The best instant coffee, according to an industry expert's taste test
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- With instant coffee, you can have a quick cup at the ready with just the addition of hot water.
- Thanks to a recent focus on artisanal roasts, high-quality beans, and innovations in the preservation process, instant coffee is beginning to shed its bad reputation.
- I tried several instant coffees to find ones that were easy to brew, portable, and most importantly, tasted as close as possible to a freshly brewed cup of coffee.
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In my decade working in the specialty coffee industry, I've always been driven by a curiosity and desire to find the best possible coffee. Whether I was serving hand-brewed pour-over behind the bar or packaging and delivering whole bean coffee, the emphasis was always on quality and freshness.
But brewing from fresh beans takes extra work, and that isn't always practical. Sometimes you need something quick, easy, or simply portable. There is no substitute for freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee, but thanks to the recent focus on high-end, artisanal coffee, there are more instant options available than ever before.
Instant coffee is typically made by freeze-drying already brewed coffee into water-soluble crystals. They often have a reputation of tasting less than spectacular, but that's starting to change. Now there are companies that take more care in selecting the beans that go into their brews, and many new offerings use single-origin beans and share roast profiles and tasting notes. There are even new innovations that preserve the portability and convenience of instant coffee while completely avoiding the freeze-drying process.
While testing instant coffees for consideration in this guide, I established a few criteria I wanted the best ones to meet. For a full look at my methodology, scroll to the bottom of this guide. Most importantly, I was after a delicious, fresh-tasting cup of coffee, and I'm pleased to say I found quite a few.
Updated on 10/5/2020. We added in several new picks and completely overhauled this guide after extensive taste-testing.
These are the best instant coffees:
Swift Cup Coffee
Swift Cup offers a high-end version of the familiar instant coffee crystals. Each box comes with six packets that can be used to brew one ten-ounce cup each. It's clear that Swift takes great care in selecting the coffee it starts with. The variety of roasts offered is very comprehensive, with something available from every growing region.
La Esmeralda Geisha was my favorite of the many roasts I tried. Geisha is a highly regarded and sought after coffee varietal, and I was fascinated to try it in instant form. Although the nuances of instant coffee will never be as pronounced as when freshly brewed, I could definitely taste notes of milk chocolate with a slight hint of fruit.
I also tried the Ethiopia Agaro, and its notes of black tea and floral aroma were a welcome surprise. Swift Cup manages to produce an instant coffee that avoids the staleness and bitterness that hardcore coffee obsessives associate with cheap instant coffee.
La Esmeralda Geisha
Canyon Coffee Celinga Ethiopia
On top of offering its own products, Swift Cup also partners with specialty roasters to help them produce custom branded instant coffee. Local Los Angeles roaster, Canyon Coffee, made such a partnership to create its instant Celinga Ethiopia medium roast. "Swift is one of the few companies who have made the big up-front investment in freeze-drying equipment who are giving the proper attention to detail for roasting, batch-brewing, and freeze-drying," Canyon's co-owner Casey Wojtalewicz told me. That attention to detail is noticeable when tasting Canyon's instant offering. It was one of the brighter flavor profiles I encountered, with hints of chocolate and a very slight fruity finish.
Ritual Coffee Hama Ethiopia
San Francisco's Ritual Coffee was kind enough to share its brand new Hama Ethiopia instant coffee with me. This Ethiopia is another collaboration with Swift Cup and maintains the same level of quality as its other offerings. Ritual's instant is noteworthy for being one of the most complex cups of instant coffees I tried from Swift Cup. It had a more vibrant aroma than some of the others, and was surprisingly well rounded with strong notes of milk chocolate and caramel.
Starbucks Via Instant
Starbucks Via instant coffees are one of the most popular and accessible on the market. Instant coffee is supposed to be easy, and what's easier than picking some up at the store with your groceries? Starbucks offers a few different styles in its Via line, including a French and Italian roast and its classic Pike Place blend. I tried the Colombia, and it tastes almost exactly like a cup of Starbucks coffee.
One interesting thing to note is that this is marketed as a medium roast, but the flavor notes I tasted were unmistakably those of a dark roast. That's not to say it was bad — I just couldn't discern anything in the cup that I would describe as Colombian coffee. If you want a solid instant coffee that you don't have to go out of your way for, the Starbucks Via line is one of the better options you can find at the supermarket. It's also one of the most affordable on our list.
Counter Culture Big Trouble Single Serve
I've been a big supporter of Counter Culture for some time now. Its blends and single-origins have been consistently great for years, so I was eager to try the single-serve version of its classic Big Trouble blend produced in conjunction with Steeped Coffee.
While it's not your typical freeze-dried instant coffee, Counter Culture's Single Serve works essentially the same as a teabag. The bag contains pre-ground beans, so it's closer in final quality to normal coffee. You pour eight ounces of hot water over the bag and let it steep. It's not technically instant (it takes five minutes), but it's portable, easy to use, and delicious.
The Big Trouble Blend also lends itself well to this kind of product, because as a roast it's well balanced with desirable flavor notes of nut and caramel. The bags and wrappers are biodegradable, and the boxes are made from recycled cardboard. If you're picky and want the instant product that most closely resembles a freshly brewed cup of coffee, this might be your best bet.
