I think most self-respecting coffee snobs would agree that instant coffee is terrible and should feel terrible for being so terrible. There are plenty of arguments to be made for why it’s still popular and enjoys use throughout the world. The first and foremost argument is that it’s ludicrously cheap. The second is that it only requires hot water, and nothing else. The third is that… Well, no, that’s actually about it. But that’s really all you need when the majority of the population of this planet doesn’t have the time or the dough to prepare a drip-brewed or pressed cup of joe, especially when you’re pinching pennies but still want that caffeine boost. To those who can make the choice between brewed and instant, it’s interesting to see how little people really know about how instant coffee is made, and why it tastes the way it does.
Instant coffee is coffee. For the most part, at least. Most, if not all instant black coffee brands approved by the USDA or similar international organizations are made of nothing but brewed coffee. The process of making instant coffee is relatively complicated but can be summarized as dehydrating strong, brewed coffee in a way that limits the loss of flavor. It’s an expensive process, which often means you end up having to use cheaper beans, and it’s also a very volatile process, which means that a lot of aromatic oils get lost. As for the specifics, most instant coffee is either freeze-dried or spray-dried. These are entirely different methods of making instant coffee, but the end product is always the same – dried clumps of coffee essence, quickly turned into something resembling a cup of brewed coffee after some hot water.
How Instant Coffee is Made
The gist of instant coffee is that it’s brewed coffee that’s been dehydrated, but it’s the dehydration process that actually makes or breaks the whole thing. The process of making instant coffee starts, as with all kinds of coffee, with the bean. Roasted and delivered to the facility where the instant coffee is made, the first step in the process is crushing and brewing the grinds.
This is done on an industrial scale, in giant percolators that basically push hot water through several layers of ground coffee, producing an extremely strong coffee beverage. Often, strong albeit very unsubtle Robusta beans are used in the process of making instant coffee, because they’re cheaper, and have a much higher quantity of caffeine, which makes them easier to farm because they’re naturally insect-resistant for the most part.
The only problem is that all that caffeine also makes Robusta beans generally taste much worse, and comparisons have been made to burnt tires and wood. You’ll rarely see Robusta outside of the context of instant coffee, except, surprisingly, in high-grade espresso blends, where Robusta beans are used to add to the kick and consistency of the end product, as espresso connoisseurs believe that it adds to the crema (the light brown foam that forms at the top of a shot of espresso).
Once the coffee is brewed, it moves onto the next step – the actual drying. There are generally two ways this is done: spray-drying and freeze-drying.
The Spray-Drying Process
The basis of spray-drying is that if you throw a bunch of water into a superheated environment, said water is going to completely vaporize in an instant. Likewise, if you throw a liquid substance into a superheated environment, the heat is going to pull the moisture out while what’s left is going to scorched. But if the whole thing is pressurized with a massive amount of air, no scorching occurs, while solids are completely separated from any moisture in the original slurry.
To put it simply, spray-drying involves sending a slurry of coffee through a nozzle into the top of a hot cylinder, alongside a jet of superheated air surrounding the nozzle, blasting into the cylinder at 400mph. The air captures the slurry and completely removes all moisture, pushing down the powder that remains through the hole of the cylinder into a receptacle. The result is dehydrated coffee.
This process utilizes a lot of heat and pressure, at over 500 degrees Celsius, far past the boiling point of water. The pressure instantly pushes the coffee through the cylinder without having the particles be scorched, but a lot of flavors are still lost in the heat.
The Freeze-Drying Process
You’re probably familiar with freeze-dried products, aside from some instant coffee brands. Freeze-dried goods are used by both astronauts and the military as a way to preserve rations without having them spoil, and they’re also used in the pharmaceutical industry and in medicine to prevent certain biological components from spoiling. Just as how spray-drying is used to make powdered milk and a number of other liquid-turned-solid products, the freeze-drying process is much the same, but it uses a different method.
