Instant Coffee: A Reconsideration

On a recent supermarket visit, I gathered up a handful of various brands to see if my disdain for instant coffee has been justified.

click to enlarge Just add water!
Just add water!

Like millions of Americans, I love coffee. And probably like the vast majority of those millions, I require coffee.

As much as I love/need coffee, though, I’m far from a connoisseur. I often pick up a bag of Starbucks for the home coffeemaker; the way I know I’m not a coffee snob is because coffee snobs on the Internet say Starbucks is awful. My taste buds just don’t notice that much of a difference between drinking from beans that have been pooped out by a bat or drinking a venti cup of Colombia from the Starbucks in a Target.

Still, I do have my limits. I have held my nose and swallowed cups of hotel coffee (how is it always so bad?) and on long road trips, I’ve gulped cups of gas station coffee. But when I’ve found myself visiting relatives or other non-habitual coffee drinkers and all they have is a jar of instant coffee, I’d rather shoot it straight into my eyeballs than drink it.

So maybe I am a coffee snob, but more on par with a hamburger snob who enjoys a Big Mac but scoffs at the mere mention of a White Castle slider.

Long before I had my first cup of joe, “just add water and serve” coffee has had a stigma to it. Part of it may be the old Folgers commercials from the ’80s, in which fancy restaurant diners had to be “tricked” into drinking instant coffee and then are shocked to find out that this garbage they’d been served actually wasn’t horrendous. Instant also seems to be popular with the elderly, usually a sign that it won’t be around much longer.

But today, instant coffee is actually thriving. Not in America, but elsewhere. Earlier this year, several reports were published about how instant coffee sales have been steadily increasing, particularly in places like China, where “just add boiling water” drinks are an easy transition since tea drinking is culturally ingrained. A recent article on Smithsonian Magazine’s website noted research from the Global Coffee Report that instant coffee sales have expanded at a rate of 7 to 10 percent per year globally for the past decade. Market research by Euromonitor International found that more than half of the planet prefers their coffee instant. And a Washington Post article from this summer posited that instant was popular in countries that are relative java newbies because it’s a good “entry point.” (True confession: Pre-coffee habit, I had a brief fling with General Foods International Coffee, a line of awful powdered coffee — remarkably still available — that came in a ridiculously huge array of “international” flavors. So I get the “entry point” thing.)

Due to my low-level coffee snobbery, I rarely even look at instant coffee while shopping. But recently I noticed it was still getting a lot of shelf space. It makes sense. Instant coffee is way more affordable than most ground coffee/coffee beans at the supermarket. And it is slightly faster to make a cup of instant versus brewing a cup; people say that’s important because people are busier nowadays, but my suspicion is we’re just lazier.

A newer trend for instant coffee is packaging in small single-serving packets. On a recent supermarket visit, I gathered up a handful of various brands to see if my disdain for instant coffee has been justified.

Nescafé’s Taster’s Choice “house blend” instant coffee is better than hotel and gas station coffee (not a glowing review, but I expected dank swill, so …). It’s also better than Folgers instant “classic roast”; the coffee flavor doesn’t punch through and it tasted as watery as hotel crap.

A few years ago, for reasons not entirely clear, Starbucks got into instant coffee with its VIA Ready Brew offerings. They’re still widely available at most grocery stores, though sales reportedly haven’t been great. As (now) expected, the Ready Brews are also “not that bad.” The packet of Colombia-flavored VIA was better than gas station coffee and just a tad more flavorful than Taster’s Choice. Cost-wise, for $5 you can get a box of 20 Taster’s Choice packets or a box of eight single-serve Starbucks packets.

There are also some instant espresso drink options available. Neither of the two I tried lived up to the real brewed deal, but Starbucks’ instant Caffè Mocha (part of VIA’s Latte line and made with “natural dairy”) was much better than the Folgers French Vanilla Cappuccino, which reminded me of my old, powdery International Coffee days. You can at least taste coffee bean in the instant Caffè Mocha; not a lot, but it’s there.

While I won’t be ditching my coffee maker any time soon, instant coffee really isn’t as bad as I’ve always imagined. I think there’s something to be said for becoming attached to the process of brewing coffee, but now that I have a few boxes of instant in my pantry, I’m curious if I’ll reach for a packet the next time I run out the real stuff or if that old stigma is still so strong, I just go the “Pepsi straight into my veins” route.

CONTACT MIKE BREEN: [email protected] or


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