The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Best Instant Coffee: Reviews, Testing, and Expert Recommendations

Instant coffee has long been a convenient and popular choice for coffee lovers on the go. But what exactly is instant coffee? How does it compare to freshly brewed coffee? In this article, we will delve into the world of instant coffee, exploring its origins and how it is made. We will also share with you our comprehensive testing process to determine the best instant coffees currently on the market. From well-known brands like Folger's and Nescafé to specialty options like Trader Joe's and Starbucks, we will reveal the top contenders that impressed us with their taste and quality. Whether you're a camping enthusiast, a busy commuter, or simply someone who craves a quick cup of joe, join us as we uncover the best instant coffees that are sure to satisfy your caffeine cravings.

 

What is instant coffee and how is it made?

 

Instant coffee is a type of coffee that is produced using a process similar to regular coffee brewing. It starts with roasting and grinding coffee beans. Hot water is then poured over the ground coffee to brew it, similar to using a French press. The brewed coffee is concentrated through evaporation and then undergoes either freeze-drying or spray-drying to convert it into granules. These granules are then packaged and can be rehydrated with hot water to create a cup of coffee that closely resembles a typical house blend, although it may have a lower caffeine content.

 

Our testing process

 

To determine the best instant coffee, we conducted blind tests on twelve different brands. We focused on medium and espresso roasts and included offerings from specialty coffee roasters as well as some supermarket brands to provide a diverse selection. Our panel of tasters evaluated the taste, smell, and complexity of each cup to find the one that most closely resembled the flavor of freshly ground coffee. We conducted two rounds of tasting using hot water that was slightly below boiling and no additional additives. Here are our findings:

 

Top contenders for the best instant coffees

 

Nescafé Clásico Dark Roast Instant Coffee

 

Nescafé Clásico Dark Roast Instant Coffee, although not on the same level as Starbucks or Juan Valdez, is a reliable option for mid-level instant coffee. Unlike Juan Valdez, it doesn't require double the amount of product as indicated in the directions. However, we were disappointed by the lack of flavor in this coffee. Dark roasts are known for their bold and rich taste, but Nescafé's instant dark roast leans more towards the remnants of coffee found at the end of the carafe in a hotel lobby. Adding an extra teaspoon of grounds slightly improved the taste, but it was still mediocre at best.

If you prefer to add creamer or sugar to your coffee, be aware that the flavors might overpower the taste of the coffee itself. Some coffee drinkers prefer this, but if you're seeking a more enjoyable coffee experience, you might want to explore other options. On the positive side, the cost is affordable, with each cup costing around ten cents, as per Walmart's prices.

 

Starbucks Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate

 

Cold brew is a great way to switch up your coffee routine, especially during hot months. There are various convenient methods of making cold brew at home, including liquid concentrates, dehydrated granules, ready-to-drink jugs, and single-serving bottles. Starbucks' Cold Brew Concentrate comes in convenient Keurig-pod-like containers that make a single 8-ounce serving of cold brew by simply adding water.

While it's hard not to compare the packaged cold brew concentrate to the on-site version at Starbucks, particularly their nitro cold brew, Starbucks' instant version sets itself apart from others with its full-bodied and vibrant flavor. We can detect hints of graham, honey, and raisin in this bittersweet brew, indicating a quality medium or medium-dark roast. Additionally, Starbucks' cold brew concentrate holds up well against flavored creamers, syrups, sugar, and other add-ins.

However, the price of almost $10 for six capsules from Target makes it less affordable for daily consumption compared to jugs or powders, as well as hot coffee.

 

Juan Valdez Colombia Instant Coffee

 

Juan Valdez claims that its freeze-dried coffee granules are the closest you can get to a freshly-brewed cup of coffee. However, upon adding hot water to the crystals, we immediately sensed trouble. The aroma of this product is burnt and stale, similar to lower-tier brands like Folgers and Maxwell House. The instructions do not specify the amount of water needed, so we opted for 8 ounces, resulting in a richly concentrated black coffee flavor. Surprisingly, after the first sip, we couldn't taste any coffee at all. The instructions state that 1 teaspoon of coffee granules per cup is sufficient, but the lack of flavor puzzled us, so we added an extra teaspoon.

Finally, after doubling the amount of product, we were able to taste the coffee. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the initial smell was misleading. This instant coffee is made with quality Colombian coffee, which is known for its smooth flavor, sometimes surpassing Arabica beans. Juan Valdez Instant Colombian Coffee strikes a pleasant balance between bold and bright, but this balance is achieved only when using double the recommended amount of coffee crystals. The packaging claims to make 64 cups of coffee, but considering the need for doubling, we estimate the actual number of servings to be half of that. At Walmart, each cup costs approximately $0.16.

 

Starbucks VIA Instant Italian Roast Coffee

 

Italy is renowned for its expertise in both coffee and pasta. However, there's one aspect of Italian coffee roasting many Americans might not appreciate – the Italian roast coffee. Italian roast beans are roasted until they reach a deep purplish-black color, resulting in the loss of the coffee's natural flavors and characteristics. This type of coffee is bold, robust, and has low acidity, discernible bitterness, and smoky overtones. If you can detect any flavor notes in Starbucks VIA Instant Italian Roast Coffee, they are likely to be rich cacao and charred marshmallow.

