The State of Instant Coffee in 2017

     I bought the book How to Make Coffee: The Science Behind the Bean a while back, and one chapter especially caught my interest. It talks about instant coffee and how, in theory, it should be possible to make a perfectly decent cup of instant coffee. There are several methods used today, all of which are means of simply dehydrating coffee as quickly as possible immediately after it is brewed. This was particularly interesting to me because I had just come back from a trip to Ireland where I couldn't find a single decent cup of coffee and I started thinking "I should really pack some instant backup something on future trips." I tried to make some myself, but quickly found that dehydrating coffee without industrial-sized vacuum or cryogenic equipment is very difficult. Trying to do it in a typical home kitchen is a waste of time. You can spread millimeter-thick coffee-ice layers on cookie sheets, but it will take so long to sublimate the water out that the dry coffee solids will be horribly oxidized by the time you're done. However, still interested, I decided to see what's already out there. My memories associated with the traditional selection are not overwhelmingly positive, but instant coffee has been around for more than a century so surely someone is making a decent product by now. Right?
     I rounded up a few candidates. At a typical supermarket you can get Folgers, Nestle, and several types of Starbucks Via, which at least is marketed as high-end instant coffee. Online I also found Sudden Coffee, which the New York Times calls "Instant Coffee You'll Actually Want to Drink". Here's a comparison of all those, next to a cup of my standard Aeropress brew using Cuvée beans.

Folgers, Instant Coffee Crystals, Classic Roast

     Ridiculously light, I can barely even taste it. There's a very mild woody, savory flavor in the back of my throat, a bit of an oily after feeling that won't go away two minutes after drinking. It tastes exactly like classic ground Folgers coffee. I don't mean that as praise; it's brown water. This is the coffee I tasted as a kid that made me think I didn't like coffee.

Central Market Organics, Instant Coffee

     About the same strength as the Folgers, maybe even a bit weaker, which means it's basically hot water, but nevertheless I would say it's slightly better. In place of the single woody oily flavor, there's actually a bit of complexity here. I might just be imagining it, the way your mind invents spots of light if you close your eyes very tightly, but I think there's the tiniest hint of acidity and at least something resembling a floral sweetness. Again, it's so close to no flavor at all that it's hard to tell. If this were my only option, I would save my money and just drink water.

Medaglia D'Oro, Espresso Instant Coffee

     This stuff was actually recommended as one of the better instant coffees. In the jar and in the cup, it smells like barbecue sauce. That's why I'm particularly surprised when I drink and find, again, that it is almost flavorless. That's strange because this stuff calls itself some type of espresso, which doesn't make sense to begin with because it recommends you use 6oz of water and a standard espresso shot is 1oz. Let's start over.

Starting Over

Folgers, Instant Coffee Crystals, Classic Roast

Double Strength

     About the same as before, a very light, completely indistinctive smell. Even at double strength, I can barely taste it. The feeling of having my mouth coated in oil is stronger than before, but the generic woody flavor has not changed. It's like chewing gum long after its flavor has run out. You can feel that there's something there, but there are no distinguishing features. Moving on.

Central Market Organics, Instant Coffee

Double Strength

     Okay, at double strength, I definitely can tell the difference. The oily feeling and woody flavor from the Folgers is definitely there, but is complemented by some nice acidity and a bit of floral aromatic that wafts up into your nasal cavity. At double strength it's still nothing to write home about, but it's significantly better than the Folgers.

Medaglia D'Oro, Espresso Instant Coffee

Double Strength

     Still smells like barbecue sauce. At double strength, it actually has a persistent foam on top that I assume is supposed to resemble a crema. I honestly don't know how to describe the flavor. It tastes kind of like someone took the Folgers and added liquid smoke, a very rough approximation of an extra dark roast. It's definitely the most synthetic drink I've seen or tried thus far. The granules look less like freeze dried coffee solids and more like the plastic micro-beads you see in body washes, and the crema is not appetizing. The flavors don't blend well and I won't be drinking it again.

Starbucks, Via Instant, Colombia

     Wow. Vastly more flavor than any of the previous coffees, and that's at single strength. It's not bad. It's a fairly indistinctive medium/dark roast with a very full body and a thin but dark aftertaste that lingers for a few minutes without the strong oily feeling of the previous three. I'm pleasantly surprised. It doesn't come close to the Aeropress/Cuvée coffee I normally drink, but if they were serving this at a meeting, I would drink it and be perfectly happy. My only complaint is that the granules don't fully dissolve and there's a good amount of sediment at the bottom of the cup, even when thoroughly stirred. Overall, this is a totally decent backup coffee.

