On those days when you only just manage to crawl out of bed, grinding fresh coffee or even the thought of cleaning out your French press is a headache. Hey, we don’t blame you. Whether you’re busy at work or just don’t fancy going through the fresh coffee brewing motions, instant coffee is a great alternative.
Yes, there’s quite a bit of snobbery for instant coffee lovers amongst the coffee connoisseur community – something that a few of us Coffee Dorks may be guilty of! Compared to fresh coffee grounds brewed to perfection, instant coffee often falls a little flat in flavor and quality.
But this isn’t your average dirt-tasting hotel lobby coffee. This is the best instant coffee that we’ve found.
Mount Hagen sounds like a mysterious place from a Harry Potter novel. But, in fact it is a mountain located in Papua New Guinea that is well-known for its coffee plantations.
If you are not into dark roast, you will certainly enjoy Mount Hagen’s organic freeze-dried instant coffee. It comes in medium-light roast and it has a really nice smooth flavor – quite hard to achieve for an instant coffee brand.
Instant Coffee Fun Facts
- In general, instant coffee contains less caffeine compared to regular coffee (like a drip coffee).
- Nescafe was one of the first successful instant coffee providers in the world and manages to grab 3 spots on our list below.
- Many cheap instant coffees are made from Robusta beans, so make sure you find better quality Arabica instant coffees (or cheat by trying one of our pre-selected instant coffees).
- Japan, Taiwan, and the USA drink the most ready-to-drink coffees like instant coffee (1).
- In 2016, the instant coffee market was evaluated at $9.9 billion (2).
- The New York Stock Exchange started as a coffee house… it’s not really about instant coffee, but isn’t that interesting?
What is Instant Coffee?
Instant coffee, although it often looks like tiny ground coffee crystals, is actually made from brewed coffee.
In big vats, coffee grounds are brewed with water at a high concentration to create a very strong coffee brew. The water is then removed from this concentrated coffee until you’re left with coffee powder or crystals or granules. To reactivate your instant coffee, you just add water and milk.
It’s the same idea as dehydrating and rehydrating food.
So, it’s not fresh… but the upside is it has a much longer use by date. Instant coffee stays good for years.
Furthermore, instant coffee is made from the exact same coffee grounds and water as fresh coffee – it’s simply the process that’s changed. All those antioxidants, nutrients and health benefits of drinking coffee are preserved too.
As for the type of coffee that instant coffee makes, you’re quite limited. Of course, you can use a higher concentration of coffee granules to make a mock espresso shot, and you can water it down or use a lot of milk to make a mock latte. But really, instant coffee only makes one drink. Simple, black coffee. You can increase the strength and add flavorings, sweeteners, and milk, but it will never be quite as rich as fresh coffee.
Nonetheless, different methods of creating instant coffee have led to quite a competitive market. As a result, you can find some truly impressive instant coffee drinks that you might not realize are instant in a blind taste test…
Freeze-Dried VS Spray-Dried Coffee
These are the 2 main ways to turn the highly concentrated coffee extract into instant coffee.
Freeze-dried instant coffee is literally frozen. Then the block of frozen coffee extract is shattered and cut into very small pieces that are dried at a very low temperature.
Spray-dried instant coffee is sprayed into hot air to quickly evaporate out any moisture. This results in a very fine, dry instant coffee powder.
Both methods are very quick at turning the coffee extract into coffee powder – this speed is the key to ensuring the coffee flavor is kept intact. Both processes also allow opportunities for the coffee brewers to add flavorings, sugars, or decaffeinate the coffee.
11 Best Instant Coffee Brands & Blends
Mount Hagen Organic Freeze Dried Instant Coffee
- Medium-light roast
- Light, sweet and smooth flavor
What impressed us so much was how light and smooth this coffee is, while still being quite thick and flavorful. It went particularly well with milk (skip water) especially slightly nutty soy milk or almond milk. It’s our top choice for an instant latte!
That being said, it is a light coffee. Adding multiple teaspoons does increase the strength but the flavor still remains subtle. If you love a strong Italian or French roast (similar to a Starbucks) you need to look elsewhere.
The coffee is grown on Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea, then packaged up in Germany, then sent on over to the USA. So, it does have quite a big carbon footprint before it reaches you. On the other hand, Papua New Guinea is a great place to source coffee from if you enjoy the reassurance of organic certification.
If you like a light, slightly sweet and smooth coffee that works very well with milk-rich coffee concoctions, this is the one for you.
