Back away from the Keurig.
Put down that jar of Sanka (because it’s not 1975).
Instant coffee is having a moment. And we have seven we’d happily recommend.
Why instant? It’s unbelievably quick to make, yes. It travels incredibly well (camping, flights, etc.). And it creates far less waste than your average K-cup monstrosity.
Now that specialty roasters are embracing the quick fix, instant coffee is actually on par with a good cuppa joe from your favorite local cafe ... at about half the cost.
So why has instant suddenly become a craft product?
“Historically, instant coffee production has been built around quantity over quality,” says Nate Kaiser, founder of Swift Cup Coffee, the winner of our instant coffee test. “Legacy brands start with the lowest of low-quality, cheapest coffee possible, and then put that coffee through a series of extreme manufacturing processes that destroy any hope of that coffee tasting good. For these companies all that matters is it's brown, caffeinated and that they can produce unlimited amounts of it.”
As a contrast, the Lancaster, PA-based Swift Cup uses ethically-sourced coffee and a proprietary method to brew the beans to a concentrate before dehydrating and freeze-drying the grounds. (Interestingly enough, they happily reject “fair trade” and “organic” labels).
We spent a few months testing out different instant joes. A few things we learned: It’s hard to find most of these in your local supermarket or on Amazon — for five of these selections, you’ll probably have to go straight to the coffee company’s website to order. While cheaper than ordering at your local cafe, it’s more expensive than your greasy diner or local bodega swill, so if caffeine trumps taste or you like the habit of ordering at a counter, stick with your daily habit.
But for those who want to mix it up and do so quickly, our favorite instant coffees:
Best overall: Swift Cup Coffee
SC offers nice packaging (six slim packs in tiny cardboard boxes), a decently priced subscription model, and a multitude of interesting origins and flavors (e.g. Limu: A washed coffee from a brand new cooperative in Ethiopia, featuring citrus, floral and black tea notes). Plus, they probably helped make your favorite local roaster’s instant blend.
For feeling good about yourself: Waka Coffee
Given that coffee production can utilize a lot of water (and create coffee wastewater), it’s great that the Cali-based Waka donates a percentage of their sales to charity: water, which brings clean and safe drinking water to global communities. As for their coffee: They use 100% Colombian Arabica beans, and offer a smooth, not bitter sipper.
For coffee snobs (who occasionally need decaf): Voila
Voila is an Oregon-based instant coffee producer that pretty sweeps up the coffee blog love (which is a thing) and partners with well-loved specialty roasters. Besides their usual blends, they offer a decaf — the Colombia Planadas, which uses a process proprietary to Colombia to lock in flavor and reduce waste (and, as they note, it pairs with “listening to the Sleep With Me podcast.”)
For a Vietnamese variation: Copper Cow
OK, this isn’t technically “instant” coffee, but these portable drip coffee sets (from a Cali-based, women-owned, sustainably-sourced brand) are just as convenient. Just tear open a pack, hang it on your cup of choice, pour hot water over the beans (sourced from the volcanic soil of the Central Highlands of Vietnam) and squeeze in the (included) single serving pack of condensed milk. Sweet rocket fuel for the soul.
Note: Another portable pour-over we like is the Brooklyn-based Dripkit.
For a great instant iced coffee: Starbucks VIA Iced Coffee
We’ve been using these slightly sweetened pour-and-serve java packets for years, and the convenience and price can’t be topped. They’re also better than 90% of whatever passes for “iced coffee” in your local bodega.
For hot and cold takes: Joe Specialty Instant Coffee
The New York-based specialty roasters collaborated with Swift Cup for The Daily, which was the only instant coffee we tried that worked just as well with hot or cold water (mainly claim this, but few pull it off). Not necessarily complex, but definitely easy to drink in any form.
Your Amazon Prime instant: Douwe Egberts
Our household’s been drinking this freeze-dried instant java for a few years now, which hails from a long-running Amsterdam coffee brewer (since 1753!) and has a far bigger footprint in Europe than here. That said, it’s one of the few decent instants we can find on Amazon, and you really have to look for it (it’s the 45th item that pops up under instant coffee). While available in individual packs, we prefer the glass jars, which gives us 40-50 cups of decently robust, yet not overly bitter joe that we can adjust for strength (more ground beans when we’re making iced coffee, for example). Plus, it’s on Prime and Subscribe & Save, and we reuse the empty jars for assorted kitchen storage … including, yes, regular coffee beans.
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