If the phrase instant coffee just sends you into the fetal position you’re not alone! Most of us when we hear those words immediately conjure up memories of grandma busting out the bottle of Taster’s Choice chicory-coffee hybrid and brewing herself up a hot cuppa joe!
Where do you turn for those early morning meetings, or that dreaded “3pm wall” that you hit day after day…COFFEE! But the reality is for many of us, we don’t work in a cafe, or work near enough to a cafe to get a decent cup of coffee when its most desperately needed. And what do you do when travelling on a plane for meetings or on holidays? I’m not sure about you, but there can’t be any way that airplane coffee is actually good.
Let me introduce you to instant-coffee!
Yes…you heard me. Hear me out before you stop reading because like I said, this ain’t your granny’s instant coffee. For decades the words instant and coffee were never found in the same sentence, especially in the specialty coffee community. Instant was shunned, frowned upon, and pretty-much hated on.
Why? Well, truthfully, because it was terrible! But in recent months attitudes have shifted, and there has taken place, is a trend towards welcoming this segment into the specialty coffee community.
Recently three main players have emerged into the Specialty/Instant Coffee market and I have to say I am quite impressed. So if its 3pm and you’ve hit the wall, and you’re needing that caffeine hit, don’t settle. Let me share a bit more about each of them, and then I’ll let you decide for yourself.
But before we take a look at these three players let me share with you a bit of the history behind this product.
THE HISTORY OF INSTANT COFFEE
You may not realize that instant coffee has been around for quite some time. I found an incredibly helpful article from the Smithsonian that recounts much of the genesis of this product.
“The first versions of the powdered drink dates back to 1771, about 200 years after coffee was introduced to Europe, when the British granted John Dring a patent for a “coffee compound.” In the late 19th century, a Glasgow firm invented Camp Coffee, a liquid “essence” made of water, sugar, 4 percent caffeine-free coffee essence, and 26 percent chicory. In the United States, the earliest experiments with instant coffee date back to the Civil War when soldiers sought out easy-to-carry energy boosts. But it wouldn’t be until the mid-to-late 1800s that a version of Camp Coffee would hit the retail market in the United Kingdom.
In 1911, European immigrant George Washington refined coffee crystals from brewed coffee to create the first commercially viable instant coffee in the United States, becoming popular during World War I for its convenience. It wasn’t until 1938 that instant coffee technology began to really change and improve. Fast forward again to 1964 where perhaps the biggest innovation in instant coffee technology came in the form of freeze-dried coffee—it maintained the flavour and smell of fresh coffee without the added oils that were prevalent in the 1940-50’s that added coffee-essence without the added issue of rancidity.
Freeze-drying changed the mass production of instant coffee because the finished product looked more like ground coffee and tasted better.
Instant coffee is still a widely consumed commodity in many parts of the world. And while I can’t speak to the quality of the mass-produced options that you’d find on your local grocery store’s shelves, I will say that the next few companies are certainly doing something very different (and much better tasting!)
You could say that Sudden Coffee is the OG of the instant coffee scene. They got their start back in 2015 in San Francisco and have quickly become a very well-known player in this category. Sudden was founded by Kalle Freese, ranked 9th best barista in the world in 2015, & Josh Zloof. I was able to get my hands on their 4-pack of La Perla de Oaxaca (roasted by Intelligentsia) here in Calgary from Luke’s Drug Mart. Yes, you can get wicked specialty coffee from a drug mart in my city. How ’bout that!
Having some Sudden was a huge life-saver for a recent trip down to Texas where I was not going to drink airline coffee! I simply asked the flight attendant for a cup of hot water (got a weird look) and then opened up a tube of Sudden, poured out the contents, and after a quick stir it was ready to go! They currently offer on their web-store a Light & Medium Roast option. I haven’t tried the medium so I can’t speak to it and their light roast is new option from what I purchased here in Calgary. My cost for a 4-pack here in Canada was $12 dollars. So for $3/cup it’s not a terrible price-point, especially when your coffee is ready in mere seconds! Their site is set up in USD pricing so if you’re in Canada (like me) then check around to see if your local cafe carries it.
