What Is Instant Coffee, and Is It Any Good?

black coffee
Freeze-dried coffee hasn't had the best reputation in the past, but the new stuff hitting store shelves isn't your grandma's instant coffee!

For my entire adult life up until now, I have been adamantly against instant coffee. I mean, what is it even? Does it have caffeine like regular coffee? And what’s the point of drinking pretend coffee, anyway?

I was certainly not alone in my opinion. Ask any coffee enthusiast if they drink instant coffee. I’m willing to bet you might have a hard time finding one that says they do.

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But the instant coffee market is expanding, so someone’s got to be drinking it, right? Well, it might be me on occasion. I changed my mind, and it all started in a grocery store.

The Instant Coffee I Bought On Impulse

I was walking down the coffee and tea aisle when something caught my eye. It was a box of instant coffee packets, and it was made by one of my favorite brands. Cafe Bustelo Espresso, if we’re getting into specifics. That bright yellow package is hard to ignore.

It was pretty inexpensive, and we were out of town, so I bought it on impulse. I told myself that if it’s Cafe Bustelo, it can’t be all that bad. It probably also helped that we didn’t have a dishwasher for the weekend, either. Who wants to spend vacay washing a (not very good) coffee pot? Hey, the provided coffee pots are never any good.

And just like that, I had decided to give instant coffee another chance after it did me wrong for many years. I have to admit that the Cafe Bustelo instant coffee was alright! It wasn’t exactly the same as brewing a pot from regular grounds, but it wasn’t bad at all. My cup of coffee was tasty, and more importantly, it was extremely convenient. I didn’t have to set up a coffee maker or clean it afterward, it was ready in a snap, and it still gave me a caffeine boost.

The Perks of Instant Coffee

That’s the thing about instant coffee. It has a few perks (see what I did there?) that traditional coffee just can’t provide. While I wouldn’t substitute my regular morning cup with instant all the time, it’s a good option to keep around. Instant coffee has speed and efficiency on its side, and it doesn’t require any equipment.

There are plenty of times that I have found instant coffee to be the better choice. For instance, no one wants to drag a coffee maker on a camping trip. If you really want to drag other brewing equipment out there, be my guest. But all that stuff requires setup and cleanup, while instant coffee does not. Just heat up some water, dump your instant coffee mix into it, and you’re ready for some adventures.

woman drinking black coffee

Health Benefits of Instant Coffee

It’s worth noting that instant coffee still boasts all the same benefits as regularly brewed coffee. For starters, it contains some essential nutrients. I’m talking about riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), manganese, potassium, and magnesium. It’s also a pretty decent source of antioxidants.

Regular instant coffee also obviously has caffeine, which improves memory, mood, and other brain functions. And although instant coffee generally has slightly less caffeine than regular coffee, it’s definitely still there – and might be a better choice for anyone who is experiencing side effects from too much caffeine.

I’m talking about restlessness, disrupted sleep, anxiety, a fast heartbeat, tremors, and more. Of course, decaf instant coffee definitely exists if that is more your speed. You’ll still get the other benefits, without the jitters.

Related: Here are all the reasons why coffee is actually good for your health.

Okay, But What Is Instant Coffee?

For the longest time, I wasn’t even sure what instant coffee even is. I know it’s a dry product that needs to be mixed with water but is it some kind of drink mix? Is it fake coffee?

As it turns out, instant coffee is actually made from regularly brewed coffee. It starts with coffee beans that are ground, and then coffee is brewed from it. It’s a more concentrated product than regular coffee, kind of like an extract. From here, the water is removed to make a dry product, using one of two methods:

  • Freeze Drying: The brewed coffee extract is frozen into slabs of frozen coffee, which are then broken down into granules. It is then dried at a low temperature under vacuum conditions where the ice is vaporized, leaving behind small crystals of instant coffee.
  • Spray Drying: The brewed coffee extract is sprayed as a fine mist into hot air, which dries the droplets and turns them into small crystals of instant coffee.
Woman drinking coffee
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The small crystals are the granules you put in hot water to rehydrate them, ending with a cup of coffee. Many products come in a container that you measure from, but some brands have started doing pre-measured packets to take out all the guesswork.

As you can see, it’s not a coffee-flavored product. Instant coffee is indeed real coffee, made from roasted coffee beans. It just has a few extra steps added to make it a more convenient beverage.

If You’re Ready to Give Instant Coffee a Fair Shot, These Are the Ones to Try

After dipping my toes into the instant coffee world, I’ve started to notice other brands that have jumped on the bandwagon. Big brands like Cafe Bustelo and Starbucks are out there, and your average Folgers and Maxwell House have instant coffee, too. Even store brands have their own instants.

several different kinds of coffee, aerial shot

However, there are now several startups bringing specialty instant coffee to the table, too. All in all, it’s a pretty exciting time for instant coffee. These new instant coffees are changing the way we think of instants, which clearly had a bad rap until recently.

Sure, some of the grin-and-bear-it instant coffee options are still out there. But there are plenty of tasty options now, too. You might be surprised by what some of these instants have got going on.

And really, it can’t be all that bad. The U.K. has been consuming instant coffee for decades, and now, China is the fourth largest market for the stuff – which is also known as ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee. Maybe we just weren’t getting the good stuff for all those years.

So, if you’re ready to give instant coffee another chance, these are the top picks to try.

Cafe Bustelo Instant Coffee

I can’t suggest instant coffee options without mentioning the one that changed my mind. Cafe Bustelo is an espresso dark roast with bold, Latin flavor, so you can expect a similar flavor from their instant offerings. You can find Bustelo instant coffee in jars, but they also make single-serve packets that are pre-measured and require no guesswork. These are my favorites because they travel well when I’m on the go!

Starbucks VIA Instant Coffee

Coffee giant Starbucks has its own instant coffee, too. As with other Starbucks products, you can expect ethically sourced coffee and carefully roasted 100% arabica coffee beans. These come in pre-measured packets, so there is no guesswork involved. Just rip the little packet open and dump it in some water. It has familiar flavors, like Pike Place and Colombia. They also offer a few of their more popular varieties in a tin that makes up to 40 cups. I have seen them popping up at Starbucks locations, but a few flavors are also available in regular grocery stores, too.

Swift Cup Instant Coffee

For something really special, check out Swift Coffee’s instant coffee offerings. This is really where instant coffee starts changing the game. First of all, Swift Cup uses a proprietary freeze-drying process to turn coffee into those instant coffee crystals. But also, Swift Cup deals with different producers from across the globe, bringing serious variety to their offerings. They do offer regular roasted coffee, but they have also created instant coffee from these exceptional coffees. You can find coffee from Ethiopia, Kenya, Peru, Colombia, and more that has been freeze-dried into instant coffee for your convenience. And if you can’t decide, they offer variety packs, a huge pack that includes one of each, or a subscription that rotates through their entire assortment.

Mount Hagen Organic Freeze Dried Instant Coffee

If this name sounds a little familiar, it’s because I included their instant decaf coffee in my list of Best Decaf Coffees to Try. Like its decaf sibling, Mount Hagen’s caffeinated instant coffee offering is one of the better instant options out there. Mount Hagen (the company) sources their coffee beans from Mount Hagen (the place), a city in Papua New Guinea. The beans from here produce a velvety and complex flavor with a nutty undertone, something that you don’t often find in instant coffee. It will definitely change your mind about what instant coffee can do. They offer it in recyclable jars and single-serve packets. Mount Hagen is also the first instant coffee producer in the world to be organic and FairTrade certified.

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