It's come a long way from its origins.
Who doesn't want coffee in an instant, right? Well, there's more than one way to have coffee in a jiffy, but one of the easiest is literal "instant" or "soluble" coffee, which doesn't require any brewing at all, just a quick stir in hot water. (Or hot milk, if you're feeling fancy.) What are these magical flavor crystals, however, and are they really any better than regular old bean-and-water brewing? Here's everything you need to know about instant coffee.
While the earliest recorded instant coffee was developed in New Zealand during the 1880s, the stuff really caught on during World Wars I and II when it was included in soldiers' rations for the first time. According to a high-ranking army official coffee was "as important as beef and bread" stating it "restored courage and strength and kept up morale" as reported by NPR. The relative luxury of being able to make coffee in the trenches caught on quick and many didn't even bother heating water. Homeward-bound G.I.s brought their taste for the stuff back when the war was over, which was also the dawn of the convenience-food craze that grabbed hold of America and never let go.
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Instant coffee also took off in places where brewing technology, leisure time and money are scarce, and despite the propensity for some cultures to turn their nose up at instant coffee, you might be surprised to know roughly half the world drinks it according to a 2014 report by Euromonitor and The Washington Post, with Pacific Asia, Eastern Euripe, Mexico and the U.K. representing three of largest consumers with mainland China close behind.
Since the 1940s, roughly half of the world's coffee production has gone into instant coffee -- a market which was valued at around $28 billion in 2016. Most of it is made from either a blend of Arabica and Robusta coffee (read: high and low-quality beans, with prices that match), or straight Robusta, which is why you'll often find it for a third of the price of its brew-by-the-bean equivalent.
The commercial process for making instant coffee comes in two forms: freeze-drying and evaporation. In both, a brewed-coffee mixture is typically prepared on a commercial scale (that is, gallons and gallons at a time), and then, either through flash freezing or dehydration, the finished coffee liquid has all of its, well, "liquid" removed, leaving behind crystallized bits of finished coffee that simply need to be soaked in water to come "back to life," not unlike any other dried food product. The resulting drink, depending on the quality of the instant product and the ratio of crystals to water, can be either thick and viscous like espresso, or thin and watery like a desperate gas station cup.
As with any coffee on the whole face of the Earth, your mileage will vary with regards to flavor, depending on the quality and freshness of the coffee itself, your brew recipe, water quality, etc.
As a general rule, however, commercial brands of instant coffee are not necessarily designed for savoring: If coffee was more of an enjoyment than a necessity, chances are you'd be willing to wait longer than 25 seconds for the sake of a better cup. Most supermarket-available brands are made with a majority Robusta coffee, which is a low-altitude, high-disease-resistant species of coffee whose flavor tends to have harsh bitter, almost rubbery notes. (Which, of course, is fine if you're adding a ton of milk and sugar, as most instant drinkers do.) That said, most instant coffees are very recognizably coffee-flavored, and some are even halfway decent -- especially the Arabica-based ones: It's a segment of the market that's growing up as free time gets shorter and interest in really find coffee gets wider.
Here's an added bonus of instant coffee: It's an easy ingredient to add a coffee-tasting boost to desserts, breads, dry rubs, spicy chili, oatmeal, muffins, pancakes, milkshakes -- you name it. Rather than having to brew liquid coffee and try to adjust dry/wet ingredient ratios, a simple scoop or two provide a rich, deep coffee flavor to just about any dish, without throwing you off your game. Beware that too much can be overpowering (since it is a kind of concentrated coffee flavor), but that little bit will go a really long, delicious way.
If you'd like to try a truly specialty instant coffee-that's right, one that's legitimately delicious -- try a subscription of Sudden Coffee , a brand of hand-crafted individual servings of top-flight coffees, designed and executed by multi-time Finnish barista champion, Kalle Freese. Subscriptions start at $16 but you can also buy a la carte, though the company is currently experience shipping delays.
Introduced in 2009, this instant version of the strip-mall favorite is actually a really fair representation of the flavor of Starbucks' in-house-brewed coffees, and is what is typically served in airplanes that "proudly feature Starbucks coffee." When you're on the go or stuck in a coffee-machine-free office zone, these little single-servings can really come through in a pinch. Prices vary depending on the roast, but you can get a 50-count box of Italian roast for $38.90 on Amazon (or $36.96 if you subscribe).
The uninitiated might vaguely recognize the iconic yellow-red-blue of the Bustelo label, but for the devoted, there is one and only one coffee: Cafe Bustelo. This iconic Cuban-Puerto Rican-New York City brand is beloved by Caribbean-Americans, who mix it with frothed milk and sugar for a quick cafecito on a busy morning or afternoon. Score a 3-pack of 10 ounce bricks for $8.23 at Walmart, or buy it in single-serve packets like Via.
This story was written by Erin Meister and originally posted on Chowhound.