Alpine Instant Coffee
- Medium roast for all 3 types – Original Blend, Coconut Creamer Latte, and Dirty Chai Latte.
- Slightly creamy, rich, light and thick mouthfeel.
- Almost spray-dried.
If you’re unsure about choosing instant coffee because it’s not as rich or creamy as fresh coffee, we’d recommend starting with the Alpine Instant Coffee combo pack. This gives you a chance to try 3 interesting instant coffees:
Original Blend – Arabica instant coffee from high elevation estates.
Coconut Creamer Latte – Arabica instant coffee with non-dairy coconut creamer.
Dirty Chai Latte – Arabica instant coffee with black tea, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, and soy milk.
We contacted Alpine Instant about their processing, as our research couldn’t determine if their instant coffee was freeze dried or spray dried. This was their response:
We use a specific temperature controlled gentle process to retain as much of the flavor from our premium beans throughout the dehydration process. Technically, that would put us closer to the spray-dried procedure, but we do things a bit more unique. What you get in the end is a really fine powder, 100% soluble in any liquid hot OR cold.
All their blends are dairy and gluten free, quite tasty and nice! We found the Dirty Chai Latte to be a little bitter, but other than that we had no complaints.
Nescafe Taster’s Choice
- Medium-light roast
- Rich, distinctive and notable fresh aroma
Nescafe Taster’s Choice happens to be our choice too. It’s one of the best classic tasting instant coffees. It has a distinct coffee flavor and we really noticed how the aroma changed when water was added – it really smelt like fresh coffee!
Nescafe state that it’s a medium-light roast, but we felt it was closer to medium than light. It’s fairly rich for an instant tea and would stand up well by itself or with milk.
You might notice that the freeze-dried coffee pieces are all in various sizes and shapes, but that doesn’t impact the flavor of the coffee. We’re not infusing coffee grinds here, we’re simply rehydrating coffee that’s been brewed perfectly before.
Choose this instant tea if you enjoy classic coffee with no exotic flavors or additives. A simple, but very good, cuppa joe.
Jiva Instant Coffee
- Medium roast
- Smooth, low acidity with fruity and chocolate notes.
Smooth Colombian beans, hand-picked and shade grown. Rich fruity and chocolate notes. Smooth body with low acidity. Yes, please! We’re very happy that this is available as instant coffee. It offers the smoothness and low acidity of a truly fresh coffee with delicious Colombian flavors.
Jiva uses a “cold extraction process” for their beans which is basically freeze-drying them. Whatever their process is, it clearly works.
This instant coffee is available in individual serving packets, which is great for traveling and camping but not so great for the environment, like the glass jars of the other best instant coffees on this list. There are 8 flavors available, but we recommend the unsweetened, untouched variety. It’s coffee at its purest.
Pick this coffee if you care greatly about beautiful tasting coffee and don’t mind the extra packaging it comes with.
Starbucks SBK11008131 Colombian
- Italian roast (dark).
- Sweet, bold, smooth caramel and roast flavors.
- Micro-ground and freeze-dried coffee.
If you enjoy the very dark, rich Colombian coffee from Starbucks, give this a go. This is a great option to have in the office kitchen, as everyone is familiar with Starbucks and it comes in single serving tubes. Oh, and it tastes pretty good!
Starbuck’s micro-ground and freeze-dried coffee mix results in a blend that’s focused more on taste than providing a very cheap way to provide you with a quick coffee. It has a smooth caramel flavor and it really does taste bold. Instant coffees can sometimes taste watered down, but here you really get a sense of how dark, oily and deliciously roasted the beans were at the start.
It’s not quite the same as getting it made fresh at Starbucks, but for an instant coffee, it’s very good. Obviously, if you aren’t a fan of Starbucks, you won’t enjoy this one either.
Starbucks VIA Instant Pike Roast
- Medium roast
- Smooth with notes of cocoa and toasted nuts.
- Micro-ground and freeze-dried coffee.
Another great Starbucks blend that’s perfect for fussy co-workers or your next camping trip (the single serving sachets are waterproof plastic rather than paper).
The Pike Roast is a medium roast and a very popular blend from Starbucks. There’s a trend to buy this particular instant coffee in bulk. It seems when you love this coffee, you really love it.
It has a smooth and light flavor, similar to the Colombian above but far less bold. You’ll also find notes of cocoa and toasted nuts. It’s blissfully smooth with no bitter notes – ideal to have with milk but we prefer it without to really enjoy the smoothness.