Starbucks, Via Instant, Pike Place Roast

     Again, not bad. It's lighter overall than the Starbucks Colombia, but it's not weak. It has a very respectable body and the flavor covers a larger range. It's still very generic, not much detail, totally forgettable, but perfectly enjoyable. This is also a perfectly decent backup coffee, my favorite so far.

Nescafe, Clasico

     Hmmm. Overall quality, I'd put it halfway in between the Central Market store brand and the Starbucks. It's much stronger than the first three, in the sense that it has a discernible flavor. That being said, it's a single flavor, none of the range or distinctiveness you get in the Starbucks products. There's a slight bit of added sweetness, like they were afraid of shipping something that's just coffee. It's not bad, but it's not good. If I needed coffee to stay awake I would drink a cup or two, but I wouldn't drink it for enjoyment.

Nescafe, 3-in-1 Blend & Brew

     This stuff is a marvel of modern chemical engineering. It tastes like a Starbucks latte with fifteen packets of artificial sweetener added. I can barely drink it, but if you like Starbucks lattes with fifteen packets of artificial sweetener added, you might like this too. It has a thick foam on top, it has a good milky body, but the overwhelming aspartame-y sweetness is more than I can stand.

Sudden Coffee, Bokasso, Ethiopia

     The initial smell is outstanding. Very strong, very sweet, floral, fruity. It smells like a cup of pour-over coffee that I would get from one of my favorite coffee shops. But after about a minute, the smell has gone away completely. When I drink, there's not much flavor. What flavor there is is very good, but there's not much of it. It has a very nice dark chocolate and red fruit profile, the details are all there, but it's very weak. And it doesn't build up over time. After drinking half the cup, I'm still not tasting much.
     The appearance is very strange. There are neutrally buoyant particles that look like little strings circulating throughout the cup. I can't feel them when I drink, thank goodness, so I try to just not look at it. I like Turkish coffee, but I like it because the particles look like ground coffee is supposed to look and they settle to the bottom. I'm not sure what to make of this.
     Overall it's not bad. It's far better than the Nescafe, the Folgers, the store brand, and the "espresso". And if all you care about is academic detail, you might like it more than the Starbucks. But it's not my favorite. It's much too weak and it seems like the flavors and smells just vanish after a minute or two, both in the cup and in your mouth. There's almost no aftertaste whatsoever. The details are nice, but I'm pretty underwhelmed.

Cuvée Coffee, Cuberow Roast, Aeropress

     This is my reference coffee, provided here for calibration. It's what I drink most mornings.
This is a beautiful cup of coffee. The smell is a bit fruity, slightly sour. The body is thick and savory and the flavors are incredibly well balanced. I can taste red fruits, florals, chocolate, smoke, citrus, and what's most amazing is that everything comes through clearly, nothing is overpowering anything else. On top of that, the flavors, both body and details, linger for while, holding you over between sips. It's gorgeous.

Okay, rankings, Worst to Best:

8 - Medaglia D'Oro, "Espresso" Instant Coffee

7 - Folgers, Instant Coffee Crystals, Classic Roast
     The source of bad childhood memories

6 - Central Market Organics, Instant Coffee
     Water is cheaper, just drink water

5 - Nescafe, 3-in-1 Blend & Brew
     More aspartame than coffee

4 - Nescafe, Clasico
     Drinkable, not particularly enjoyable

3 - Sudden Coffee, Bokasso, Ethiopia
     Interesting, has some bugs that need to be worked out

2 - Starbucks, Via Instant, Colombia
     Basic but good medium-roast instant coffee

1 - Starbucks, Via Instant, Pike Place Roast
     Totally decent coffee, I'll be traveling with this from now on

     So that's that. The Starbucks Via coffees are totally respectable. Do they fit in the same class as my typical Aeropress/Cuvée? Not even close. But I don't want to carry a mill grinder, temperature controlled kettle, and Aeropress with me while I'm on vacation, so they'll work just fine. Sudden Coffee is definitely interesting, but it has some problems. Primarily, it starts out with very little flavor and quickly declines to no flavor at all. If they can fix that it might be a terrific product.