Once again, we start with cheap roasted beans that are ground up and turned into a thick coffee beverage. From there, the process towards instant coffee begins with things getting really, really cold. A slurry of coffee is frozen to -40 degrees Celsius, chopped up and refrozen, and eventually dried at a very low temperature within a vacuum-sealed container. Basically, it is heated while frozen and pressurized, taking all the moisture out of it without causing it to heat back up to the point where it begins to oxygenate. This gentle drying process theoretically better protects it from a loss of flavor, but it takes more time and is generally much more expensive, requiring more space.
Why It Tastes the Way It Does
There are two major reasons why instant coffee generally tastes pretty bad:
- The beans.
- The process.
Instant coffee in most cases is just brewed coffee that’s been dehydrated, so in theory, it shouldn’t really taste as bad as it does. But both the beans and the process for making the coffee is generally low-quality. While some select high-quality instant coffee brands exist – especially in South America, in Brazil and Columbia – most instant coffee is very expensive to produce from an investment standpoint, so companies tend to pour very little money into the acquirement of delicious beans in order to save up, break even, and make a profit on the production of the coffee itself.
Because of that, the Robusta beans mentioned earlier are the prime choice for most instant coffee makers. The process also isn’t helping much. While a coffee concentrate is being produced in these factories, said concentrate isn’t exactly following all the best practices of making the right cup of joe., It’s more about creating a flavor-dense slurry of brown liquid, so if anything’s lost in the production of instant coffee, there’s still enough flavor for it to be recognizable as coffee. For the most part.
Can You Make It Taste Better?
There are several theoretical ways of making instant coffee taste better, but I can’t necessarily attest to them. I’ve never had great coffee experiences with instant coffee, so I can’t say that any of these work, but there are three relatively quick and easy fixes that are supposed to make instant coffee taste better.
- Add cold water to the granulated instant coffee before adding hot water. Apparently, cold water allows the flavors to come alive better than hot water does, because most people pour boiling water over the coffee, which tends to kill the oils and any aroma left in the granules.
- Boil the coffee again after adding hot water to it. Now, yes, this completely contradicts what I just wrote above. But apparently, it works to make a better tasting cup of instant coffee.
- Add butter to it. Yeah, I don’t know anymore. You’ll want unsalted butter obviously, and apparently, this is supposed to improve the taste of the coffee by giving it some of the lipids it desperately needs and by just making it smoother and richer overall. Well, sure, if you want to make something tastier, adding hot butter to it is sort of a no-brainer.
That’s about all I’ve really heard in the way of making instant coffee taste better, outside of just adding a bunch of other things into it to generally mask the taste of what you’re experiencing, like cinnamon or cacao powder, or just a massive amount of milk and sugar.
What About 3-in-1?
Throughout this post, I’ve been referring to instant coffee strictly as the kind that is produced by brewing coffee beans and capturing the resulting liquid in a powder form through a dehydration process. There are, however, many forms of instant coffee that actually don’t just contain coffee. And these are substantially worse than whatever you happen to brew at home, and likely worse than what you’re getting at your regular old local café when you order a latte or a cappuccino.
3-in-1 coffee tends to be a blend of corn syrup or otherwise cheap glucose, powdered creamer, and coffee. That doesn’t imply milk, but rather it implies a much more complex mix of hydrogenated vegetable oils (the cheapest possibly available), flavor additives, and more. Just don’t drink that stuff, if you can avoid it. Regular black instant coffee is a great deal healthier, even if it tastes funky.
Instant Coffee and Health
Instant coffee – if black – isn’t any worse for your health than brewed coffee. Reports suggest that it has about twice as much acrylamide as brewed coffee, which has some folks scared. Acrylamide is a carcinogen, but its toxicity and cancer-inducing properties have only been tested in mice, and at concentrations way, way, way, way higher than anything you’d find in brewed or instant coffee.
Much like how people run scared of GMO crops, there’s little to fear from a few cups of coffee a day. You might have a problem if you can’t function without coffee or drink more than four cups – which implies a number of unhealthy lifestyle habits, to begin with – but anything under three cups is perfectly fine.