Sudden is incredibly transparent with their entire process of creating their instant coffee. It’s things like this that really sets them apart. While other companies would choose to keep this type of info under-wraps, Sudden is happy to share the science behind making specialty level instant coffee. It is actually a fascinating read to learn how this is all done. I was not aware before reading their site that there is a more common method for creating instant coffee vs. their method which involves some proprietary pieces, is more complicated, takes longer, and can’t be done in huge batches! All of this to help ensure quality of the final product.
From their site:
Our coffee is freeze dried in small batches! Freeze-drying coffee dehydrates it using a vacuum instead of heat. We freeze dry coffee because it preserves fragile aromatic molecules. Regular instant coffee is spray-dried with heat – which leaves an ashy bitter taste and is a recipe for how to make instant coffee gross.
What’s great is that all of this process yields coffee with a shelf life of 9 months! So no matter when you need a coffee you’ll know its ready to go.
One of the things I was curious about with Sudden Coffee was their choice of packaging. Sudden is clearly committed to sustainability. Interesting to note that the very first tubes of Sudden coffee were glass! But this wasn’t a great long-term solution for a number of reasons…I’m sure you can figure out a few!
Frustrated with not being able to source tubes they were satisfied with they created their own! They’re clearly proud of their sustainable tubes and labels—which slowly and safely decay in the green bin. But Sudden isn’t willing to settle, and continues to make strives towards even greater sustainability. From their website: “In our minds, the idea of creating a business that’s environmentally conscious isn’t an add-on—it’s a non-negotiable.”
From their site:
When it comes down to it, our mission is to make delicious specialty coffee as accessible as possible!
A huge thanks to Quinn Li for taking the time to answer my questions and for sharing more about Sudden Coffee!
Newer to the instant coffee scene is Voilá. It was started by Kent Sheridan in January of 2016 out of a desire to make specialty coffee approachable while combining his love for exploring new coffees and roasters. It was nearly a two year journey for this Bend, Oregon based company to develop the process to create Voilá, and their first product was officially released in November 2017. This past August, Voilá did a full product re-brand and I have to say it looks terrific.
Again this stuff isn’t easy to get here in Canada (I hope this changes) but I reached out to Nate & Laura from Lüna in Vancouver who–to the best of my knowledge–are the only Canadian coffee roaster distributing the product to get some. Not too much later after this, some Voilá arrived at my door.
What is unique to Voila is that they bring accessibility to specialty coffee by giving customers the ability to try high-scoring specialty coffees without investing in expensive equipment. The instant coffee can be taken anywhere – all that is needed is water – to make an amazing cup of coffee. They have already brought on well-loved roasters like Lüna, Presta, Cirque, Huckleberry & Proud Mary! To date they have 15 current coffee roasters they are partnered with. How can anyone argue with a lineup like that? I really like the idea of being able to experience a number of different coffee roasters through their product. I think that’s one of the things I love most about specialty coffee is the seemingly never-ending array of options. Open up a box of Voilá and you feel like a kid in a candy store!
From their site:
By partnering with specialty coffee roasters that source the world’s highest quality coffee beans, Voilà starts the process with an amazing product and ends with the most convenient way to consume specialty coffee.
So I got right to brewing some of these up and there’s no question that Voilá is barista-level instant coffee. It’s really good. And not just “really good for instant-coffee”. And I can’t tell you how much of a lifesaver having some Voila was this past week while I’ve been on holidays. I had a week where every morning I was up so early I didn’t have time to even bust out my Aeropress, so having these handy packs of coffee to use was so nice.
Voilá recommends 155ºF/68ºC as an ideal brew-temp. I found that I enjoyed these best using anywhere between 8 to 10 ounces of water, although this really is a preference thing. So depending on how strong you like it equals how much water to use.
Again when it comes to instant coffee, you’re going to require packaging. Voilá has chosen the route of going with packets instead of tubes. Each individual packet is 100% compostable at home and commercially. Their newly designed box stock is made of 80% post-consumer waste, is carbon neutral and fully recyclable. So rest assured when you open up a box, and rip into a new packet of Voilá you aren’t adding to the ongoing problem of waste & disposable products. I am really glad to see such focus and attention being paid to this piece of their brand re-design! I’m a sucker for sure for form & function!
