For the purposes of this blog, I’ll refer to freeze-dried instant coffee, the kind you’ll see on every supermarket shelf, as “instant”.
We all know instant; the jars that line the shelves of convenience stores, that sit in waiting in the cupboards of offices and perch next to the kettle in most family homes.
The majority of the instant coffee market is made up of freeze-dried coffees – a landscape of visibly different brands which are in fact owned by a handful of global conglomerates all offering “the best cup”.
“A landscape of freeze-dried coffees all offering ‘the best cup’.”
The stark truth is that these brands are more focused on their bottom line. It’s understandable; they have shareholders to appease and competitors to battle with, often focusing heavily on outcompeting each other for shelf space in a race to the bottom.
In coffee terms, this race to the bottom means buying commodity grade coffee and extracting every last drop of flavour out of the beans.
If you’ve ever brewed a coffee manually (whether using pre-ground supermarket coffee in your french press/cafetiere or freshly ground speciality coffee through a V60,) you’ll know extracting everything doesn’t produce the tastiest cup. You’ll most likely be left with a bitter-tasting, mouth-drying soup that only somewhat resembles coffee.
With this in mind, there are certain variables, such as brewing time and water temperature, that we can try to control in order to produce a “tasty” brew. An important note here, however, is that taste is very subjective. Whether you prefer a more bitter-tasting dark roast, or a fruitier, lighter roast, that’s your preference – Neither are wrong. What you do want, though, is the ability to reproduce your “tasty” cup time and time again.
If there’s a good thing to say about instant coffee it’s that it provides consistency to the everyday consumer, even if it’s consistently a very average coffee. That’s 1 of 2 reasons a lot of people rely on instant: They know what they’re getting every time.
But let’s face it, there’s not many times you’ve picked up a cup of instant coffee and thought to yourself, damn…. That’s tasty!
Speciality for the coffee connoisseur
If you’re really into your coffee, and love knowing where it comes from, you’re faced with a brick wall when it comes to instant. There’s very little information offered by companies producing instant on what grade coffee they’re using, its origin, when and what farm it was grown in, or whether the farmers are being paid a sustainable price. If you’re lucky, they’ll state that their coffee is made up of 5+ origins blended together – again to create consistency in flavour year to year.
Why isn’t there better instant then? Something that champions provenance and quality. The market is so saturated with the same quality instant coffee. Surely there has to be a better, tastier option?
The answer: Yes. Kind of. It’s just that, in most people’s opinions, it’s not enough of an improvement to justify to large increase in price. The average cost of a cup of instant is £0.08*, whereas the speciality instant coffees currently on the market range from £1.93-£2.70/cup – before shipping!
I’ve personally tried two of the examples on the market, and unfortunately I agree that the quality isn’t a big enough jump for the investment; they just don’t come close to resembling a freshly brewed coffee. They are noticeably less bitter, due to a better extraction and better coffee beans, however there’s just no real distinct flavour. Of course, a large part of these products USP is that they use speciality, sustainably and ethically sourced coffee. This grade of coffee often results in a large beneficial impact at origin for farmers which is great and should be supported, however if the end product isn’t good enough, the mass market will never adopt it and so the effect of using this “next level” of coffee is very small.
“Speciality instant coffees cost up to £2.70 a cup. Unfortunately, the quality isn’t a big enough jump for the investment”
What’s the alternative? Well, we have to think about what we miss when drinking instant…
The aroma will never be as good
Aroma in coffee comes from the volatile compounds extracted from the beans – these compounds evaporate very easily, which is what carries them up from the surface of the liquid and into your sensitive sniffers. When producing instant, boiling water is used to extract the flavour and, although manufacturers try their hardest to retain the aromas released during extraction, they will never manage to retain everything. When you add the boiling water to your instant coffee granules, the aroma resembles coffee but it’s got nothing on a fresh brew. It’s commonly stated that 90% of the flavour we associate with food and drink actually originates from its aroma. It’s therefore clear to see how much of an effect the loss of coffee aroma can have on the overall taste of that coffee, and therefore how well people perceive it.
“90% of flavour originates from its aroma. It’s clear to see how much that affects the taste of instant coffee”
It’s often described as a boring “coffee” taste
Again, aroma plays a huge part in this. However, the coffee used is as much to blame. Because of the brutal process the coffee undergoes during production of instant freeze-dried coffee, even using an outstanding quality, single origin, 95-point Geisha from Panama would have little effect of the end-quality of the product. Sure, it would taste better, but this increase would not be proportionate to the increase in price. Using single origin higher grade coffee, roasted to bring out the origins individual flavours would definitely result in a better cup though!
“Even some of the world’s best coffee would have little effect on the end-quality a cup of freeze-dried coffee”
These problems are inherent to the process of freeze-dried instant coffee as we know it, in granule form. So, if the process is the problem, what else is out there?
Coffee syrups? Camp coffee is one interesting alternative (although, while the concept is great, the flavour isn’t so much.) While it’s seen as a coffee substitute, it was initially produced for the military in 1876, to brew coffee quickly. Its concept presents an interesting alternative: A concentrated syrup-like liquid, to be diluted down (arguably as quickly as present day instant.)
I first came across this product as a child – my grandmother would use it in baking to create coffee cakes. Over the years of brewing we’ve done at Artemis there’s been many an experiment, and one day i managed to accidentally produce a concentrate of our cold brew that was thick enough to be sticky between the fingers! It sparked more experiments, and eventually lead to us creating Artemis Coffee Concentrate. Although bartenders mainly use it for producing super tasty espresso martinis quickly, I first used it to make my coffee in the mornings when i had little time to do manual brews.
“Although it’s mainly used for Espresso Martinis, I first used it to make my morning coffee when short on time”
At the time of release it was just (in my head, at least) too expensive to release as a speciality instant. At £18 plus shipping, you’re looking at £1.30-per-cup. But after seeing the rise in demand for a better-tasting speciality instant, maybe it does have a place in the market..? I can certainly vouch that it makes the best instant coffee i’ve ever tasted, and is the only instant i’ve ever tasted that actuallyresembles a well-brewed filter coffee.
Keep this between me and you, but we’re aiming to drop the price of our concentrate very soon… We’ve had a good increase in efficiency over the year, and due to its success – we’ve supplied a great number of amazing bars – we can purchase more components in bulk!
So, keep your eyes peeled. We may just have a mainstream instant challenger emerge, if we see the demand. We’ll see, I guess! Let us know your opinion on whether it’s something you’d be interested in adopting in the comments below.