I grew up in a Mormon household where coffee was banned. My first taste of it was at the age of 21, when I had distanced myself from the religion of my childhood and was desperately trying to catch up on the beverages that everyone else found familiar.
Luckily, a friend’s boyfriend was a barista, and with his guidance, I began to piece together the puzzle of what makes “good” coffee — small producers, more expensive, farmers that are paid a fair price — a sum of parts that was different from the mass-produced stuff. It celebrated the unique flavor of the beans, which changed depending on where they were grown and how they were processed.
At some point, I learned there was also “instant coffee.” Unsure of its merit, I made myself a cup in a hotel room. It was the opposite of everything I had learned, and grown to love, about coffee. It was burnt, harsh, and bitter, and tasted vaguely of gasoline. I was new to coffee, but not new to things that tasted good. I didn’t finish the cup.
But recently, I noticed that my favorite coffee shop had started carrying instant coffee from Tandem, a roaster and café whose terroir-driven coffee I already knew and loved from summer trips to Portland, Me.
Two distinctive instant coffee options were available: There was one from Guji, Ethiopia with notes of kiwi, melon, and fresh flowers. The other was a seasonal blend called “Time and Temperature” with notes of chocolate caramel and red berry.
I had worked so hard to learn about coffee, at least enough to not sound stupid at my local coffee shop — why had no one told me that there was specialty instant coffee?
Turns out, the concept of specialty instant coffee is rather new. Swift Cup Coffee, based in Lancaster, Pa., is an independent instant coffee label that opened in 2016 and found a secondary business as an instant coffee processor for other specialty roasters. Nate Kaiser, founder of Swift Cup Coffee, says even “three years ago, most specialty coffee roasters would turn their nose at instant coffee, and for good reason.” Things have changed quickly, however.
For its processing operations, Swift now counts 75 clients around the world, including Tandem in Maine, Verve in California, Parlor in New York, and Belleville in France. While the coffees are labeled and sold by the individual roasters, Kaiser is proud to note that the companies he chooses to work with share his values of sustainable sourcing and quality. “You get what you pay for, both in terms of flavor and sourcing ethics,” he says, adding, “Our coffees are often 10 times the price of commodity instant coffees, without apology.”
The History of Instant Coffee
The instant coffee concept is centuries old, and has served soldiers more often than coffee snobs. The first record of instant coffee is a patent from the British government for “coffee compound,” awarded to John Dring in 1771 (this is about 200 years after coffee was introduced to England). It took until 1853 for the invention to reach America, when it was marketed as a “coffee cake” and rationed out to Civil War soldiers. It went through several more innovations between then and the First World War, at which point the U.S. military bought large quantities for soldiers.
The latter part of the 20th century saw instant coffee continually improve, at least technically speaking. In 1956, Nestle introduced its freeze-dried instant coffee product Nescafé. In the 1960s, the technique of adding the oil from fresh coffee beans to instant coffee took hold, giving instant coffee the aroma of fresh-ground beans — but only until the powder was mixed with water. By the 1970s, instant coffee gained some popularity as a quick pick-me-up, and around a third of the coffee imported into the U.S. was used for instant coffee production.
Later, the rise of coffee shops in the 1990s such as Starbucks, and the retailers comprising coffee’s “second wave,” brought a decline in instant coffee sales.
Instant Coffee’s Second Wave
In 2009, Starbucks released its powdered Via instant coffee, in packages that look a lot like Crystal Lite (and are prepared similarly — stir into hot water!). Still, it was mostly seen as a last resort, especially for those used to brewing a fresh pot of coffee in the morning.
As the specialty coffee industry grew, some of its major players began to wonder if instant coffee had to stay the burnt, offensive stuff of chain hotel rooms. “Instant coffee has always been taboo in our industry,” says Kaiser, who worked for a decade in the micro coffee business before founding Swift Cup. Kaiser wanted to understand why instant coffee was “bad” and, ultimately, how to improve it. “I sort of became obsessed with the idea,” he says, “digging deep into the chemistry involved, and building a manufacturing plan that would prioritize quality first.”
After about a year of planning his side project, Kaiser had a prototype good enough to share with friends in the industry, one of whom was Will Pratt, co-owner of Tandem. Pratt recounts tasting Kaiser’s prototype while both were on a coffee sourcing trip in Colombia. “It was the best instant coffee I’ve ever tasted,” Pratt says.
A few more of Kaiser’s friends in specialty coffee had the same reaction. Then a few more. Then a few more. “The response was a bit overwhelming,” Kaiser says. “I had roasters blowing me up,” asking, “how can we do this, how can we get this?”
Specialty vs. Mass-Market
Another player is Los Angeles’s Waka Coffee, started in 2018. Waka Coffee only offers specialty instant coffee, a decision that founder David Kovalevski made out of necessity.
Kovalevski grew up in Israel, where he says instant coffee was in every household. After moving to the U.S., he started seeking out a local brand of instant coffee that was tasty and easy to make. “Not only could I not find any good local instant coffee brands, but I also realized there was a stigma around the whole instant coffee category in America,” Kovalevski says.
The major difference between his and other specialty instant coffees and their postwar forebears, he says, is the quality of the beans. “Because we were taught to think of instant coffee only as a money-saving solution, traditional grocery-store-type instant coffees are made from the cheapest coffee beans using the easiest and cheapest processes,” Kovalevski says. Waka Coffee uses Arabica beans, which are freeze-dried.
Kaiser also believes grocery store brands are “made with the lowest of the low-grade coffees, oftentimes from old crops full of defects. Typically, these coffees are roasted very darkly and then processed into instant, using very aggressive manufacturing techniques that strip the coffee of any remaining nuance,” he says. “What you are left with is a product that by many discerning and even non-discerning palates is something completely undrinkable.”
Niche or New Normal?
At this point, Kovaleski says, instant coffee nets about $2 billion in annual sales in the U.S. alone. That number is expected to grow over the next few years. “The instant coffee category in the U.S. is definitely in the midst of a renaissance,” Kovalevski says. “I am happy to see that instant coffee is now making a comeback, and we are proud to be part of this renaissance.”
“Specialty coffee is a small niche of the coffee world, instant is an even smaller niche,” Kaiser says. However, he compares instant coffee’s growth to cold brew — as more roasters add instant coffee to their offerings, a consumer base will slowly follow.
“Five to eight years ago, just a handful of shops offered cold brew,” Kaiser says. “Now, you can go anywhere and you’d expect that they’d have some sort of cold brew or iced coffee option. It’s become the new normal.”
Whether instant coffee stays a “niche within a niche” or becomes the new normal remains to be seen. “Coffee is a special thing, and I think it’s important that we encourage more people to buy ethically sourced and better- quality coffee,” he says. “Specialty instant coffee certainly makes it a lot easier to do so.”
5 Specialty Instant Coffees to Try
Swift Cup Mainstay Blend ($10 for 6-cup box)
Tasting Notes: Red wine, toffee, cashew
Swift Cup Cantillo Family – Gesha ($16.15 for 6-cup box)
Tasting Notes: Blackberry, orange blossom, buckwheat honey
Waka Coffee Medium Roast Colombian ($11.99 for 8 single-serve packets)
Tasting Notes: Dark chocolate, brown sugar, toasted nuts
Tandem Time and Temperature Blend ($15 for 6 packets)
Tasting Notes: Chocolate, caramel, red berry
Verve Street Level Blend ($15 for 6 packets)
Tasting Notes: Red apple, marmalade, molasses