Instant coffee's taste has a bad reputation and a long uphill battle against the artisanal coffee wave making its rounds in people's daily routines. Though there have been concerted efforts to make instant coffee better or even just taste-testing to find the best brand of them all, much of the matter comes down to two factors: the economics of coffee and the complex processes behind making instant coffee.
“If you expect to pay less, then you know you’re going to get lower quality coffee going into the process from the very beginning,” Spencer Turer, vice president and chief coffee taster of Coffee Enterprises, told Newsweek. “A lot of it has to do with economics.”
The other factor is the “pretty heavy-duty processing that goes into turning coffee into soluble coffee.” There are two main methods: spray-dried and freeze-dried. Both begin as the raw coffee that comes from its country of origin. It’s roasted, ground and brewed into a coffee beverage.
“That’s where the differences start,” Turer said. For instant coffee, “you’re brewing the coffee at a really high-strength level. You want to get a lot of flavor out of the coffee.” From there, spray-drying the coffee involves the process of spraying the coffee into hot and dry air, as hot as 480 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Huffington Post. Once the moisture evaporates, coffee powder remains. Freeze-drying involves a specific process where the coffee is frozen and the water is vaporized out of it. Huffington Post described the process as cooking the coffee down to an extract, chilling it into slabs of ice, and breaking it down in granules before vaporizing the ice from them.
“Even if you start with really high quality coffee, you’re going to lose some of the sweetness and some of the aromatics through that spray-drying process,” Turer said. Plus, the specialized equipment required to dehydrate the coffee is relatively expensive. The original beans, therefore, have to be of a much lower quality to make up for those costs.
“You’re changing the quality, and the quality changes based on the processing,” he said.
You can imagine why the final cup of instant coffee might not have the same flavor notes you want from a freshly brewed cup. The dehydration process also just sucks any once-freshness the coffee had. Turer added, however, that there are plenty of great instant coffee companies around the world, specifically in Brazil and Colombia, but it takes time and attention to detail.
Plus, those products end up being a lot pricier. Some companies have embraced higher quality instant coffee in the U.S., including Starbucks Via and the more recent coffee company Alpine Start. The latter was inspired while co-founder Matt Segal was trying to make coffee while suspended 1,000 feet in the air in a cliff-side hammock, according to Food&Wine. Overall, however, the instant coffee marketplace in the U.S. isn’t quite as extensive.
“The U.S. is a little bit different,” he said. “We embrace high quality, specialty coffees, and that’s the marketplace that we’ve created in the last 25 years.”
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