Instant coffee belongs to the category of cultural food relics, the type of product introduced at a World’s Fair, perfected with the help of military research, and eventually relegated to the pantries of grandmothers everywhere. It’s a food item for people at the fringes: too old, too tired, too time-strapped, cookies for breakfast, sweatpants all day. Coffee purists will swat it from your hand. But we’ve all got a little stash just in case, don’t we?
Because the beautiful thing about instant coffee is that it’s cheap, fast and the lowest-volume solution for getting a coffee fix on the move. Even the most efficient portable coffee solutions like the Jetboil Coffee Press or GSI Mini Espresso, which we’ll cover later this week, can’t beat a 2g single serve tucked in your shirt pocket. It’s also a useful flavoring agent in recipes calling for coffee, and as one component in a dry rub for meat. However, there is a problem with instant, and it’s systemic: The alluring coffee smell, a product of 40 or so volatile compounds, degrades shortly after brewing — and it certainly doesn’t survive freeze-drying or spray drying, the two methods used for making instant. Flavor suffers as a result.
So we surveyed the market to find the best instant coffees readily available in grocery stores. We weren’t looking for something that stacks up to a cup of Zambian Ljulu Lipati from Intelligentsia, but we did want a close approximation to freshly brewed coffee. In the end, they might wrinkle your nose, but hey, sometimes a rough cup in a rough situation is more heart warming than the good stuff.
Starbucks VIA Ready Brew Colombia
Best Overall Instant: Starbucks VIA is a relative newcomer to the instant game, introduced in 2009 and trumpeting a proprietary recipe that includes both dried coffee and what they call “microground” beans, or very finely ground beans. The best part about this coffee is that it has some of the roasty, sulfury aromas — not the kind that issuing from a French press, mind you — that you get with a fresh brew. Among instants it ranks high in complexity, body and acidity. At almost $1 a pop it’s on the expensive side, but we’re not in the habit of nickel and diming with products that cost less than a bone. We also like that it comes in handsome single-serve pouches.
Mount Hagen Organic
Best Organic and Fair Trade Instant: Actually, it’s the only organic and fair trade instant coffee we could find with decent distribution. Mount Hagen is named for a city in the Western Highlands Province of Papa New Guinea, which is also where the beans are harvested — all of which amounts to jack squat if it doesn’t taste good. It’s good. The aroma is less compelling than VIA and it has a slightly off-putting sourness that’s common with freeze-dried coffee, but if you’re going instant and need a clean conscience, tuck a Hagen single serve behind your ear.
Instant Coffee’s Great Moment, Courtesy Chris Farley
Chris Farley was arguably the ultimate SNL member during the “golden years” of the show. There’s plenty of sketches to back up that Friday-night-at-the-bar argument: the Chippendales Dancer, Da Super Fans Heart Attack, and of course, the bumbling motivation speaker, Matt Foley, whose only home is… you know. Still, there’s one skit that seems to perfectly embody the stupid, funny, banshee-howling anti-hero role Farley played on Saturday nights just about perfectly: Coffee Switch. Farley and crew lampoon hidden camera infomercials, but what they’re really showing is that you don’t mess with a man’s coffee. Ever.
– Chris Wright
Davidoff Cafe Fine Aroma
Most Luxurious Packaging: By all accounts Davidoff Fine Aroma is the most alluring, such that you feel physically romanced by the crema-colored packaging. The label makes bold claims: “Davidoff Cafe Grande Cuvee is an exclusive masterpiece composed by the Davidoff Cafe sommelier.” So this is either a major steal at $8.99 or some broke novelist is moonlighting as a copywriter. Our verdict? A little bitter, acidity that isn’t sour, and maybe even some earthy notes. Best with milk and sugar. Nevertheless, fire the sommelier.
Medaglia D’Oro Instant Espresso
Best for Italophiles: One taster described the aroma as chocolatey and another as manure-like, so we’re going to split the difference. This is a drinkable instant coffee with a texture that mimics a fine espresso grind and has a richness that vaguely suggests the same’s flavor. Whereas the other instants on this list are made from 100% arabica beans, our guess is there’s some robusta in this blend that gives it some of that perceived boldness. Medaglia is a popular choice among backpackers. We’d take it along if it came in singles.
Giraldo Farms 100% Colombian
Worst of the Best: If we can level with you for a second, the truth is that instant coffee is best consumed during trying times, when a hot beverage and a boost of energy is what you’re after. This author developed an affinity for it after having his luggage lost en route to a six month stay in Bavaria. In winter. Which is to say that instant coffee is the least of your worries when all you can find at the department store is Euro-cut skivvies. So Giraldo may have suffered from being the fifth coffee we cupped, because it tasted sour, thin, and a little burnt. But in a pinch? Of course.