Nearly every coffee-drinker can remember the first time they had to settle for instant coffee in a pinch.
Whether it was finding an old glass jar of black crystals in the back of Grandma’s pantry, going for the envelope of coffee in the MRE accessory packet or trying to find something to fend off jet lag in a foreign country, the outcome was likely the same: After finding a source of hot water and adding the crystals or powder that promised it was just like drinking a fresh cup of Colombian delight, the first sip told you it was all a finely crafted lie.
Smelling the hints of burned asphalt and regret, the hot cup of liquid in front of you was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike coffee. After swilling that horrid cup of liquid that was “coffee” in name only, you swore off instant coffee entirely.
The good news is that you are not alone and that the state of instant coffee has vastly improved in recent years.
INVARIABLY LINKED: MILITARY AND INSTANT COFFEE
Since Andrew Jackson issued an executive order in October 1832 eliminating U.S. Army liquor rations in favor of coffee and sugar, coffee has been inextricably tied to life in the United States military.
A process developed by the Nestle Corporation in the late 1930s finally gave life to modern instant coffee—instant coffee that was purchased almost exclusively by the U.S. military throughout World War II. This fortuitous joining of instant coffee and U.S. troops has persisted to this day, providing the first encounter with instant coffee by many a young coffee-drinker.
Despite the military’s love affair with instant coffee, most of the instant coffee produced is consumed outside the United States, because nationally, we prefer the fresh-brewed coffee options. In predominantly tea-drinking nations such as the United Kingdom and Australia, instant coffee reigns supreme, comprising over 75 percent of coffee sold in Australia and New Zealand.
Even though the rest of the world might prefer instant, consumption of instant coffee here, in America, has been limited by the availability of fresh-ground coffee and the recent advent of the single-serving fresh-coffee pod.
That said, when it comes down to disasters and other contingency events, options for getting a caffeine fix are limited, and contingency planning is where instant coffee options become important for coffee-drinkers like me.
As a technical professional, my coffee consumption is frequently measured in pots per day. So, when considering the contents of my range bag and hunting loadout, my thoughts turned to trying to find the best options out there for when trying to stuff a barista in a bug-out bag is not a viable option.
SEARCHING FOR OPTIONS
After rounding up as many single-serving instant coffees as I was able to locate in supermarkets, big box retailers, all-natural grocery stores and Internet retailers, I have thankfully found that the instant coffee industry has made dramatic improvement in quality and drinkability.
Most single-serving instant coffees are packaged in foil-lined plastic tubes that are easy to pack in bug-out bags, toss in an admin pouch or stash in a vehicle glove box. The typical foil sachet contains a single portion of instant coffee powder or crystals to be dissolved in 6 to 8 ounces of water. The two notable exceptions to the sachet packaging are the Serengeti Tea Company’s Sunset Roast, a sachet-sized filter stick that is stirred into hot water, and the Jiva Cube offerings that are, as the name suggests, compressed cubes.
INSTANT COFFEE PRODUCTION
The way the instant coffee is produced influences the quality of the reconstituted coffee as much as the choice of beans going into the process. There are three primary methods of instant coffee production: spray drying, freeze drying and microgrinding.
The earliest method of instant coffee mass production was spray drying. The coffee bean was roasted, ground and made into an industrial vat-sized cup of coffee. That vat was then sprayed through atomizer nozzles into a drying column to evaporate the water in the coffee and produce a fine power that was further milled in later stages to produce a uniform powder. Many of the oils contained in a fresh cup of coffee were lost in the process, resulting in a reconstituted cup of coffee that was, in terms of quality, far from fresh.
In the 1960s, the freeze-drying process became a viable method of instant coffee production. That same industrial vat of coffee was cryogenically frozen, placed in a vacuum chamber and the liquid sublimated from the coffee, producing shiny, black crystals. As with the spray-drying process, a great deal was lost in translation from freshbrewed to reconstituted coffee.
Finally, in the last decade, the caffeinated powers that be devised yet another method of instant coffee production that faithfully reproduces the fresh coffee that goes into the process: microgrinding. However, because the folks at Starbucks and Folgers Fresh Breaks are tight-lipped about how they produce their coffees, the world may never know.
SHELF LIFE CONSIDERATIONS
Despite what many might believe, instant coffee does come with a shelf life. And, among the different types of instant coffee, the best-by date on the single-serving sachets range from around two years for the freeze-dried and spray-dried varieties to a year for the microground. Taking the nearly universal disdain for instant coffee in America into account, your instant coffee might only have about six months of shelf life before hitting the best-by date on the packet, so examine closely if the coffee is going to be stuffed into range bags or other out-of-the-way places.
