The words "instant coffee" have long come with a bad reputation, the result of low-grade coffee used to make an inexpensive cup. But instant coffee has always had one thing going for it that has kept people coming back: It's easy. Boil some water, add in the instant coffee, and you're done. In a fast-paced world, it's no surprise that we want quick alternatives, and fortunately these days there are several brands trying to improve the instant coffee game and the reputation.
As an avid coffee drinker, I happen to love the ritual of brewing coffee, whether I am at home or whether I am outside, which means it's rare that I opt for an instant coffee. But the growing selection, some sourcing high-quality beans (and ensuring fair wages for the people who grow them), enticed me to give a few different instant coffees a try.
A Coffee Snob's Caveat on Instant Coffee
For me, taking the extra time to brew coffee at home is worth it for the taste and avoiding waste (you can compost that coffee filter and grounds). But there are some instances when instant coffee can be an easy solution: business trips when you're stuck in a motel, conferences when there's only bad drip on hand, outdoor adventures when you don't have an outside coffee brewing setup. Basically anywhere you have access to hot water but not good coffee, a packet of instant coffee can be a lifesaver.
My Methodology for the Instant Coffee Taste Test
Since my personal use for instant coffee would probably be while on a trip, I did just that — I tested them while on a bicycle tour.
With this taste test, I wanted to taste across the spectrum of coffee quality, so I chose both specialty brands, as well as more readily available ones. Swift Cup Coffee, Sudden Coffee, and Voilà are all brands that I would actually keep on hand to drink at home, as I found them to be on par with the quality of coffee that I tend to brew for myself.
Also, a benefit to some of the newer instant brands like Swift Cup Coffee and Voilà is that you can choose from an assortment of different craft roasters, depending on what you like to drink, meaning that not every one has to taste the same.
These coffees are listed in order of my personal preference, from least favorite to the very best of the bunch.
I Tried 7 Instant Coffees & Ranked Them
7. Medaglia d'Oro
I decided to keep a large brand of instant coffee in the mix for comparison, and Medaglia d'Oro is a popular one. Debuting in the U.S. in 1924, today it's produced by Rowland Coffee Roasters, Inc., which is a subsidiary of J. M. Smucker Co., makers of Folgers.
The powdered coffee had a chemical, sweet smell. When blended with hot water, it had the hint of freeze-dried flavor that is synonymous with instant coffee, and tasted flat and burnt, like a bad espresso.
Price per cup: About $.25
Starbuck's Via coffee comes in a variety of roasts. I tested the Pike Place roast, as I prefer lighter roasts in general. I found the taste to be very bitter, burnt, and quite abrasive.
Price per cup: $.75 to $.80
This one is a little different, as it's not actually instant coffee, but a single-cup pour over. Libra Coffee who makes Pourtables also gives back to the communities that it sources coffee from, supplying them with water filters to ensure access to clean water. The coffee is a Colombian, and I found it very dark and acrid, the kind of coffee you would want to add milk to.
Price per cup: $1.99
4. Alpine Start
Alpine Start boxes come with eight packets of coffee, all made with Colombian coffee. I found the Alpine Start coffee to be too bitter for my taste preferences, but it's still far above and beyond the average instant coffee available on the grocery store shelf, and I would recommend to anyone who is less concerned about getting to choose what type of coffee they drink and looking for a budget-friendly option.
Price per cup: $1.10
Voilà is a new brand that's about to hit the market. The brand partners with top craft roasters from around the U.S. like Coava, Dapper & Wise, Sterling Coffee Roasters, RUBY, and Upper Left Roasters. The instant coffee packets come in a box that looks a little like a cigarette box, a humorous nod to your coffee addiction. When the brand launches they will offer coffee via a subscription model, which will allow subscribers to choose quantity of coffee, as well as identify their taste preferences. I find that these do well as cold coffees too.
Price per cup: $4 and up
2. Sudden Coffee
Sudden Coffee is the new darling of the specialty coffee world. Instead of freeze-drying the coffee, Sudden Coffee has developed a proprietary method to crystalize the coffee after they brew it. The result is clean, fresh, and dynamic coffee, far from the instant coffee quality you are probably used to.
Sudden Coffee offers a different coffee every quarter, so I tried their current one, a blend called Fore. What's a little different about this blend (which uses beans from Colombia and Guatemala that are roasted by 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters), is that the coffees are actually brewed separately, and then blended together after they have been dried.
Sudden Coffee also tastes good when mixed with cold water, and even sparkling water, for a bubbly iced coffee. Sudden Coffee operates on a subscription model, starting at eight cups of coffee per month.
Price per cup: $2.37
1. Swift Cup Coffee
Of all the instant coffees that I tasted, the ones made by Swift Cup Coffee were my favorite. They're consistently well-balanced coffees with complex, interesting flavors, on par with any filter coffee that you might drink in a specialty cafe. I specifically appreciated the variety of coffees that Swift Cup Coffee offers, with a couple of single-origin options as well as a blend, along with the various different roasters that they also work with above and beyond their own line.
Price per cup: $2.60 to $3.10
Are you an instant coffee drinker? What's your go-to brand?