Kuju Coffee Single Serve Pour Over
Our pick from Kuju Coffee is another that's not technically instant, but it's one that pour-over obsessives will surely appreciate. The coffee comes packaged in pouches that, when opened, reveal a miniature, single-serving pour-over setup. Instead of being freeze-dried like most instant coffees, the coffee is pre-ground and packaged inside of its filter.
On either side of the filter are small pieces of cardboard that fold out into a stand that holds the filter over your coffee cup. Simply tear off the top of the filter, fold the stand out, place it over your cup, and pour hot water into the filter. The instructions say to fill the filter and let it drain, then repeat until you have about eight ounces of freshly brewed coffee in your mug. The process is almost the same as the Hario V60 or any other pour-over dripper, just on a smaller scale.
I tried a few of Kuju's single-serve kits. The single-origin Ethiopia was my favorite and made a pretty good cup. Because the beans are pre-ground, some of the nuance in flavor is lost. I did taste some staleness in a few of the roasts, but overall the brewed cups were solid. Kuju's product stands out because of its clever interpretation of instant coffee and fun brewing method.
Jot Ultra Coffee
One of the most unique and innovative new instant coffees on the market is Jot's coffee concentrate. Cold brew concentrates have become common in recent years, but Jot takes things a step further by focusing its concentrate to about 20 times the strength of a normal cup.
Jot's coffee comes packaged in a beautifully designed glass bottle, snugly packed in a cardboard box with its own custom measuring spoon. One tablespoon of concentrate makes one cup of coffee, and the bottle holds 14 servings. But what makes this product most interesting is its versatility.
Because it doesn't require heat to brew, you can use it to make either hot or iced drinks, though I think it tastes much better served cold. After tweaking the recipe a bit — I recommend using a bit less water than instructed — I was able to make a decent cup. It's a bit more acidic than other instant options, but it's not overwhelming. The flavor overall is nice, though it was hard to pick out any specific flavor notes.
Chefs and bakers should also take note. This product is perfectly tailored to add coffee flavor to a dish. Given that it's so highly concentrated, you can use it without diluting the original recipe at all.
I would recommend Jot for its versatility and iced applications, but if the best overall flavor is your goal, there are better options.
Voila coffee takes a craft approach to instant coffee by partnering with a rotating group of roasters that provide them with high-quality beans. This gives Voila the ability to make sure the coffee it uses is always fresh and in season.
Coffees are sold in boxes grouped by flavor attributes. You can choose from the Lively Box which showcases light roasted African coffees or the medium roasted, Central and South American coffees of the Complex Box.
I was very impressed with how smooth and flavorful all of the offerings were. The Lively packet was my favorite of the selections I tried since it had no trace of staleness or any strong bitter or roasty notes. The price is also favorable compared to Voila's direct competitors. Out of the more traditional instant coffees I tried, Voila was near the top of the list.
Starbucks Via Sweetened Iced Coffee
With the exception of the Jot concentrate, every other instant coffee on this list requires hot water to brew, but the Via Sweetened Iced Coffee just requires 16 ounces of cool water, so it's great for those days when it's just too hot to turn the kettle on.
It comes pre-sweetened with natural sugar, but even knowing that, I was surprised to pour out one of the packets and see how much sugar was actually in there. The powder looked to be almost 50% sugar. I mixed it up, dropped a few ice cubes in, and my suspicions were confirmed. This stuff is really sweet — but it's also surprisingly smooth.
I prefer my coffee black with very few exceptions, so this was a bit too sugary for my taste, but it was an objectively fine cup of iced coffee with flavors that are roasty but not overwhelming. I would recommend it if you regularly sweeten your coffee, need a quick caffeine boost, and it's far too hot out for regular instant coffee.
Sudden Coffee is another company that works with small roasters to help them package their coffee in instant form, so I tried offerings from two different roasters. First, I tried Hub Coffee Roaster's Colombia Huila District. Colombian coffees are notorious for being easy to drink, and this instant is no exception. With a well-rounded, chocolatey flavor, this was one of the smoother instant coffees I tried.
I also tried the instant coffee from Pacifica, California's Craftsman Coffee. Made from coffee from Brazil and Kenya, this blend had a slightly fruitier, brighter taste compared to Hub's Colombia.
Both came packaged in small cardboard boxes containing four plastic tubes with one serving in each. The price point is a bit high considering you only get four servings per box, but the water-proof tubes make them perfect for travel so keep these in mind if you're a camper or regularly take your coffee on the go. If your local roasters or one of your favorites are offering its coffee through Sudden, this is a great way to continue supporting independent coffee companies.
Hub Coffee Roaster Colombia Huila District
Craftsman Coffee Brazil Kenya
How we chose the best instant coffee
While searching for coffee to review, I looked for a few different factors.
- Is it easy to brew? Anything that requires more than hot water completely defeats the purpose of instant coffee.
- Is it portable? Instant coffee should be packaged in a way that makes it capable of being brewed anywhere.
- Does it taste good? As a coffee obsessive, I wanted to find the good stuff. I tried a few basic, common grocery store brands, like Nescafe Clasico and Folgers Classic Roast, and they were not pleasant. Both tasted stale and simultaneously underdeveloped and over-roasted. I set these supermarket staples as the baseline and tried to find products that took more care in the process. I looked for companies trying new methods and craft roasters who had branched out into instant coffee. The primary gauge of quality I used when tasting all of these was how closely they resembled a cup of freshly brewed coffee. I was looking for overall flavor, complexity, and any prominent flavor notes. I found plenty of delicious options.
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