Our only small annoyance is that we don’t know where this coffee is grown, just that it’s 100% Arabica.
Folgers Classic Roast Instant Coffee
- Medium roast
- Rich, dark, flavorful
This is the best basic, budget-buy instant coffee out there. Folgers’ knew what they were doing when they made this. It’s simple, it has that classic coffee flavor with no extra notes or tones to complicate it.
It’s no surprise that this is also one of the best instant coffees for baking and culinary use. The freeze-dried coffee crystals are no different visually to any other, yet they melt so well with water and the strong, bold flavor holds up well in complex recipes.
There are people out there (and maybe a few Coffee Dorks) who believe that Folgers Classic Roast Instant Coffee tastes like mud. Maybe they’re right. But if you’re going to douse your instant coffee in sugar and cream anyway, this is a great choice.
It’s just coffee, plain and simple.
- Dark, espresso style
- Bold, rich, full-bodied and well-balanced
This espresso style instant coffee is one strong coffee hit. If you add milk but still want to taste a strong coffee flavor pulling through, this is the best choice. It has the strength and character to work well with latte-type beverages, even though it isn’t a true espresso.
The box contains single serving tubes which are actually high priced when you compare it to others like Starbucks. The flavor was worth it though, in our opinion. Even if you love your French press or drip coffee maker, espresso is still out of reach. Consider this a great alternative to the unbelievably expensive professional home espresso makers.
Rather than doubling up on the teaspoons, you use of your normal instant coffee, try this super strong Café Bustelo espresso-style instead.
Nescafe Classic Instant Greek Coffee
- Medium-dark roast
- Deep, robust, rich and strong
Some people say that this Greek-made coffee tastes better than the plain ol’ USA made one… but really they’re the same. It’s worth checking the price of both when you’re shopping for a classic Nescafe flavor and quality.
This instant coffee is popular for frappe and iced coffees. It has a richness that slightly bubbles and foams when you add water, giving you a really aromatic wave of robust coffee. It’s strong and deep but it’s not bitter.
Yes, buying it all the way from Greece is a little annoying, but with the power of Amazon and a little patience, you’ll quickly realize that this instant coffee is worth it.
Anthony’s Organic Instant Coffee
- Medium roast
- Very light, slightly bitter, thick mouthfeel
- Freeze-dried or spray-dried
This is a thin, light, summery instant coffee. Summery because it’s ideal for cold brewing. Brew it hot and you’ll notice that although mild and light, there’s this slight bitterness. Simply cold brew it by using cold water instead of hot and problem solved.
The mouthfeel is slightly thick – we needed to add quite a few teaspoons to get it right up to the full flavor potential. We liked that, but you may not. Be cautious when adding milk as you can really drown out the coffee quite quickly.
It’s USDA organic and gluten free – we’re not sure why Anthony is bragging about this, nearly all instant coffees are gluten-free. But it’s a good choice if you want a better than average instant coffee flavor and a company that highly values organic, plant-based produce.
Nescafe Espresso Instant Coffee
- Medium-dark roast
- Strong, flavorful and creamy
The shimmering gold wrapper around the sleek glass jar. Maybe it’s just us but doesn’t Nescafe Espresso Instant Coffee just embody the luxuriousness of the instant coffee type? This is another mock espresso instant coffee that doesn’t really taste like an espresso. It shares the same characteristics, being strong, flavorful and creamy (reminiscent of a rich crema) but it’s just not the same.
Not to complain though. It tastes pretty good! The freeze-dried coffee is also pretty high in caffeine, or at least it felt like it. Although it doesn’t taste quite like a true espresso, you should definitely treat it as one. Keep your cup size small and top it up with lots of frothy milk for the best experience.
Maybe you started reading this list with the impression that all instant coffee is some nasty, sub-par coffee type for people that don’t really know coffee. If so, this was quite a learning curve! Instant coffee is a significant segment of the coffee market so coffee brands have been putting a little more effort into making it taste more like the real thing.
The stand-out coffees on our list are Sudden for the unbelievable tasting notes that you’d never expect from an instant coffee and Starbucks for the strong flavor and convenience. There really should be a pack of those instant coffees in every conference room.
Any instant coffee from our list is worth a try. Use the flavor notes to work out which you’ll like best or order a variety pack to try them all.
Finally, don’t forget that instant coffee can be quite versatile so don’t hesitate to try it cold or in cooking recipes if your first hot mug doesn’t go down so well.
Anthony is a professional barista in the city of Chicago. He has written for many online publications on various topics related to coffee.