the United States in 1903.
Now we come to George Washington (no, not the George Washington), a Belgium-born American inventor, often credited to be the man who invented instant coffee. In 1906 while staying in Guatemala City, George Washington developed a refined soluble coffee making process. What gives George Washington the edge over all the previous mentions is that he was the first to commercialize this novelty of instant coffee on a mass scale production. The George Washington Coffee Refined Co. was founded in 1910 to put his new invention on the market under the name “G. Washington’s Prepared Coffee.” The Great War in the latter half of the 1910s created an opportunity for his instant coffee to gain notice. Just like the aforementioned “Essence of Coffee,” the new soluble coffee product was included in rations for the US army overseas for its convenience and light weight. The George Washington Coffee Refined Co. became one of the main suppliers for the US army in 1918.
There are also a few others who claimed to have independently invented instant coffee around this time. Coffee merchant Cyrus F. Blanke in St. Louis told the story of him inventing soluble coffee in 1906 after noticing a dried coffee droplet on his plate in a restaurant. He began selling his brand “Faust Soluble Coffee” in 1912. Guatemalan physician F. Lehnhoff Wyld also began selling refined soluble coffee on the European market in 1913. Wait, Guatemala? It turns out that F. Lehnhoff Wyld was George Washington’s family physician during their stay in Guatemala City, and George Washington may have shared his new invention with him. Therefore, Wyld’s invention may not be completely original.
So in the end, who invented instant coffee? There is no clear winner here. You might as well answer Julius Caesar and run with it.
Let’s continue with our story of instant coffee. Riding on the new gained popularity from the First World War, many new companies like Nestle were established and new processing methods were invented to further industrialize the production of instant coffee. These transformed it to become a mainstream product in the US market. Instant coffee, as well as many other mass-marketed coffee products such as Folgers or Maxwell canned pre-ground coffee, boosted the (retroactively defined) first wave coffee culture, marked by convenience and accessibility of coffee to its consumers, but also largely neglecting the aspects of taste and quality.
Jumping to our modern world, the now popularized instant coffee has become synonymous with cheap and terrible coffee. Around 2016, a new wave of specialty instant coffee (also sometimes called third wave instant coffee) has emerged, determined to change this label of instant coffee through applying the art and craft of the third wave coffee movement (see footnote 1) in every step of the making of instant coffee to make the best tasting coffee possible. Notable brands in the specialty instant coffee market include Swift Cup, Voila, and Sudden. The emergence of specialty instant coffee has gained some interests in the past few years in the coffee world, slowly shifting the negative view towards instant coffee. This specialty instant coffee is what I would like to talk about here today.
What exactly is specialty coffee and third wave coffee? I originally intended to give a brief explanation of what they are, but during the writing I realized that this discussion deserves its own post; and I have just the right post in mind to include it. So this is a temporary placeholder for the link to that post in the future.
In the meantime, I have actually given a definition of third wave coffee before in one of my older posts (link here). I will copy and paste it below. Hopefully this definition suffices for now.
Third wave coffee: or specialty coffee. A movement to produce high-quality coffee, treating coffee as artisan food, like wine, in all stages of production including growing, processing, roasting, and brewing.
(Huh? What about all the posts I said I will write? We don’t talk about that here 🙂 )
One of the specialty instant coffee companies I mentioned above, Swift Cup, is partnered with a few dozen coffee roasters in making instant coffee of different origins or blends. This includes Verve, my default coffee roaster in buying coffee beans. Verve’s instant craft coffee has been on my radar for a while, though I never found the specific need to actually try it. Finally in March while I was getting a coffee tumbler from Verve’s store, I added a box of instant craft coffee to the cart to reach the free shipping with the thought that it’s something I can potentially write about. I specifically picked the Ethiopia Reko one because I like Ethiopian origin coffee in general and I really hope this instant coffee version can be decent.
The instant craft coffee of Ethiopia Reko came in a cardboard case containing six packs of instant coffee with the price tag of $17, so around $2.3 per pack. The price may seem absurd compared to common supermarket instant coffee; but we have to keep in mind that unlike those fully industrialized, mass-produced instant coffee that often uses lower quality coffee beans in mass plantation with unfair wages to the farmers, the specialty instant coffee applies the practices of third wave coffee culture including direct trade with local coffee farmers, the use of specialty grade coffee beans, and a new still-developing method of producing these (hopefully) better-tasting instant coffee. Each pack of soluble coffee yields 10 oz (around 300 ml) of liquid coffee with hot or cold water or milk added. The box also lists the flavor profile of jasmine, grapefruit, and herbal.
So how does it taste? Is it worth it?
Why would I voluntarily drink instant coffee? Well, like I stated above, I drank them so I can write this review for your entertainment. You are welcome 🙂
Jokes aside, it is surprising that I actually consumed all six packs of this instant craft coffee willingly within three months. Yes, even for me who is known to be a “coffee elitist.” (Or maybe viewing from the other perspective, especially for me as a coffee addict who has to drink coffee everyday to avoid headaches.)