Among the instant coffees we've tasted, Starbucks' options come closest to resembling a freshly-brewed cup. However, the Italian roast variant tends to leave a greasy film in the mouth after drinking, unlike the Pike Place roast. The dark roast may not appeal to all coffee drinkers, but you can use hot milk to achieve a more café au lait-like experience. The cost of Starbucks Instant Italian Roast is around $1 per cup from Target, which is definitely less expensive than visiting an actual Starbucks.

 

Café Bustelo Espresso Instant Coffee

 

Café Bustelo Espresso Instant Coffee is the go-to choice for avid coffee lovers. Since it's technically an espresso powder, it pairs exceptionally well with an affogato, latte, or cappuccino if you have the means to steam milk at home. Alternatively, you can enjoy it with a generous pour of heavy cream to mellow out the espresso's strong taste. If you prefer, you can completely omit the water and opt for 6 ounces of cream heated on the stove to rehydrate the espresso powder. The natural caramelization of the roast adds a slight hint of sweetness to the intensely flavored dark roast coffee, which features notes of butter toffee and dark chocolate. The smoky and bitter taste might not appeal to everyone if consumed on its own.

However, once you find a preparation method that suits your preferences, Café Bustelo Instant Espresso is highly recommended compared to other instant coffees. It boasts a rich and satisfying flavor that can stand up to sweeteners and creamers, and it lacks the unpleasant oily texture and sour taste often present in other instant coffees. Plus, Café Bustelo is a much more affordable option compared to the daily expenses of visiting a Starbucks, with each serving costing around $0.50 on Amazon.

 

Why use instant coffee while camping, backpacking, and bikepacking?

 

Obtaining a satisfying cup of coffee in the great outdoors has become significantly easier with the availability of instant coffee brands.

Preparing a good cup of coffee while camping can be more manageable if you don't mind the extra weight of a coffee maker or if you're camping in close proximity to a vehicle. However, carrying coffee equipment can be a burden when backpacking. In an attempt to address this, I personally tried to give up caffeine while section-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, but it only lasted about five days. As a compromise, I began exploring various types of instant coffee.

Back then, the best instant coffees were bulky packets filled with flavorings, creamers, and copious amounts of sugar. However, the additives didn't bother me much since I was hiking extensively and burning a significant number of calories.

For shorter trips, like bikepacking adventures lasting less than 24 hours, I prefer instant coffee without additives to come as close as possible to the enjoyment of backcountry coffee made with a coffee maker.

 

What is the best instant coffee to water ratio?

 

Almost all of the instant coffee products I tested recommend a water volume of 8 to 12 ounces per packet. If you have access to a way to measure the exact amount of water, that would be ideal. However, when brewing instant coffee in the backcountry, I've found a useful trick to achieve a quality cup:

  • Start by pouring a small amount of hot water into your cup to prevent the coffee crystals from sticking to the bottom. Use slightly less water than you think you'll need.
  • Add the contents of the packet and stir.
  • After tasting, you can dilute the coffee further to adjust the flavor to your liking.

 

WHERE CAN I EXPAND MY KNOWLEDGE ABOUT COFFEE?

 

To delve deeper into the fascinating world of coffee, I suggest starting your educational journey at your local coffee shop. These establishments are unparalleled sources of coffee wisdom, as they are well-versed in the intricacies of the industry. Moreover, many coffee shops organize a myriad of compelling coffee-centric events. If they happen to roast their own beans, they may also offer public or private cupping events where you can learn to discern and evaluate different coffees.

Another exceptional resource for expanding your knowledge about coffee is Sprudge. While there are numerous websites dedicated to coffee, I have always turned to Sprudge for its comprehensive reviews of both coffees and coffee shops, up-to-the-minute news about the coffee industry, and the latest findings in the realm of coffee.

If you are inclined towards reading, I highly recommend exploring "God In A Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee" by the accomplished journalist Michaele Weissman (Amazon). In this captivating book, Weissman delves into the passionate pursuits of coffee growers and brewers, delving into every facet of the market. Prepare to discover the enigmatic world of Gesha coffees, which are sometimes sold for a staggering $130 per pound or more!

For those keen on perfecting their coffee brewing skills at home, "Brew" by the renowned Brian W. Jones (Bookshop or Amazon) is an indispensable resource. Not only will it enhance the aesthetic appeal of your kitchen, but it also contains a wealth of invaluable information and a plethora of recipes for brewing coffee using various techniques!

In conclusion, with the wide variety of instant coffees available on the market, finding the best one may seem like a daunting task. However, after extensive testing, we have narrowed down the top choices for you. Whether you prefer a classic roast, a flavored blend, or even a dairy-free alternative, there is an instant coffee out there to suit your taste. So, the next time you're camping, backpacking, or simply need a quick pick-me-up, don't settle for mediocre coffee. Choose one of our recommended instant coffees and elevate your caffeine experience. And if you want to learn more about the world of coffee, there are endless resources and guides available to help expand your knowledge. Happy brewing!

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