When envisioning the perfect cup of coffee, most people don’t immediately think of instant coffee. That’s pretty understandable, given that instant coffee doesn’t exactly have the greatest reputation and often tastes pretty mediocre. But this quick and easy product has actually come a long way in recent years, especially with specialty roasters entering the scene.
When you’re away from home or simply don’t feel like putting in much effort, a good instant coffee option is seriously convenient. Whether you’re in a hotel, on a road trip, camping or maybe just stuck at your desk at 3 p.m. and in need of a jolt of energy, instant coffee can actually be pretty satisfying ― as long as you choose the right one.
Here’s everything you need to know about finding an instant coffee you actually like.
Why does instant coffee taste different from other types of coffee?
Coffee gets a lot of its complexity due to aromatic compounds that contribute different flavor notes, explained Jiyoon Han, who is a Q grader, barista and co-owner of Bean & Bean Coffee. These notes can vary from caramel and chocolate to berry or floral flavors. But the compounds don’t last long ― they break down quickly and dissipate once exposed to oxygen.
“Most commercial instant coffee tends to have a generic coffee flavor because the process of producing instant coffee, which usually involves freeze-drying brewed coffee until only the dissolved solids are left, drives off all of the delicate flavor compounds,” Han said. She added that instant coffee may even have a strong oxidized taste, somewhat like stale brewed coffee that’s been left out for too long.
What’s different about some of today’s instant coffee options?
In the past, instant coffee was often made from cheap, low-quality coffee. But that isn’t always the case anymore.
“As the specialty coffee market has continued to grow, there’s been more interest in making instant coffee taste good to capture the market of coffee drinkers who prioritize both flavor and convenience,” Han said. “This means starting with high-quality, specialty grade coffee, and then using a gentler process to turn it into instant coffee that captures as much of those volatile flavor compounds as possible without allowing them to oxidize.”
There are ways to find good instant coffee.
“For the best instant coffee, seek out specialty coffee roasters and see if they offer an instant coffee product line,” Han recommended. “Otherwise, just keep an eye out for all the hallmarks of specialty coffee when buying instant coffee: information on origin, roast profile and practice certifications, like organic or fair trade.”
These six brands of instant coffee might actually win you over:
This single-origin, medium-roast instant coffee hails from Gedeb, Ethiopia, and contains notes of peach and cacao nib. It’s roasted, brewed and freeze-dried before making its way to you in a box that includes six single-serve packets for $20. If six won’t cut it, Canyon also sells this product in bulk in a box of 48 packets. But act fast, because they sell out quickly. (But keep your eye out for regular restocks!)
Promising review: “Lovely go-to coffee when traveling!” — Mary K.
If you’re feeling noncommittal, try Verve’s instant coffee variety pack, which gives you seven single-serving sachets of instant coffee for $18 in some of the specialty roaster’s most popular types, including Streetlevel, Sermon, The 1950, Buena Visa Dark Roast, Bronson French Roast, Seabright House and Vancouver Decaf.
Promising review: “I ordered the sampler of instant coffee. I was surprised it tastes like getting fresh brewed coffee at the cafe! The packaging is beautiful, too. It’s perfect for holiday gifts or travel. I’ll never settle for complimentary airplane coffee again.” — Anonymous
This sustainably-sourced, medium-roast instant coffee offers hints of chocolate, toffee and dried fruit. The coffee beans are roasted by hand, brewed and then dehydrated before the product makes its way to you in a box that includes six packets of instant coffee for $16.
Promising review: “I was excited to try this instant coffee because the description made it sound so good. And I wasn’t disappointed! The coffee is rich and flavorful, and unlike other instant coffees I’ve tried, it doesn’t taste watered down. This would be an excellent choice for travel since it’s way ahead of the current big-name instant coffees in terms of quality. I highly recommend giving it a try!” — Abe W.
This medium-roast instant coffee has hints of nuts and milk chocolate and is made using coffee beans sourced in Latin America. It’s sold in a 3.2-ounce tin for $9.99, and you just need to add 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the coffee to 6 or 8 ounces of water. Starbucks also sells this product in a dark and blonde roast.
Promising review: “I just discovered this product and I am in love! I have made over ice, as a frappe, and hot! Definitely recommend!”— Bailey B.
This small-batch instant coffee is sold in a box that contains six single-serve packets for $17. If you prefer decaf, that’s an option too. Making a cup of Ace instant coffee is as simple as mixing a packet into 8 ounces of hot or cold water.
This organic and fair trade instant coffee offers a smooth taste and is made from beans sourced in Papua New Guinea. It’s sold in a 3.5-ounce jar for $11.99 or a box of 25 single-serve packets for $10.99, and also available in decaf. It can be made with hot and cold water or milk.
Promising review: “One of the best, if not the best, instant coffee I had ever had. Great scent, very flavorful. Honestly doesn’t feel like I am drinking instant. I always make fresh coffee, but every now and then I am lazy or simply don’t have time, so use instant, and with this coffee I don’t feel like I am losing anything. Great substitute.” — Alexander