Not putting much stock in a manufacturer’s best-by date, I compared newly purchased Starbucks microground French roast coffee with the same coffee more than three and a half years past the best-by date. In a blind side-by-side taste test, the expired coffee was noticeably different from the fresh in both flavor and bouquet. The expired coffee was drinkable, and the flavor was not the least bit off-putting, but it was different, nonetheless. In a similar comparison of Taster’s Choice freeze-dried coffee, however, the coffee packet retrieved from an MRE of unknown age and dubious provenance was indistinguishable from freshly purchased. That is not to say it was pleasant or desirable, given the higher-quality alternatives, but the taste did not seem similarly affected after age, rough handling and heat.
To really get a feel for what is on the market, I taste-tested more than 20 different instant coffees. The results were encouraging: While there were still the instant coffee options so many of us remember from years past, innovation in the market has produced some coffees that are indistinguishable from fresh brewed.
But, because coffee preference is so subjective, instead of ranking each different instant coffee offering individually, I’ve grouped them to allow the discerning caffeine connoisseur to focus their efforts in exploring the new instant coffees out there.
“COFFEE” IN NAME ONLY
As the name suggests, these coffees bear only a passing resemblance to fresh brewed. This category is typified by a harsh chemical flavor with undertones of regret! This is most definitely the instant coffee you remember from yesteryear. Thankfully, these offerings let you know right away that the packet contains “classic” formulations of instant coffee (for those who yearn for nostalgia). Coffees in this category are easily found for under 25 cents per serving:
- Taster’s Choice Original $
- Nescafé Clasico $
- Folgers Classic Roast $
These are a distinct step up from what you are likely to remember. There is no doubt you are drinking instant coffee, but it is still a passable cup of coffee. This category is characterized by a hint of chemical aftertaste but offers a rather rich and satisfying cup of coffee. These offerings allow anyone to carry a courthouse coffee machine in the convenience of their pocket. Coffees in this category are easily found for under 25 cents per serving:
- Taster’s Choice French Roast $
- Café Bustelo $
- Taster’s Choice House Blend $
“Is it real, or is it Memorex?” These coffees are the best that science can provide in instant, single-serving packets. These coffees are rich and flavorful, with only a passing suggestion that it could be anything but fresh brewed. Coffees in this category are where the discerning coffee-loving prepper should begin their exploration. These coffees range in price from under 25 cents to over $1.25 per serving. In this list, these single-serve coffees get more expensive as you go from top to bottom:
- Taster’s Choice Columbian $
- Safeway Select House Blend $
- Folgers Fresh Breaks Black Silk $$
- Serengeti Sunset Roast $$
- Hula Girl 100% Kona $$
- Mulvadi 100% Kona $$
- Jacobs Krönung Gold $$$
- Starbucks Columbian $$$$
- Starbucks Italian Roast $$$$
- Jiva Classic Strong $$$$$
- Jiva Black Dark Roast $$$$$
I only set out to look at the most basic, black, single-serving instant coffees out there, but I got so wrapped up in snapping up any instant coffee I could get my hands on that a few flavored coffees slipped in. I think it would be a disservice to all coffee drinkers to omit these from the results. The real high-water mark is the Korean Maxim three-in-one coffee. Available at Korean markets and from Amazon.com in 100-count bags, they are a super-cheap and tasty coffee, even for those who typically drink only black coffee. The Trader Joe’s offering is indistinguishable from the Maxim and is available in Trader Joe’s stores nationwide.
For the discerning instant coffee-drinkers, the offerings from Jiva offer premium Columbian coffee that is delicious, as well as fair trade, vegan, glutenfree, non-GMO—and likely cage-free, cruelty-free and freerange, to boot! The Maxim and Trader Joe’s offerings are fairly inexpensive per serving, but the three Jiva coffees are quite expensive per serving:
- Maxim Original Coffee/Cream and Sugar Added $
- Trader Joe’s Coffee/Cream and Sugar Added $
- Jiva Hazelnut $$$$$
- Jiva Mocha $$$$$
- Jiva Caramel $$$$$
In short, do not let past experiences cloud your judgement when it comes to reaching for instant coffee to include in your bug-out bag or admin pouch. When a fresh pot of coffee might be impossible or impractical, take a look at some of the new and very drinkable offerings that have made their way onto the market. Your inner caffeine fiend will thank you.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2018 print issue of Gun World magazine.