This summer Voilá did something not yet seen elsewhere in the instant-coffee scene. They partnered with Mizuba Tea Co. to introduce an instant-matcha! This 100% pure matcha is from Uji, Japan. Perhaps you’re not all that familiar with Matcha. Here’s what they say from their site:
Matcha, in its simplest terms, is a Japanese green tea that’s been shade-grown and stone ground into a fine powder. Mizuba sources highest quality matcha we’ve ever found. Mizuba practices direct-trade and transparent sourcing: personally knowing their suppliers & tea farmers. Expect a sweet, buttery, umami-forward cup that is easy drinking. Its depth of flavour is exceptional and is excellent on its own, with cream, or as a latte! You’ll feel a balanced and steady energy that is both focused and peaceful. It’s the perfect afternoon pick-me-up if you’ve already had a few cups of coffee, are worried about sleeping or crashing, or just want the awesome health benefits.
Wanna get your hands on some? Voilá instant coffee is available at voila.coffee through a monthly subscription or as a one-time purchase. If you live in Canada make sure to connect with Lüna and order some from their webshop.
Thanks to Jordan Blossom at Voilá for being so helpful in answering my questions, and sharing so much about this great company!
So here’s the thing…Steeped Coffee isn’t instant-coffee. Not even close.
So you may be asking “then why include it on this list?” Well, what it does share in common with instant-coffee is that you only need to add water in order to brew it. And I really like that. You can make it almost as quickly as any other instant coffee.
However, unlike instant coffees, they don’t use solubles, crystals, or dehydration to create their coffee. What is different with Steeped Coffee is that it’s kinda like brewing tea. Each bag is filled with only 100% real ground coffee. Their packages are also nitrogen-flushed to ensure a long shelf-life. Steeped says their products stay fresh for at least 6 months from production date.
So when you want to make a cup of coffee, you simply rip open a package, steep it for about a minute and then let it rest until you’ve achieve your desired strength. Pretty cool eh?
Steeped CEO and founder Josh Wilbur began this company back in 2017 with a Kickstarter campaign. It took Wilbur seven years to innovate the proprietary Steeped Coffee system that delivers fresh roasted, pre-portioned, precision ground, micro batched coffee in customized Full Immersion Filters. This Santa-Cruz based company has taken the specialty coffee & instant coffee world by storm since the release of their product.
Easily one of their biggest awards to date was being named the “Best New Product” in the packaging category at the 2019 SCA Specialty Coffee Expo in Boston. This is certainly a huge honour and an impressive accomplishment for this still relatively new company!
One of the things that I found to be the most appealing about Steeped Coffee was the incredible length they went to pursue their environmental sustainability. Each coffee bag is made of a non-GMO food grade biodegradable material that you can drop in your garden or toss in your green bin. Steeped Coffee boxes are made of recycled material that is fully recyclable. Even the contents are ultrasonic-sealed so there is no glue used. So at no point in the process of using Steeped Coffee are you making any significant negative impact on the environment.
In a world where single-serve plastic pods seem to dominate the coffee landscape it is so encouraging to see alternative means of individuals enjoying single-serve coffee!
From their site:
For Josh Wilbur, he wanted to redeem the environmental dilemma created by wasteful coffee pods. Happy to do the math, Wilbur points out over 10 billion un-recyclable pods accumulate in landfills each year – enough to wrap around the earth more than 110 times if placed side-by-side.
The first Canadian coffee roaster (that I know of) to begin offering Steeped Coffee is RoofTop Coffee Roasters out of Fernie, BC. Once I found this out I quickly grabbed a 10 pack from them to try out, and I absolutely love it. You can find it on their web-store and I know they are beginning to get their packages into a few coffee shops–Timber Coffee in Sylvan Lake has begun carrying them!
I would love to see more and more companies here in Canada getting on board with this type of product. Even for someone like me, who sees no problem carrying half of a carry-on suitcase just for coffee when I travel, I know this isn’t reality for everyone. Grabbing a few of these packs sure makes a great deal more sense.
I owe a great deal of thanks to Vicki for sharing so much about Steeped with me in all of our email correspondence. It’s clear this is a company that takes their product seriously but still knows how to have fun too!
So do you still think instant coffee is just for your grandma? I mean no disrespect for the grandma’s of the world, but you gotta see that what Sudden, Voilá & Steeped are doing is a far cry from what has really been the only option for quick coffee up until recently.
I’d love to know if you’ve had the chance to try any of these three products. Leave me a comment on this post, or shoot me a DM through my Instagram page.