I used the first pack when I had to leave early in the morning without sufficient time to prepare my normal routine of pour-over. I brewed the second pack when my coffee-brewing set was packed in the suitcase on a day of traveling. I used the third pack to make Dalgona coffee back when that was a trend because I refused to drink Nescafe in any way. The result was decently tasty, though more like a sugary coffee drink leaving little to no trace of distinct origin characteristics. I followed James Hoffmann’s video on how to adapt the recipe for using specialty instant coffee that makes the process a bit more troublesome, you can check out the video here. (No, I did not take any pictures. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I don’t have a transparent container for it.) The fourth and fifth packs were consumed during the desperate days when I ran out of Kalita coffee filters to make pour-over with no other coffee brewers at hand. Finally, I brewed the final pack for the blind tasting test that I will describe below.
To impartially assess the quality of this instant craft coffee, I have conducted a blind tasting test with this instant coffee and a washed processed Ethiopian coffee from Verve brewed using pour-over. I selected the Ethiopia Shakiso for the pour-over, which I found to have a relatively similar level of sweetness, acidity, and mouthfeel to the Ethiopia Reko instant coffee.
I first made a cup of instant coffee with the recommended amount of 10 oz of near-boiling water to give extra time for it to cool down accounting for the heat loss in the other cup during the pour-over process. I then brewed the Ethiopia Shakiso with a Kalita Wave 155 with 25 grams of coffee to 375 ml of water (the exact method can be found here under Kalita Wave 155). Then I poured these two kinds of coffee into two identical glass cups. I do have to note that they had visible distinctions in appearance, especially under direct light. The cup made using pour-over appeared more translucent, while the instant coffee cup had the consistency closer to coffee brewed using immersion methods like Aeropress or French press.
I had another individual to switch the cups and began the taste test. Though to be honest, because I have already tasted both of them, I was very confident that I would easily be able to tell them apart. And it turned out that I was right. Anyway, the side-by-side taste test still offered some insights into their distinct characteristics from direct comparison.
I will present the notes I took during the blind taste test first, then reveal which one is which.
First, the aroma. Coffee A has a more mature, balanced, even wine-like aroma to it. I would say it’s perhaps slightly more pronounced than coffee B. Coffee B’s aroma is sweeter, and possesses a vinegar-like acidity.
Then the taste. Coffee A has a pear-like crispness, transitioning into a more grape-like flavor leaving with a light caramel aftertaste. Coffee B has a smooth red bean, vanilla-like taste, with a very similar aftertaste to coffee A. The acidity of coffee B is present, but not really blended in with the overall flavor. Coffee A is sharper, clearer, giving a sparkling water mouthfeel. Coffee B in comparison lacks the intensity, with every aspect of flavor being rather neutral. It has a slight “rubbery,” artificial feel to it.
Now revealing the contestants: coffee A is the Ethiopia Shakiso brewed using pour-over, while coffee B is the Ethiopia Reko instant craft coffee.
Focusing on the instant craft coffee itself, it has a very pleasant sweetness to it, with notes like red beans, sweet potatoes, and on the darker side like chocolate and caramel. Yet the sweetness lacks intensity and depth. The taste is also herbal with a bit of “spice” in it. It has a peculiar acidity that is present in the cup yet doesn’t really fit into the whole tasting experience. Finally, I don’t know how to describe it, but I think it has a rather artificial taste to it that is present in all instant coffee. But overall, it is quite an enjoyable cup, and I am not confident that I would be able to tell it is actually instant coffee if you simply present it to me and ask me to taste it for the first time.
Instant coffee is the paradigm of modern consumerism and fast-paced lifestyle. A product that captures the convenience and efficiency of modern culture and delivers the essence of coffee in an instant. But what about the journey of coffee? The transformation of it from the fruit to the ground to the drink, the extended and complete picture?
The third wave instant coffee seems to be self-contradictory. Which group of consumers are they targeting? For those who drink instant coffee and seek only the final product and the effects of coffee, they would very likely not care about all the “third wave” elements like the origin or tasting notes, thus making its expensive price point a disadvantage in competition against other instant coffee brands. For coffee enthusiasts, it completely misses the mark of presenting the “journey of coffee” for them to experience and likely produces an inferior cup of coffee than what they would obtain from brewing one themselves. Often, the process of experimenting and brewing the coffee is just as important as tasting the final finished result, and the third wave instant coffee fails in both regards.
But perhaps it is not meant to replace anything. It is not meant to take over the instant coffee market nor the third wave coffee market. Rather, the third wave instant coffee fills a very particular need: for the coffee enthusiasts that simply desire a good cup of coffee but at the moment lacks the means at hand to make one due to the circumstances they face. Viewing it from this perspective, its existence is justified. The fact that I actually used all six packs of this instant craft coffee proves exactly this. Last year I wrote this post “Coffee when Travelling” (link here) that discusses several ways to have good coffee when travelling. But sometimes even these approaches are not possible. In these situations, specialty instant coffee that requires only water to produce a decent cup of coffee may be very desirable to have.
In the end, the specialty instant coffee is a delightful addition to have. It is a fail-safe that guarantees a good cup of coffee in the critical situations where every other method fails. And I think I may just get another box of these.
As always, thanks for reading. Do you have any experience with specialty instant coffee or instant coffee in general? Have you also tried making Dalgona coffee in the past few months? Let me know in the comments 🙂
Also, do you find the discussion on the history of the invention of instant coffee entertaining? I included this part as I do not want a post simply reviewing coffee, and researching on this topic was pretty fun. Hopefully you like it also. If you want to learn more about the history of coffee, or the different waves of coffee movement, also let me know!
Finally, I included a little easter egg in this post as a preview for my upcoming blog post. Can you find it? Is there anything or anyone intruding that shouldn’t be here?